Opinion: Pence looks for an opening in the anti-Trump lane

Photo/Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times / Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks to reporters at The New York Times DealBook Summit 2022 at Jazz At Lincoln Center in Manhattan on Nov. 30, 2022. Pence, delivering his strongest public rebuke yet to the president who made him his running mate, said on Saturday, March 11, 2023, that “history will hold Donald Trump accountable” for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, which he called “a disgrace.”

For the first half of his speech as the Republican representative at the annual Gridiron Club dinner, Mike Pence served up the typical mix of self-deprecating humor and jabs at the political opposition.

But then, the former vice president turned serious and did what most Republican presidential hopefuls have avoided. He rejected House GOP characterizations of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection as a typical tourist visit and condemned former President Donald Trump for inciting it.

"His reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol, and I believe history will hold Donald Trump accountable for January 6th," Trump's former vice president said.

It was a dramatic bid by Pence to separate himself from the rest of the GOP presidential field. It went where some GOP strategists say is politically dangerous.

Pence drew cheers from the audience of journalists, news executives, lawmakers and Democratic administration officials. But the more important question will be how his words play among the former vice president's fellow Republicans.

After all, of the two dozen governors, senators, House members and former lawmakers in the audience, just three were Republicans: former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who mocked Trump at last year's dinner -- but not for Jan. 6.

Trump, who has repeatedly rejected responsibility for the Capitol riot, said Monday the cause was actually Pence's refusal to carry out his plan to overturn the election. "So, in many ways, you can blame him for January 6," he told reporters.

Pence told the audience: "I don't know whether you noticed, but one thing I haven't joked about is January 6th. January 6th was a tragic day for our nation. It was not, as some would have us believe, a matter of tourists peacefully enjoying our Capitol."

That directly rebuked House Republicans who have sought to whitewash that day's events. For example, Rep. Andrew Clyde of Georgia likened the rampaging crowds to "a normal tourist visit," declaring that calling it an insurrection was "a bald-faced lie."

"Tourists don't injure 140 police officers," Pence replied. "Tourists don't break down doors to get to the speaker of the House. Tourists don't threaten public officials."

Pence credited the press for helping to ensure "the peaceful transfer of power under the Constitution."

"We were able to stay at our post because you stayed at your post," he said. "The American people know what happened that day because you never stopped reporting. Your work inspired our actions and the actions of all the elected officials who reconvened the very same day and turned a day of tragedy into a triumph of freedom."

He said he accepted Gridiron's invitation because "I personally wanted to thank you for the work you did on January 6 and in the days and weeks following."

"I don't deny that you infuriate me, and I'm sure I infuriate you," Pence concluded. "But I genuinely value what you do to keep us a democracy."

Sununu last year ad-libbed criticism of Trump, calling the former president "f---ing crazy," before adding, "I don't think he's so crazy that you could put him in a mental institution. But I think if he were in one, he ain't getting out."

By contrast, Pence came to the 138th anniversary dinner of the capital's oldest journalistic organization this year to send a message to his fellow Republicans -- and make more news than the other speakers, New Jersey's Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who spoke for the administration.

His words not only surprised his audience, they also surprised Murphy, who spoke next.

"I'm not in the business of giving Republicans advice, and frankly I think you're nuts to run against Trump," he said. "But if you're gonna do it, you've got to have some nuts."

Given what Pence had just said, Murphy's comments seemed strangely out of sync with what the former vice president had done. But the ultimate impact remains to be seen.

The Dallas Morning News