Trump Hands Pence a Last Loyalty Test Amid Furor on Georgia Call
(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump will make his last stand to overturn his election loss on Wednesday when Vice President Mike Pence presides over a congressional session to ratify November’s results, an event that threatens to strain the relationship between the two men.
Trump’s refusal to concede and his obsession with overturning the will of voters means the ceremony poses a test for his most loyal subordinate. Pence also faces a party divided over Trump’s conduct, a rift that is growing after the president on Saturday pressured Georgia election officials to overturn his loss in the state.
The vice president’s top aides are developing options for him to acknowledge the reality of the November election result while also nodding, in a possible statement, to the president’s unfounded accusations of vote fraud.
Development of the plan has fallen to Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, and General Counsel Greg Jacob, both of whom realize the potential tension in the situation, according to two people familiar with the matter.
“Pence just has to play it straight. He has a specific job as defined in the Constitution,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a longtime Trump ally. “He doesn’t have the burden of having to force something to happen. All he has to do is preside over it.”
In a statement over the weekend, Short said that Pence “shares the concerns of millions of Americans about voter fraud and irregularities in the last election.”
Yet the president himself is unlikely to let the day pass without comment -- and that, along with following the law, is what most concerns Pence’s friends and advisers.
Trump’s call on Saturday to Georgia’s top election officials underscored that risk, showing that the president is still grasping for any leverage to reverse his defeat.
He urged Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes for him to overtake President-elect Joe Biden, and told him he was taking a “big risk” by not doing so.
“So what are we going to do here, folks? I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes. Give me a break,” Trump said in a recording of the call obtained by Bloomberg News.
Congress ratifies the results of the election in a joint session every four years, as mandated by the Constitution. Typically, the session is routine and brief.
Some of Trump’s allies now argue that Pence has the power to single-handedly change the outcome of the election. Last week, several House Republicans, led by Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas, filed a federal lawsuit seeking to force Pence to reject Electoral College votes from several states where Trump has, baselessly, claimed that Biden won only thanks to vote fraud.
On Thursday, the Justice Department, on behalf of Pence, asked a judge in Texas to deny Gohmert’s request. A federal appeals court threw out the Gohmert suit on Saturday, after a Trump-appointed judge dismissed it on Friday.
These recent machinations place enormous pressure on the vice president. Through four years in the White House, he’s remained unfailingly loyal to Trump, neither publicly disagreeing with any policy nor offering the slightest criticism of his boss.
Pence, 61, has long been expected to mount his own campaign for president in 2024, a bid that would depend heavily on support from the president’s base. The possibility that Trump himself might run again has complicated that decision for Pence and other potential candidates.
One former Trump campaign official called the Wednesday event one final stress test, arguing that it creates another inflection point for Trump supporters to re-litigate the results of the election.
Both Trump and his fans -- thousands of whom are expected to gather on the streets of Washington -- may react with anger should Pence stand silently by as Congress ratifies the president’s defeat. Some Republican House members and at least 11 senators have said they’ll challenge Electoral College votes, forcing lawmakers to vote to accept the results.
That would place congressional Republicans in the position of either aligning themselves with Trump’s claims, or risking his wrath by affirming Biden’s victory.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated he doesn’t want the ratification of election results to become a spectacle -- especially if it causes discomfort for fellow Republicans up for re-election in 2022. But GOP senators led by Ted Cruz of Texas are planning just that.
Constitutional scholars roundly reject the proposition that the vice president plays any substantive role in the process. The Constitution says only that the president of the Senate -- Pence -- shall “open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted.”
These arguments haven’t swayed the president, who’s spent the past last several weeks consumed by his election loss, even as Covid-19 cases surged, Congress narrowly passed a major coronavirus relief package, and federal agencies dealt with a massive hack of data that has been blamed on Russia.
In telephone calls with allies and advisers over the last two weeks, Trump has repeatedly discussed what he regards as rampant voter fraud. On Saturday he was scheduled to address an “election integrity watchdog group” call with state legislators to review alleged “irregularities and lawlessness” in the 2020 election. And he’s recently turned his attention toward the ceremony with Pence, who spent the holidays on vacation in Vail, Colorado.
In anticipation of the vote ratification, the right-leaning group Club for Growth spent $25,000 to run a commercial on Fox News last week in the Palm Beach, Florida, market while Trump was staying at his Mar-a-Lago resort. The ad tried to counter a critical ad on Pence created by the Lincoln Project, a Trump opposition group, and highlighted Pence’s loyalty to the president.
The Club for Growth is run by David McIntosh, a former member of Congress from Indiana and close friend of Pence, who was governor of the state. McIntosh recently traveled with the vice president to campaign in Georgia’s runoff Senate election, and said that during the flight, he and the vice president discussed the Lincoln Project ad.
Pence wanted to make sure the president understood “he remained a good friend,” McIntosh said.
Pence has privately tried to steer clear of the more conspiracy-minded advisers in Trump’s orbit, according to people close to him.
The relationship between Trump and Pence has always been a delicate one that the vice president and his team have taken great care to manage. During his 2016 campaign, Trump wavered between choosing Pence and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for his running mate.
To the Trump team, Pence brought strong conservative credentials and the support of anti-abortion groups and evangelicals -- along with a close-knit group of aides which has been far more disciplined than many of Trump’s West Wing staff.
The vice president has amicably accepted Trump’s toughest assignments, including leading the federal government’s response to the pandemic.
Yet despite Pence’s loyalty and conservative bona fides, rumors abounded before the 2020 election that Trump had mused about replacing him. A senior administration official said Pence and Trump still talk frequently and over the past week, spoke at least every other day.
Wednesday’s election certification ceremony may mark the ultimate loyalty test for the vice president, and one which Trump will watch closely. Biden’s team called the ratification of the election results “merely a formality,” one that Biden himself presided over in January 2017, certifying Trump’s victory.
“Regardless of whatever antics anyone is up to on Jan. 6, President-elect Biden will be sworn in on the 20th,” said Jen Psaki, the incoming White House press secretary.
Following Wednesday’s ceremony, Pence intends to hold a series of domestic events during which he’ll highlight the president’s legacy, said a second senior administration official, including potential speeches on the economy, China or foreign policy.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.