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Mike Pence Is Trying to Clear a Lane For Himself in a Party Exhausted by Trump

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As Mike Pence arrived at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, with a retinue of aides packed into the fast-moving motorcade, the Vice President turned in the back of his armored suburban to his daughter with a mix of frustration and compassion for the thousands of people already gathered at the East Front of the building. “God bless those people,” he told Charlotte Pence. “They’re gonna be so disappointed.”

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Thus begins a harrowing climax to the former Vice President’s memoirs, released Tuesday and chronicling plenty of contradictions in his rise to power. So Help Me God is the most complete and credible defense to date of the Trump administration’s four years in power from one of its senior members. Pence writes much of his story through the lens of his most natural constituency, white Evangelicals, and a close reader can find ample efforts to persuade that demographic away from the ex-President.

Clocking in at more than 500 pages, Pence’s missive is as much about what has come before as what may come after. He describes in detail how he came to sign up with a presidential nominee whose temperament could hardly have been more anathema to the Bible-quoting former Rush-Limbaugh-on-Decaf, as Pence likes to describe his days on talk radio. But it’s clear the Indiana Republican had not shelved his ambitions then and seems primed now to launch his own 2024 White House bid, regardless of what Trump may do Tuesday night in Florida. With many in the party blaming Trump for a disappointing showing last week, the prospect of Pence as a Trump-without-baggage option could find receptive ears—as long as there is sufficient respect for the father of the movement.

Pence seems keenly aware of the limits of the MAGA movement’s transference, let alone his turn-key ability to harness it. Meeting with Trump in the Oval Office on Jan. 5, 2021, as crowds were already gathering for the rally the next day, the President told his understudy that “those people love us.” Pence, without missing a beat, replied factually: “Those people love you, Mr. President.” At a follow-up meeting, Trump didn’t quite seem to understand what he had created or unleashed: “Those people who broke into the Capitol might’ve been supporters, but they are not our movement,” Pence writes he told Trump.

And when asked by ABC News this week if Trump should serve again as President, Pence was as diplomatic as ever: “I think that’s up to the American people. But I think we’ll have better choices in the future.”

Pence never overtly suggests Trump’s followers are misled in their devotion in his book. But he hints at times that Trump is not the populist he sells himself as on the trail. For instance, Pence writes that Trump heard about “the forgotten man” over an audition breakfast in Indianapolis where the nominee jotted down the phrase—taken from a much-discussed economic history of the Great Depression by the same name—on a napkin. It became a staple of the campaign messaging and even found its way into Trump’s inaugural address. And after one of their final meetings at the White House, Trump seemed eager to be done with Pence, who urged Trump to find time to pray.

The modern Republican Party is highly unlikely to nominate an openly NeverTrump pick for much of anything. But there are establishment-minded conservatives who have had it with the current state of the GOP. Pence has long counted friends in that corner of the party, as well as its religious camp, possibly making him a suitable compromise in 2024. It certainly helps to explain how Trump and his team wound up selecting Pence over options that were more closely aligned with Trump’s style of antagonism.

Pence’s book on its own is unlikely to break the fever of the current Republican Party, but it could shake Trump’s seemingly invincibility among the white Evangelicals who somehow believe a thrice-married New York billionaire accused of a whole raft of improprieties is one of them. Pence starts each chapter with a Bible quote, peppers in Scripture in explaining his choices, and has the steady zeal of a preacher that might splinter the faithful from The Donald. Pence even implies divine intervention in describing how he beat expectations on the first two holes at Trump National during his tryout as VP: “It was proof of the existence of God.”

All of which is why reading So Help Me God has utility in understanding how at least some in the GOP see the path to power in a post-2020 world, one in which election denialism can help a candidate win Trump’s endorsement but not necessarily a seat with any power. Pence does little to dispel the thesis that Trump has taken the Republican Party hostage—a notion TIME’s Brian Bennett explores smartly here—but the former VP does chip away at some of its grouting, although readers definitely have to search for it.

For instance, Pence says Trump was wrong to criticize Khizr and Ghazala Khan, two Gold Star parents who were supporters of Hillary Clinton in 2016: “No Gold Star family will ever be” fair game, Pence writes. He also says Trump erred in picking his then-buddy Jeff Sessions as Attorney General given Sessions’ involvement in a campaign-era meeting with the Russian ambassador and subsequent obfuscation about it. Pence similarly writes with frustration about how Trump directly contradicted Pence’s denial that the decision to fire then-FBI Director James Comey had anything to do with the investigations into Russia.

All of those moments leave readers reminded of Trump’s character flaws, where petty grievance and transactional needs triumph over soul-deep beliefs. Put another way, character matters, and Trump’s may not be compatible with those in the party exhausted of excuse-making for Trump’s excesses.

But Pence also dutifully defends some of Trump’s most notorious moments that rile up conservatives such as visiting Lafayette Square after protesters had overrun the stretch north of the White House. Pence is technically correct when he says he “watched as the media went wild, suggesting that the U.S. Park Police had tear-gassed protesters”; an inspector-general report, however, found D.C. police had, in fact, used tear gas that day, and that Park Police had on previous days but not at that moment. He takes a similar stance when defending Trump’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic: “I know we saved millions of lives,” Pence writes. (Some 377,000 Americans died by the end of 2020, although many conservatives to this day think the numbers are overblown and the government—especially Dr. Anthony Fauci—overstated the threats.)

Thus is the perhaps-accidental brilliance of Pence’s book: he isn’t wrong, but he isn’t entirely forthcoming in his accounting for his time. Pence is a seasoned pol, having risen in House leadership before moving into the Indiana governor’s mansion, a perch from which his socially conservative policies made him simultaneously a star on the right and a threat on the left. Anyone questioning Pence’s assertions can quickly Google to find that he’s accurate in his specific words but missing the larger Truth with a capital T. It’s a classic wink-and-a-nod posture so common in political memoirs, where readers can find what they need. Pence has clearly mastered it, at one point saying Trump complained that Pence was “too honest” in describing the 2020 results.

While So Help Me God is hardly a love letter to Trump, Pence still carries plenty of water for Trumpism throughout. He calls Rep. Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chairman who played a key role in both of Trump’s impeachments, a peddler of “misinformation,” and defends Trump’s embrace of Vladimir Putin as part of the former’s effort to appear “to be on welcoming terms with all world leaders.”

It may be a lesson Pence learned in his four years at Trump’s side: perception matters more than facts, and just maybe Pence is developing his own off-label brand of Trumpism, where two contradicting realities can exist and each can be deployed when helpful. Describing a meeting with Trump five days after protesters pinned Pence and his family in a loading dock under the Capitol, the VP says Trump expressed regret for how things unfolded. “It’s too terrible to end like this,” Trump told Pence during a 90-minute session, in Pence’s sympathetic telling. And Pence replied of his presidency: “It’s not over yet.”

That sentiment describes to this day Trump’s hold on the GOP—and Pence’s quiet intention to break it.

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