Mike Pence is on a mission

After testifying before a federal grand jury Thursday, the man in Trump’s shadow is now in Utah on a mission to replace him

Mike Pence sits in a tall mahogany chair with leather cushioning, in the middle of a massive, LED screen-laden megachurch in downtown Dallas. It’s a Sunday morning in January 2023 and Pence is wearing a crisp dark suit and perfectly Windsor-ed tie, fielding questions from First Baptist Dallas’ senior pastor, Robert Jeffress.

Jeffress is a Fox News regular who’s spent the last seven years as former President Donald Trump’s most prominent evangelical ally. The pastor spoke at Trump campaign events in Iowa before the 2016 primaries. He publicly defended Trump after the “Access Hollywood” tape came out. The First Baptist Dallas choir made national headlines in 2017 when they sang a hymn called “Make America Great Again.” And Trump himself visited this church the week of Christmas 2021, attracting a thunderous crowd and a throng of protesters. 

Today is much more sedate and absent protesters. But both levels of the amphitheater-size sanctuary are pretty full for the 11 a.m. service. Jeffress gives Pence a glowing introduction and reminds his congregants that Pence is a “great friend.” In front of a live audience of thousands and a television-and-streaming audience of thousands more, Jeffress asks Pence what role faith should play in politics, and Pence says “freedom of religion is not freedom from religion. … This is a nation of faith.” 

Then Jeffress invokes the Old Testament’s testing of Abraham and asks about Jan. 6. 

“Gallows had been built on the Capitol grounds. A noose had been attached at the gallows for your execution,” Jeffress says. “The Secret Service urged you and your family to leave for your own safety, and yet you refused to abandon your duty.” What, Jeffress asks, gave Pence the courage to stand strong that day?

For most of the conversation, Pence has leaned back in his chair, smiling that close-lipped smile that’s become his trademark. It’s the same bulletproof smile he displayed as he stared adoringly at the president for four-plus years. His eyes have twinkled ever so slightly in the church’s studio-quality lighting. But after the Jan. 6 question Pence squints and nods in thought. He inhales deeply.

Mike Pence hasn’t shied away from talking about Jan. 6, 2021, the day an angry mob erected gallows and ran through the halls of the Capitol chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” Others in the Trump orbit have tried to minimize or completely recast what happened that day, but Pence hasn’t. He’s written about it, spoken about it, answered questions about it in interviews. The title of his book, “So Help Me God,” is a reference to his oath of office — an oath he feels he was honoring that day, when he split with then-President Trump and presided over a joint session of Congress that officially counted the electoral college votes, formalizing the results of the 2020 presidential election. 

“What saw us through that day,” Pence says, noting that his wife and daughter were with him at the Capitol, “was God’s grace.” 

There’s a smattering of applause.

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Pence reiterates that he’s “incredibly proud” of the record of the Trump-Pence administration. He mentions the border, Israel, energy and the three Supreme Court justices that helped overturn Roe v. Wade — which gets a larger applause.

“Obviously the administration did not end well,” Pence says. “January 6 was a tragic day.”

Pence hasn’t said he’s running for president in 2024 — at least not officially. But in an interview with me, and interviews with other reporters, he certainly sounds like he’s launching a presidential campaign. His book feels a lot like a traditional campaign book. He’s also been quietly flying around the country (he’ll be in Salt Lake City Friday), speaking to churches and business groups about his own story and everything he thinks is wrong with the Biden administration. These talks seem remarkably similar to stump speeches. And yes, at some point in nearly all of these places, someone mentions that day. And soon that day may loom even larger for him: In late April, he testified under oath about the conversations he had with Trump involving Trump’s quest to overturn the 2020 election. 

What Pence did — or rather what he didn’t do — on Jan. 6 has created an amazingly peculiar political dilemma. Half the country has heard for two years that Pence had the ability to stop a rigged election but chose not to. The other half of the country, the half that’s grateful Pence didn’t try to halt democracy that day, isn’t likely to forget that Pence partnered with and enabled Trump for the four years leading up to Jan. 6.

But Pence has something that no other potential Republican presidential candidate has. Pence has spent his entire career making his devout religious beliefs the center of his identity. The man absolutely can’t be out-churched. And until relatively recently, that approach has had quite a bit of success in American politics. 

A graphic of former-vice president Mike Pence.
Nadia Radic, for the Deseret News

Pence has spent his entire career making his devout religious beliefs the center of his identity. And until relatively recently, that approach has had quite a bit of success in American politics.

If evangelical voters could go into a lab and create a political candidate, that candidate would probably come out looking and sounding like Mike Pence. For decades he’s introduced himself to crowds by explaining that he’s “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican,” always adding, “in that order.”

By all accounts, Pence is a genuine believer, a veteran trooper in America’s perpetual culture war, inspired by his evangelical faith and the business-friendly, nationalistic stylings of Ronald Reagan.  

Pence grew up in small-town Indiana, one of six kids in a devoutly Irish-Catholic home. His mother, “a precocious redhead,” he tells people, was a homemaker. His father — “a combat veteran who raised my brothers and me like it was his last platoon,” Pence calls him — ran a chain of convenience stores and voted Democrat. 

After attending a music festival in Kentucky billed as the Christian Woodstock, Pence was born again. As he tells it, on a rainy spring night in 1978, he felt called to stand up, find a pastor, and bow his head and accept Jesus Christ as his savior. A few years later, Pence went from a Jimmy Carter-supporting Democrat to a devoted Reagan acolyte. 

While attending law school in Bloomington, Pence met his future wife, Karen, in church. They’ve been married 37 years and have three children and three young grandchildren. And nary an untoward personal scandal. In fact, he’s been known to refer to his wife as “Mother,” though in the time I’m around him I hear him talk about Karen often and he doesn’t once call her that.

Pence first ran for office in 1988, when he was 29. His congressional campaign consisted of him bicycling around his district in athletic shorts and tennis shoes, chatting with anyone receptive to a conversation. He got the Republican nomination but lost in the general. Two years later he ran again, went shockingly negative in his ads and was caught using campaign funds to pay his mortgage and grocery bills — which wasn’t illegal at the time but is now. Pence lost that election by 19 points. 

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Still fighting the conservative culture war fight, he launched a talk-radio show, what he called “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.” He also started a political newsletter and regularly wrote op-eds that ran in newspapers across Indiana. His style was hokey and his arguments seem dated now. He opened each show with “Greetings across the amber waves of grain.” His hot takes at the time included a defense of the tobacco industry (“smoking doesn’t kill”), arguments against early climate change agreements, and a demand that President Bill Clinton resign amid the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But Pence used this time to build a statewide audience and sharpen his religiously framed stances. When he ran for Congress again in 2000, he won easily.

On Capitol Hill, he championed defense spending, deregulation and traditional evangelical social values. He repeatedly voted to restrict abortion, to defund Planned Parenthood, and in strong support of Israel. He started rising in the ranks of Republican leadership and attracted the attention of Republican megadonors, including the Koch brothers. By 2012 he was contemplating a run for president but was reportedly convinced to run for governor of Indiana instead. 

He campaigned as a business-friendly conservative, with a tone lifted directly from Reagan. Pence’s term as governor is remembered for signing his religious freedom legislation in 2015, just prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, that would have allowed business owners, like florists or cakebakers, to refuse services for gay customers. After businesses across the state objected, and Pence fumbled through an appearance on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” he eventually compromised, signing a watered-down version of the bill. By the early stages of the 2016 election cycle, Pence’s statewide approval rating was under 40%, and it looked like his political career might be over.

President Donald Trump listens as Vice President Mike Pence speaks about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House, April 27, 2020, in Washington. As Mike Pence approaches a likely 2024 run for president, he’s opening up to audiences about the parts of his career before he served as Donald Trump’s vice president. He hopes his 12 years in Congress and four years as Indiana governor will project the record of a conservative fighter. | Alex Brandon, Associated Press

Then came Donald Trump. 

Pence’s religious-right bona fides made him the perfect running mate to shore up conservative voters concerned about Trump’s probity. And it didn’t take long for Pence to become Trump’s most proficient advocate, the heavy hitter Trump’s team unholstered for choice Sunday shows and heartland events. With his three decades of gladhanding and public piety, Pence could reassure supporters who were queasy over Trump’s many scandals. 

After the “Access Hollywood” tape became public, Pence said he was “offended” and “cannot defend” Trump’s remarks. But in the same statement, Pence pointed out that the video was 11 years old and that Trump had “expressed remorse and apologized to the American people.” Pence also said he looked forward to Trump showing the nation “what is in his heart.” (Pence’s camp has also denied reports that he volunteered to step in at the top of the ticket if the party decided to dump Trump at the last second.)

After porn star Stormy Daniels alleged that Trump and his attorney Michael Cohen paid her $130,000 in hush money before the election, Pence called the accusations “baseless.” When Trump alleged “large-scale voter fraud happening on and before election day” in 2016, Pence echoed the sentiments with the couching of a clever attorney, saying, “Voter fraud cannot be tolerated by anyone in this nation.” After Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” of a deadly clash at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Pence told reporters that Trump had “made it very clear” that he condemns “all forms of hate and violence.” 

Pence added, unsolicited, “I truly believe that under President Trump’s leadership, we’re gonna continue to see more unity in America.”

But of course, Pence never really needed to say much. Just standing behind Trump, flashing that smile, Pence was implicitly telling millions of Americans that all of this — all of the scandals and the shattering of norms and the crazy tweets — it was all fine, actually. 

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence gesture at the 2020 Republican National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. on Aug. 24, 2020. | Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

Pence even joked about that earlier this year, at the white-tie Gridiron dinner in Washington, D.C. At his weekly lunches with the president, Pence told the crowd, Trump liked when Pence would sing him “Wind Beneath My Wings” — specifically the phrase, “Did you ever know that you’re my hero?”  

Oh yeah, that’s the other thing. Mike Pence is actually kind of funny. He might not write all of his own material, and his sense of humor is completely dad-joke-tastic, but Pence gets laughs. At that same Gridiron dinner, he quipped about his own piousness.

“I’m really not as uptight as many people think,” he told the crowd. “There’s this idea that I’m some kind of religious nut. I’m really not. Just ask my sons, Jedediah, Obadiah or Zechariah.” His preferred pronouns, he added, are “thou and thine.” 

And yet, despite the polished Republican resume, the culture-warrior cred, the old-school charisma and that strong handsome-grandpa energy that’s done so well in conservative circles for decades, at the moment Pence is a long shot to win the presidency. In early Republican primary polling, Pence is usually around 6%-7%. When Atlantic writer McKay Coppins sat in on focus groups of Republicans earlier this year, he found that the participants almost universally disdained Pence.

“He’s only gonna get the vote from his family,” one participant said. “And I’m not even sure if they like him.”

Another participant said that Pence “just needs to go away.”

Meanwhile, Trump is still at the top of those same polls, even after being arrested in April for his alleged involvement in the Stormy Daniels hush-money scandal.

So, I ask Pence how he plans to get Trump supporters — some of whom were chanting “Hang Mike Pence” — to now cast a ballot for him.

“Look,” he tells me, “I think the failed policies of the Biden administration at home and abroad, and the radical left wing policies of the Democratic Party today, are going to be a great unifying factor for the standard-bearer of the Republican Party.”

Pence tells me that one of the enduring lessons from the 2022 midterms, where Republicans underperformed expectations, comes down to focusing on the future.

“Candidates that were focused on the future did well,” he says. “Candidates that were focused on the past or relitigating the past did not fare as well.”

I ask him how he addresses the people who’ve been told over and over for two years that Pence had the ability to stop a rigged election but chose not to.

“With the truth,” Pence says. “The facts. That’s why I speak as openly as I do about it.”

Vice President Mike Pence speaks during the first day of the Republican National Convention on Aug. 24, 2020, in Charlotte, N.C. | Travis Dove, The New York Times via AP

Half the country has heard for two years that Pence had the ability to stop a rigged election but chose not to. The other half isn’t likely to forget that Pence enabled Trump for the four years leading up to Jan. 6.

Most Americans don’t understand how close to a possible coup this country might have come. But Mike Pence knows. 

For weeks, Trump had been telling anyone who would listen that the 2020 election was stolen, and that Pence had the power to overturn the results by refusing to certify the count. Trump told Pence himself this on Christmas Day, when Pence made his annual call to wish the president and first lady a Merry Christmas. 

During his rally on Jan. 6, 2021, Trump addressed Pence directly, though the vice president was already at the Capitol.

“Mike Pence, I hope you’re gonna stand up for the good of our Constitution and for the good of our country,” Trump told his supporters. “And if you’re not, I’m going to be very disappointed in you, I will tell you right now.”

When rioters broke into the Capitol an hour or so later, Pence’s security detail moved him out of the Senate chamber and into a small, seldom-used ceremonial office reserved for the vice president. It’s the room where Vice President Henry Wilson died, where Vice President Harry Truman was sworn in as president.

Eight minutes after Pence was evacuated from the Senate floor, Trump tweeted about Pence:

“Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!”

A White House security official later told Congress that at one point members of the vice president’s detail felt so endangered that they were screaming over the radio and that “there were calls to say goodbye to family members.” 

Amid all that, Pence and his family were moved from the ceremonial office to a subterranean loading dock beneath the Capitol. Pence’s Secret Service team told him to get into the armored limousine waiting there. That’s when Pence uttered six words that very well may have changed the course of history.

“I’m not getting in that car.”

Whether you admired the way Pence stood by Trump through all manner of controversy or you thought Pence was a compliant captive, smiling with adoration, Jan. 6, 2021 was the day Mike Pence broke free. And the entire day is encapsulated by this incredibly dramatic moment standing next to that car.

I wanted to know what that moment felt like. 

In this image from video released by the House Select Committee, Vice President Mike Pence looks at a phone from his secure evacuation location on Jan. 6 as House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds a hearing Thursday, June 16, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington. | House Select Committee via Associated Press

He’s said repeatedly that he wasn’t afraid. In his book, he says he was angry and indignant about the way the invaders “desecrated the seat of our democracy and dishonored the patriotism of millions of our supporters.” But I still wanted to know what it felt like to stand next to that armored vehicle and refuse to enter. I wanted to know what he thought might happen if he had gotten in.

It’s the first thing I ask about when Pence and I sit down for an interview in an office at the back of a church in rural, central Louisiana. It’s late March and still chilly in the piney woods just west of the Mississippi River. Pence is wearing another dark blue suit, an impeccably starched white shirt and a sleek silver tie perfectly tied. He’s 63, 13 years younger than Trump, and with that helmet of closely cropped platinum hair, Pence could pass for early 50s. In person, he’s also warmer, more congenial than he can come across on TV.

In our time together, I’ll ask him if he thinks he enabled Trump, and if he thinks that led to what happened on Jan. 6.  And because I can’t help myself, I’ll ask about the fly that landed on his head during the vice-presidential debate in 2020 — and became perhaps the most ubiquitous meme in an administration full of them.

But first I ask Pence what he thinks would’ve happened if he’d gotten into that car.

He nods slightly, staying silent for nearly 10 seconds before answering.

“I leave that to others,” he tells me, squinting thoughtfully. “Secret Service, understandably, wanted to get me out of the building. … The doors in the car were open, and they told me they wanted me to hold in the car, and I told them I wasn’t getting in the car.” 

Pence says he explained to his detail: “You close that 200-pound door and somebody back from headquarters tells them, ‘Get the vice president out of the building —’” 

Pence cuts himself off before he finishes that thought. 

“I’ve had a detail since I was governor of Indiana,” he tells me. “Their job is to protect you. My job was to support and defend the Constitution, which I was determined to do by staying at my post in the building.” 

I ask him how often he thinks about that day. He laughs a little.

“Not as often as some people do,” he says. “I’m an out-the-windshield guy, not a rear-view mirror guy.”

Pence went from a Jimmy Carter-supporting Democrat to a devoted Reagan acolyte.

Before introducing Pence to the congregation at Philadelphia Baptist Church in Deville, Louisiana, senior pastor Philip Robertson jokes about what a special occasion it is to have him. 

“There are those who never thought it possible that a former vice president of the United States would ever visit Deville, Louisiana,” the pastor says. “Some might have even said that Hell would freeze over before that happened. Well guess what? It’s going to be 26 degrees tonight in Central, Louisiana.” 

As the audience snickers, Robertson adds an “Amen.” Then he welcomes Pence to the pulpit, calling him “a brother in Christ.”

It’s a Sunday in mid-March. This place is much smaller and more casual than the church in Dallas. There are plenty of jeans and caps and the sanctuary is a little dated. Pence takes the stage and thanks Robertson, calling him “Brother Philip.” Then Pence venerates the church’s 150-year ministry.  

“I’m a little bit humbled to stand at a podium that is so well-served,” Pence says. “But I’ll do my best.” He adds, “I am consoled by the fact that I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.”

Pence tells the audience about his life since leaving office, painting a portrait of an idyllic existence back in Indiana. He makes a few references to the Trump-Pence administration — and like always gets big cheers when he mentions the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade — but Pence mostly uses the time to share his testimony: his decision to dedicate his life to Christ and how it’s shaped his public service. 

Vice President Mike Pence talks with Westkirk Church Senior Pastor Michael Mudlaff, right, and Temple B’nai Jeshurun Rabbi David Kaufman following a meeting with local faith leaders to encourage them to resume in-person church services in a responsible fashion in response to the coronavirus pandemic on May 8, 2020, in Urbandale, Iowa. | Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

“My heart was broken by what had been done for me on the cross,” he says as applause builds. 

In all, Pence talks for about 20 minutes. He’s a compelling storyteller, but he also knows the cadences, the verbiage of this world. He effortlessly weaves Old and New Testament references throughout the talk. At the end of his testimony, he gets a roaring ovation. He nods, squinting and flashing that smile.

After the service, the line to get a book signed stretches out of the back of the hall and across the chilly parking lot. The crowd has been told not to hold the line up for photos, but plenty of people ask anyway and Pence obliges every time. He also makes a few seconds of small talk with each person as they come by his table. He shakes hands. He asks about kids. He thanks veterans and first responders for their service. 

When a little girl tells Pence that today is her 10th birthday, he quickly takes out a small piece of stationary with “The Vice President” printed across the top and draws a simple cartoon of himself — the smile, the tie, the pensive brow — and a speech bubble that reads “HAPPY 10th BIRTHDAY RYLEE!”

This is how Pence hopes to convince people of all stripes to vote for him. Events like this, in big cities and small towns across America, changing minds one room at a time. Maybe enough people will see him in person and hear the earnestness in his voice. Maybe they’ll conclude that Pence has been a remarkably savvy politician, willing to endure humiliation in order to enact the type of conservative agenda the right has been dreaming of since Pence was in college. Maybe some of the people he encounters as he tours the country will wonder if God put Mike Pence in the White House to steer Donald Trump in the right direction — then put him in the Capitol that day to protect our nation.

On the other hand, many argue that Pence enabled Trump for years before finally splitting with him ahead of Jan. 6, that he used his religious credentials as cover for his running mate. Pence supported Trump despite multiple accusations of sexual harassment. Despite Trump repeatedly questioning the legitimacy of elections for years. 

I ask Pence if he thinks that standing by Trump through all of that and more might have actually led to Jan. 6, 2021 — and if that makes him culpable or responsible at all for what happened that day. 

“I’m incredibly proud of the record of the Trump-Pence administration,” he tells me. “Prior to the disagreement that came to a head in the days leading up to January 6, the president and I had a close working relationship. And despite our differences in personal style, we were both working on the same agenda.”

Pence reiterates that he’s proud of his partnership with Trump. 

“At the end of the day, it did not end well,” he says. “But I believe that we made our stand clear and we saw our way through to do our duty that day. And I trust those days to the judgment of history for me and all those involved.”

A fly lands on the head of Vice President Mike Pence during the vice presidential debate Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Kingsbury Hall on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. | Justin Sullivan, Associated Press

Before we part that day at the church in Deville, there’s something else I have to know. It’s a question I’ve thought about asking since I learned I was going to meet with him. 

The fly.

During the vice presidential debate in 2020, as Pence sat across the table from then-Sen. Kamala Harris, a massive fly landed on his head. And stayed there. For what felt to viewers like hours. (It was actually about two minutes.) And Pence never swatted at it once.

The fly became an instant and enduring meme, easily the standout moment from all of the 2020 debates. The fly also became a Rorschach test. Some people saw Pence as stalwart, unflappable, focused. Other people saw Pence as a robot, so dedicated to his political mission that he’d somehow resist one of the most basic human reactions.

So, I ask the former vice president of the United States about the fly. 

“How did you not swipe the fly?”

Throughout our interview, Pence has spoken slowly, parsing his answers carefully. But suddenly he’s talking a little faster, a little more animated.

“Didn’t know he was there,” he says.

“You couldn’t feel it,” I ask, probably sounding more surprised than I mean to.

“I saw him fly by,” Pence tells me. “And I thought that’s a fairly large fly on a television show.

He tells me that as soon as he came off the stage that night, his family was waiting there for him. A few people congratulated him on a good debate.

“Then my daughter-in-law, who I adore, looked at me and said, ‘Did you know a fly landed on your head?’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And she said, ‘It landed on your head.’ And I go, ‘Well, how did you know?’ She said, ‘Because he was there for a while.’ And they all are nodding. And I said, ‘Oh, OK.’” 

We’re both laughing as he’s telling me this.

“So that’s why I’ve said I’ve been incredibly blessed in my life, far beyond anything I deserve. But when I get to glory, I’m probably going to ask the Lord —”

Pence pauses as he acts out his conversation with God. 

“The fly,” he says. “Was that really necessary?”

Then our time together is over. He’s heading to the airport, off to continue his quiet tour. He shakes my hand and thanks me for the questions. 

“Especially the one about the fly.”

It’s not clear what kind of chance Pence has in 2024. His testimony before a grand jury investigating Jan. 6 could further alienate him from Trump’s base. Or maybe it could start shifting opinions. No matter what, it seems like a long, uphill battle, but the primaries are still a ways out. A lot of things can happen. 

There could be more arrests, more criminal cases, more lawsuits, some surprise scandals. Political winds can change directions quickly. One thing is clear, though. If the winds turn toward him, Mike Pence will be waiting there with open arms and that trademark smile, ready to continue his faith-filled journey as president of the United States.

Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks at Utah Valley University in Orem on Sept. 20, 2022. Pence was a guest of the school’s Herbert Institute for Public Policy. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News