Former US vice president Mike Pence on Friday directly rebutted Donald Trump’s claims he could have overturned the results of the 2020 US election, saying the former president was simply “wrong”.
In a speech to the conservative Federalist Society in Florida, Mr Pence addressed the former president’s intensifying efforts this week to advance the false narrative that, as vice president, he had the unilateral power to prevent Joe Biden taking office.
“President Trump is wrong,” Mr Pence said. “I had no right to overturn the election.”
His declaration marked his most forceful response yet to Mr Trump, who has spent his post-presidency saying the 2020 election was stolen from him. And it comes as Mr Pence begins laying the groundwork for a potential run for president in 2024, which could put him in direct competition with his former boss, who is also teasing a comeback run.
The already strained relationship between the two men deteriorated this week as Mr Trump escalated his attacks on his former vice president.
Mr Pence was inside the Capitol on January 6, presiding over the joint session of Congress to certify the presidential election, when a mob of Mr Trump’s supporters smashed their way in, assaulting police officers and hunting down lawmakers. He was rushed to safety as some rioters chanted “Hang Mike Pence!”
In a statement on Tuesday, Mr Trump said the committee investigating the deadly 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 Mr Pence, falsely declaring “he could have overturned the election”.
Vice presidents play only a ceremonial role in the the counting of Electoral College votes. Any attempt to interfere in the count would have represented an extraordinary violation of the law and an assault on the democratic process, sparking a constitutional crisis.
Mr Pence, in his remarks Friday to the group of lawyers in Lake Buena Vista, described January 6, 2021 as “a dark day in the history of the United States Capitol” and framed his actions 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 said. He noted that, under 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.”
“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 [Vice President] Kamala Harris will have no right to overturn the election when we beat them in 2024.”
The audience remained silent when Mr Pence said “Trump is wrong” but applauded his line about beating the Democrats.
Mr Trump responded in a statement on Friday night, insisting a “vice president’s position is not an automatic conveyor if obvious signs of voter fraud or irregularities exist”.
His claims of fraud have been rejected by dozens of state, local and federal elections officials, numerous judges – including some Mr Trump appointed – and his attorney general.
As Mr Pence countered Mr Trump in Florida, Republican officials gathered in Utah to align themselves even more closely with the former president. The Republican National Committee censured House Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for participating on the committee investigating the January 6 insurrection. The GOP also assailed the panel for leading a “persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse”.