Comment: Pence may try to peal evangelics away from Trump

His comments at the Gridiron Club may show a willingness to question Trump’s commitment to faith.

By Olivier Knox and Caroline Anders / The Washington Post

If you follow politics at all, you’ve heard former vice president Mike Pence recently condemned Donald Trump over the Jan. 6 insurrection. This analysis focuses on Pence’s comments about Trump you probably didn’t hear about, even though he made them at the same event.

If Pence runs for president in 2024, as he has hinted he will do, he and his former boss — actually, the entire GOP field — will compete for the support of hard-right Christian voters. So when the former vice president seems to disparage Trump’s faith, even in jest, it bears noting.

The event was the annual spring dinner of the Gridiron Club, an exclusive group of inside-the-Beltway journalists, in a cavernous Washington, D.C., hotel ballroom.

The players: The aforementioned journalists. Local, state and federal elected officials. Administration officials. Members of President Biden’s administration. Pence, in the role of Republican speaker. (There was a Democratic speaker, too, but this is not his story.)

The attire: White-tie and tails for men, equivalent formal wear for women.

Pence’s scathing assessment of Trump’s role in Jan. 6 — “his reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol that day. And I know that history will hold Donald Trump accountable” — has received a lot of press.

The Good Book? Or not a good look?

But Pence also poked fun at Trump’s relationship with religion. The jokes hint at a dynamic between the two men should they clash in a Republican presidential primary that will turn less on Jan. 6 and more on who can seduce white evangelicals.

“I once invited President Trump to Bible study,” Pence said in his speech. “He really liked the passages about the smiting and perishing of thine enemies. As he put it, ‘Ya know, Mike, there’s some really good stuff in here.’”

The former vice president continued in that vein as he turned to the scandal over Trump’s refusal to return classified documents he wasn’t legally allowed to keep: “I read that some of those classified documents they found at Mar-a-Lago were actually stuck in the president’s Bible … which proves he had absolutely no idea they were there.”

Get it? Because Trump doesn’t read the Bible?

(Some in the Gridiron audience wondered whether Pence picked the venue because it attracts so many prominent journalists, ensuring attention and coverage, while the event’s ban on video recordings means it’s less likely there’ll be footage for presidential rivals’ attack ads.)

It might be tempting to write off Pence’s comments as a one-off attempt at politically barbed comedy. But he’s drawn this kind of contrast before.

In a November 2022 Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled “My Last Days With Donald Trump,” drawn from his memoir “So Help Me God,” Pence laid out a timeline of events leading to the Jan. 6 riot that violently disrupted the peaceful handover of power for the first time in American history.

His language about Trump and the insurrection is far meeker than his Gridiron comments.

But here’s the relevant bit: Pence relates stopping by the Oval Office on the eve of Trump’s second impeachment, and praised some remarks he’d made.

“I knew you’d like it,” he said. He seemed discouraged, so I reminded him that I was praying for him.

“Don’t bother,” he said.

Sharing the jokes and this exchange — which, to religious Americans, probably don’t paint Trump in a particularly great light — are a conscious choice.

But “these aren’t criticisms,” a Pence spokesman said in an email. The spokesman provided one excerpt from “So Help Me God” in which Trump professes to be a believer and was “touched” that the Pences prayed for him, and another in which he “readily” embraced the Pences and joined them in prayer.

Both anecdotes are from the 2016 campaign, long before Trump wrongly insisted Pence had the power to overturn Biden’s election victory and fired up a mob of his supporters to march on the Capitol, some of them shouting “hang Mike Pence!”

If Pence runs, his candidacy seems likely to hinge on Republican minorities: the minority that still condemns Jan. 6, or the minority that thinks America should keep sending weapons and aid to Ukraine, and some TBD proportion of conservative Christians tired of Trump-related drama.

But Trump won over conservative white Christians in 2016, with Pence’s help but largely on promises to turn the Supreme Court their way. He did it again in 2020 on a “promises kept” theme. In this cycle, the former president is sure to highlight the high court’s rulings on issues like abortion.

It remains to be seen whether Pence, if he runs, can make inroads in 2024, or whether this is the equivalent of an athlete highlighting his opponent’s poor form, while that opponent is shouting “scoreboard!” and pointing to an insurmountable lead.

Caroline Anders is a researcher for The Daily 202 and The 5-Minute Fix.Olivier Knox is National Political Correspondent and anchor of The Daily 202.

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