Former Vice President Mike Pence on Friday directly rebutted former President Donald Trump's false claims that Pence somehow could have overturned the results of the 2020 election, saying that the former president was simply "wrong."
In a speech to a gathering of the conservative Federalist Society in Florida, Pence addressed Trump's intensifying efforts this week to advance the false narrative that, as vice president, he had the unilateral power to prevent President Joe Biden from taking office.
"President Trump is wrong," Pence said. "I had no right to overturn the election."
While Pence has previously defended his actions on Jan. 6 and said that he and Trump will likely never see "eye to eye" on what happened that day, the remarks Friday marked his most forceful rebuttal of Trump to date. And they come as Pence has been laying the groundwork for a potential run for president in 2024, which could put him in direct competition with his former boss, who has also been teasing a comeback run.
Trump this week had escalated his attacks against Pence. In a statement Tuesday, Trump had said the committee investigating the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol should instead probe "why Mike Pence did not send back the votes for recertification or approval." And on Sunday, he blasted Pence, falsely declaring that "he could have overturned the Election!"
Vice presidents play only a ceremonial role in the the counting of Electoral College votes, and any attempt to interfere in the count would have represented an extraordinary violation of the law and an assault on the democratic process.
Pence, in his remarks Friday to the group of lawyers in Lake Buena Vista, described Jan. 6, 2021 as "a dark day in the history of the United States Capitol" and framed his actions that day as in line with his duty as a constitutional conservative.
"The American people must know that we will always keep our oath to the Constitution, even when it would be politically expedient to do otherwise," he told the group Friday. He noted that, under Article II Section One of the Constitution, "elections are conducted at the state level, not by the Congress" and that "the only role of Congress with respect to the Electoral College is to open and count votes submitted and certified by the states. No more, no less."
He went on to call out those who have insisted that isn't the case.
"Frankly there is no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president," he added. "Under the Constitution, I had no right to change the outcome of our election. And Kamala Harris will have no right to overturn the election when we beat them in 2024."
The audience applauded Pence's line about beating the Democrats in the upcoming presidential election, but remained silent when Pence said earlier that "Trump is wrong."
Pence was inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, presiding over the joint session of Congress to certify the presidential election, when a mob of Trump's supporters violently smashed inside, assaulting police officers and hunting down lawmakers. Pence, who released a letter moments before the session got underway that made clear he had no authority to overturn the will of the voters, was rushed to safety as some rioters chanted "Hang Mike Pence!"
The former vice president, in his remarks Friday, acknowledged the lingering anger among many in Trump's base, even as he said it was time "to focus on the future."
"The truth is, there's more at stake than our party or political fortunes," he said. "Men and women, if we lose faith in the Constitution, we won't just lose elections — we'll lose our country."
Trump aides did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the speech. But Trump released a statement shortly after that slammed the Jan. 6 committee but notably made no mention of Pence.
Trump's escalating rhetoric comes as he has been under growing scrutiny from the committee, which has now interviewed hundreds of witnesses, issued dozens of subpoenas and obtained reams of government documents that Trump tried to keep hidden.
It also comes as a bipartisan group of lawmakers has been pushing to update the Electoral Count Act to eliminate any ambiguity about the vice president's role.
Pence has so far tried to thread a needle on his actions Jan. 6, which continue to enrage large portions of Trump's base, posing a potential complication if he runs for president in 2024.
In recent months, he has generally refrained from voluntarily raising the events of that day but has defended his actions when pressed, saying he was abiding by his constitutional role. Last year, he said in a speech that he will "always be proud that we did our part on that tragic day to reconvene the Congress and fulfilled our duty under the Constitution and the laws of the United States."
He has also accused Democrats and the media of continuing to focus on the insurrection to score political points against Republicans and divert attention from President Biden's agenda.
While a basic declaration of fact, Pence's decision to describe Trump as "wrong" was especially significant given Pence's posture in the White House. As Trump's vice president, Pence was exceptionally deferential to him, never publicly voicing disagreement and defending even his most controversial actions.
After spending several months laying low after leaving the White House, Pence has returned to the public spotlight. He launched his own political advocacy group and has been traveling the country, visiting early voting states, delivering speeches and hosting fundraisers for midterm candidates. Pence, unlike some possible 2024 presidential contenders, has notably declined to rule out running against Trump. He is also working on a book.
Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the chair of the Jan. 6 committee, and Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California have both said they plan to call Pence to testify as part of their investigation. It is so far unclear what Pence will do.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.