Inside Mike Pence's change of heart

How did the rift between Trump and Pence become so wide?

Mike Pence
Mike Pence gave brief remarks about former president Donald Trump
(Image credit: Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

Former Vice President Mike Pence this week said he wouldn't rule out testifying against Donald Trump in the former president's criminal case over his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss. Pence, a long-shot contender for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination Trump is expected to win, said Trump's effort to pressure him into blocking the certification of the election result on Jan. 6, 2021, had forced him to choose between Trump and the Constitution.

The comments marked Pence's marked his clearest break yet with his former boss, and Trump wasn't pleased. In a social media post, Trump said Pence was "delusional" and had "gone to the Dark Side." A Trump campaign spokesperson mockingly called Pence "Joe Biden's biggest cheerleader." How did the rift between Trump and Pence become so wide?

"So Help Me God"

The split started in November 2020 after President Biden beat Trump in the presidential election. Pence, in his memoir "So Help Me God," describes a meeting in the Oval Office where Trump gathered his team together to go over legal challenges of what Pence described in the book as "the election we had lost." In an excerpt published by Axios, Pence wrote that what started as a briefing "quickly turned into a contentious back-and-forth" between campaign lawyers who were "pessimistic" about the grounds for a challenge, and outside attorneys led by Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell. Giuliani told Trump, "Your lawyers are not telling you the truth, Mr. President," according to Pence.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

"That day the president made the fateful decision to put Giuliani and Sidney Powell in charge of the legal strategy ... The seeds were being sown for a tragic day in January." Trump pressured Pence, who as vice president was to preside over Congress' Jan. 6 certification of the states' electoral votes, to block the process and send the matter back to the states. Trump hoped GOP-dominated legislatures would overturn some narrow losses and return him to the White House. "Pence himself had denied having such power, which resulted in an angry phone call between himself and Trump," with some name-calling, according to Maureen Groppe and Savannah Kuchar at USA Today. "Wimp is the word I remember," former Trump assistant Nicholas Luna said in a clip played by the Jan. 6 committee.

"Hang Mike Pence!"

The Jan. 6 Capitol attack drove Trump and Pence apart for good. In a speech just before the riot, Trump put the spotlight on Pence, saying the vice president could send the results "back to the states to recertify and we become president and you are the happiest people." When a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, some chanted "Hang Mike Pence!" Trump waited for hours before telling his "very special" followers to "go home," still insisting the election had been stolen.

Fighting the subpoena

Pence kept his distance from Trump after Jan. 6, but didn't back efforts to hold him accountable for stoking the rioters' anger. He dismissed the Jan. 6 committee appointed by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as partisan. And he said last year and again earlier this year he didn't think Trump should be indicted. "I think the president's actions and words on Jan. 6 were reckless, but I don't know that it's criminal to take bad advice from lawyers," Pence said. He added that indicting a former president "would be terribly divisive ... at a time when the American people want to see us heal."

Pence challenged a subpoena from special counsel Jack Smith to testify before the grand jury that was considering criminal charges against Trump over his effort to overturn the election. Pence maintained he was immune from testifying, but tried to simultaneously set himself apart, saying Trump had recklessly "endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol." But a judge ordered him to testify, over Trump's objections, and Pence decided not to appeal.

He told the grand jury about the pressure Trump exerted over him, and handed over his notes, putting his and Trump's conflicting accounts of the run-up to Jan. 6 at the heart of the charges. "The latest Jack Smith indictment has intensified the breach between Pence and Trump created by Jan. 6," said Rich Lowry at National Review. He did "the right thing" and "paid the price," turning Trump's wrath on himself and virtually assuring that he would not "inherit" any of their administration's MAGA base.

"There's the sellout! There's the traitor!" hecklers yelled at Pence, polling a distant third in a 2024 GOP field dominated by Trump, as he arrived at a New Hampshire campaign event, his first after Trump pleaded not guilty. "Why'd you sell out the people?"

What next?

The rift might only get wider. Pence says he doesn't plan to testify in Trump's trial but will "respond to the call of the law if it comes, and we'll just tell the truth." "It is possible that Pence's testimony might provide damaging evidence against the former president," said Jeff Charles at RedState. But if he only rehashes previous public claims, "his testimony might not be as effective a weapon as the prosecution and Democrats are hoping."

Many people will "never buy the whole 'Mike Pence was a hero' business," said Bret Stephens at The New York Times. "He was Trump's faithful enabler for more than four years, his beard with evangelicals, his ever-nodding yes man. He was mute for the eight weeks after the 2020 election when his boss was busy denying the result."

Pence seems determined "to do the right thing with the least physically measurable quanta of dignity possible," said Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo. He didn't have the power to overturn the election, but he spared the nation from the constitutional crisis that would have erupted if he had tried. "Since that day Pence has been in a sort of long twilight struggle to evade credit for that critical moment." But why? "You're either on Team Coup or you're not."

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Harold Maass

Harold Maass is a contributing editor at He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami Herald, Fox News, and ABC News. For several years, he wrote a daily round-up of financial news for The Week and Yahoo Finance. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and two sons.