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May 17, 2024

Mike Pence’s Unexpected Encore

May 17th. 2024

Mike Pence is not on Plan A. “I was expecting to be in the fourth year of our second term, at this point,” the former vice president tells me in the D.C. office of his nonprofit organization, Advancing American Freedom (AAF). “But the American people and the good Lord had other plans. So, we’re just trusting in that.”

The AAF suite is located on Pennsylvania Avenue, a short walk from the White House. Pence’s office features a large mahogany desk, on which lie a stack of his memoirs and an open Bible. On one side is an American flag, on the other a framed map of Indiana. Behind the desk is a bookcase featuring family photos, a Reagan bust, and memorabilia from the Trump administration.

On the wall hangs a photograph of the White House Situation Room on October 26, 2019, during the killing of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It features Robert O’Brien, Pence, Trump, Mark Esper, Mark Milley, and Marcus Evans and is signed in an unmistakable black scrawl, Donald J. Trump. It hangs above a stand-alone brown leather chair. Later, I’m informed that it’s Pence’s cabinet chair, purchased as a gift by all his staff and presented to him after January 6.

In 2016, Pence was sold as the vice-presidential pick who could smooth out some of Trump’s rougher edges. In person, you remember why. His manner is quietly assured. He listens intently and thinks carefully before he speaks. Yet the partnership was forged on more than personality.

“I joined the national ticket because I sensed there was alignment between the policies that have defined my career and what candidate Donald Trump was advocating,” Pence says. Back then, Trump was committed to a conservative agenda — a “centerpiece” of which was the “commitment to advance the right to life through policy and judicial appointments.”

Pence gives Trump due “credit” for his “determination to do the things we said we would do in the campaign.” But relations between them soured after they left office. January 6 is the obvious turning point, when Trump asked Pence to “put him over the Constitution” and thereby disqualified himself, in Pence’s view, from future office. These days, however, Pence has more to say about their policy disagreements.

On fiscal policy, he accuses “the former president and, frankly, many Republicans in Congress” of adopting “the same posture” toward entitlements as President Biden. On foreign policy, he says that Trump is “signaling more openness to the rising tide of Republican isolationism” — a stark move away from “what defined our administration.”

Take Trump’s recent wobble on the Chinese ownership of TikTok. In response, Pence and his colleagues at AAF launched a $2 million ad campaign ahead of a Senate vote on legislation that would force either a sale or a shutdown of the company. After the bill passed, Trump stated: “Just so everyone knows, especially the young people, Crooked Joe Biden is responsible for banning TikTok.” Pence, meanwhile, penned a letter thanking every member of Congress who had voted for the bill, according to the New York Post.

Pence’s decision not to endorse his former running mate is unusual. Even, some would say, unsporting. To qualify for the GOP-primary debates, Pence, along with the other candidates, signed a pledge to “honor the will of the primary voters and support the [Republican presidential] nominee in order to save our country and beat Joe Biden.”

The Washington Post reports that those close to Pence have a letter-of-the-law justification, pointing out that “the written pledge said ‘support,’ not ‘endorse’ like a similar document in 2015.” When I ask about this, Pence simply reasserts the reasons he will not endorse Trump: “principled differences” related to January 6, foreign and fiscal policy, and “the cause of life.”

During the Trump administration, there was a clear and unifying aim in pro-life politics. Appoint to the Supreme Court originalist justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. With that goal achieved, the more daunting task of persuading the American people would begin. Yet some Republicans have given up before they’ve tried. Pence views Trump as chief among the quitters.

In April, a piece that Pence penned for the New York Times bore the title “Donald Trump Has Betrayed the Pro-life Movement.” The article itself is generally more temperate: Trump has “retreated” from his commitment, or “walked away” from it; he’s “leading other Republicans astray.” More harshly, on social media Pence described Trump’s recent statements that abortion should be left to the states as “a slap in the face” to pro-life Americans.

“To restore the sanctity of life back to the center of American law, you have to remain clear with the American public that that’s the objective,” Pence tells me. “You have to have moral clarity in saying abortion is wrong.”

So far, Trump has delivered moral ambiguity. In his abortion message in April, the former president said, “At the end of the day, this is all about the will of the people” and “You must follow your heart on this issue.” He recently told Time magazine, “I’m leaving everything up to the states.” Everything?

Even the former president’s position on late-term abortions appears to have weakened. In 2018, Trump said he “strongly supported” a 20-week national ban. Now, he has said he wouldn’t even sign such a bill if it reached his desk. He has described himself as “the most pro-life president in American history.” And yet he has criticized Florida for its “terrible” heartbeat bill and said, when reporters asked whether the Arizona state supreme court went “too far” in recognizing its pre-Roe near-total abortion ban, “Yeah, they did and that will be straightened out.” He said:

And now the states have it, and the states are putting out what they want. It’s the will of the people. So Florida’s probably going to change. Arizona is definitely going to change. Everybody wants that to happen. And you’re getting the will of the people. It’s been pretty amazing.

Everybody? Some pro-lifers remain optimistic that Trump’s rhetoric is just an election strategy and that — should Trump win in November — he would roll back the Biden administration’s pandemic-era policy of allowing abortion pills to be prescribed by telehealth, as well as make use of the Comstock Act to prevent abortion drugs and equipment from being sent through the mail to states where the practice is outlawed.

But Trump has made no such promises. Were he to win in November, pro-lifers would need him more than he needs them. Pence explains: “Part of what animated my run for president was that I’ve tried without success to convey to people that the former president was not running [this time] on the agenda we governed [by]. And I know him well enough to know that he’ll do what he says he’s gonna do.”

To Pence, the Supreme Court returned the issue of abortion not only to the states but to the American people: “And the American people elect governors and state representatives. They also elect presidents and congressmen and senators.” He cites Governor Brian Kemp’s six-week bill and reelection: Kemp won “decisively in the most competitive governor’s race in the country.” He notes that Governor Mike DeWine in Ohio “won in a landslide” despite favoring a six-week ban. And in general he dismisses as “left-wing spin” the claim that the pro-life movement has become a major political liability. As for the 2022 midterms, “the common denominator that I saw in 2022 is candidates that were focused on relitigating the past did not fare well,” he explains, referring to campaigns that stressed Trump’s claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him. Candidates “focused on the future did fine.”

“There’s two ways to do public life,” Pence says. “Number one is, You can tell people what your values are. Tell them what your vision is. And then if you win the election, you go stand for those things.” Alternatively, you can try to “calculate the least defensive pathway for getting into office and then try to calculate what you can accomplish.” True leadership, Pence says, largely consists of the former.

Pence cites majority support, 72 percent of Americans, for restricting abortion after an unborn child can experience pain. He points to Europe, where restrictions are common after 15 weeks and, in some countries, even after twelve. “Surely we could have a minimum national standard that didn’t leave unborn children to the devices of the radical Left in California and Illinois and New York.”

But is a nationwide minimum standard politically achievable? Many, including the former president, have dismissed the idea as a nonstarter in Congress. “How do you know?” Pence says. “It’s that old saying, ‘You don’t know till you try.’” Even if Congress proves obstructive, “what a president should do is go to the American people with the moral, the legal, the intellectual, the historical case for life.”

Whatever criticisms he has of his party or its leadership, Pence emphasizes that “the real gap in all this is between the party that is arguing over where we solve the problem” and “another party that literally believes in abortion on demand up until the moment of birth and supports taxpayer-funded abortion.” He illustrates the point by noting that he was the first vice president since Roe to visit a crisis-pregnancy center, adding that “my successor just distinguished herself as being the first vice president to visit an abortion clinic.”

“I don’t think, in my lifetime, I have ever seen a wider gulf on a more important issue than between the Democratic Party’s position and the Republican position,” he adds. Nevertheless, in the absence of stronger pro-life leadership, the Overton window may have opened further for abortion extremism on the left. Pro-life Americans may find themselves faced with a choice between a party that favors all abortions and one that tends towards the European-style consensus: legal in the first trimester, with exceptions and loopholes for later stages. Though whether they are single-issue voters is another matter.

Pence has also been outspoken about an adjacent life issue, in vitro fertilization. In April, he co-authored a piece with John Mize for the Wall Street Journal in which he criticized the rashness of the Alabama GOP state legislature in granting total immunity for embryo destruction to IVF clinics after the state supreme court ruled that embryos were legal persons under the state’s wrongful-death statute.

“To me, the objective is how we preserve access to fertility treatments but create a framework around that which recognizes the rights and interests of parents and protections for unborn life,” he says. Including embryos in IVF storage facilities? “Yes. I really believe that.”

Pence has some street cred on the issue. He and his wife used fertility treatments to expand their family after struggling with infertility in the 1990s. “I fully support fertility treatments and I think they deserve the protection of the law,” Pence told CBS News in 2022. But protection for whom?

Pence told CBS’s Margaret Brennan that he and his wife, Karen, used IVF. In his memoir, he wrote that they used “IVF and GIFT procedures.” How did he navigate that, given his respect for the sanctity of life from conception? He explains: “All of our procedures were gamete intrafallopian transfer [GIFT]. We happened to be Catholic at the time. And we took guidance from the church about that procedure. I described it [as IVF] in the book so that people would know what it was.”

In GIFT, gametes are placed directly into the fallopian tubes so that the couple’s sperm and egg might meet and conception occur as in a natural pregnancy. The procedure has success rates similar to those of IVF but is rarely performed in the United States. It requires the woman to undergo general anesthesia and laparoscopy. But it avoids the creation of extra or, in the industry jargon, “supernumerary” embryos that will be frozen or destroyed.

To most Americans, the distinction between GIFT and IVF may seem trivial. But to critics of the IVF industry’s handling of embryos, these details are significant. (For Catholics: GIFT with the married couple’s own gametes has the same status as embryonic adoption and intrauterine insemination by sperm obtained through intercourse and is neither approved nor prohibited by the church.)

“Back ten years ago, there were roughly the same number of couples reporting unexplained infertility as there were abortions in the country,” Pence says. “Which means essentially there’s no unwanted child.” He and Karen were nearly adoptive parents themselves. They had signed up for adoption and were matched with an expectant mother when Karen learned that she was expecting. Knowing that the family next in line was clinically infertile, they decided to step aside “and trusted God that Karen would go to term with Michael, who’s now 32.”

Pence’s commitment to life goes beyond opposition to abortion. He advocates adoption reform, funding for women in crisis pregnancies (as Texas established but “got no credit for”), and the continued availability but increased regulation of fertility treatments. “I’m not a Europhile, but there are European countries that limit the number of embryos that can be created,” he says. “There are protections in place.” He thinks it is time for “a serious discussion in this country about medical ethics around the creation of unborn human life.”

“I think the destiny of our country is tied up in some way in restoring the sanctity of life to the center of American law,” Pence says. “If we continue to erode the notion that every life born and unborn is precious, then we risk tearing at the very fabric of the American experiment.” For years, Pence has described himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” He laments seeing “many in my party following the siren song of populism unmoored to conservative principle, away from American leadership in the world, away from fiscal responsibility, even away from the right to life.”

Neither his party nor this chapter of his career has gone in the direction he’d hoped. Still, he seems unperturbed. Recalling Jeremiah 29:11, the Bible verse that has hung over the mantel of his family home since Christmas 1999, he recites from memory: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” To Mr. Pence, the most enduring victory is already won.

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