Pence prepares to oversee Trump’s loss — and then leave town

Pence prepares to oversee Trump’s loss — and then leave townDecember 17, 2020

On Jan. 6, Vice President Mike Pence will oversee final confirmation of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.

Then he’ll likely skip town.

As vice president, Pence has the awkward but unavoidable duty of presiding over the session of Congress that will formalize Biden’s Electoral College victory — a development that is likely to expose him and other Republicans to the wrath of GOP voters who believe President Donald Trump’s false claim that the election was stolen from him.

But Pence could dodge their ire by leaving Washington immediately for the Middle East and Europe. According to three U.S. officials familiar with the planning, the vice president is eyeing a foreign trip that would take him overseas for nearly a week, starting on Jan. 6.

Though Pence aides declined to confirm details of the trip, which remains tentative, a U.S. government document seen by POLITICO shows the vice president is due to travel to Bahrain, Israel and Poland, with the possibility of more stops being added. A pre-advance team of Pence aides and other U.S. officials left earlier this week to visit the planned stops in preparation for the multicountry tour, which would be Pence’s first trip abroad since last January, when he traveled to Rome and Jerusalem on a whirlwind two-day sojourn.

On the surface, the trip is part of a push to underscore the Trump administration’s role in brokering a series of diplomatic agreements to normalize relations between Israel and a handful of Arab countries, including Bahrain. But for Pence, visiting these countries is also a way to bolster already-strong credentials with the Christian right, which strongly supports Israel. And it allows Pence — once again — to put distance between himself and Trump’s complaints about the election outcome that are likely to intensify after Congress affirms Biden’s win.

It’s a tactic Pence has used to navigate the final days of Trump’s presidency: stay out of the spotlight and insulate himself from his boss’s baseless election-fraud crusade, all while still finding ways to burnish his own credentials and technically toe the party line.

Pence has promoted Trump in his work as head of the government’s coronavirus task force and while boosting two GOP Senate candidates facing runoff races in Georgia. But he’s declined to publicize his minimal involvement in the president’s election-fraud strategy. And while he has privately assisted the Trump campaign when asked — joining donor calls and lending his signature to fundraising pleas — his public comments since the election have almost all centered on other topics, including hosting an event focused on the Trump administration’s anti-abortion policy at the White House on Wednesday.

“I suspect the timing is anything but coincidental,” one Pence ally said of his tentative travel plans.

A senior administration official said the trip has not been confirmed and was proposed for early January because it was the first available date following the holidays and other obligations that Pence has committed to.

The vice president’s last trip abroad came just before the novel coronavirus arrived in the U.S., forcing both Pence and Trump to confront a global pandemic in the midst of a presidential election and later grapple with the fallout over the administration’s much-criticized public health response. Pence, who will receive the coronavirus vaccine on Friday, would be traveling to regions where daily case counts have steadily risen since November. As recently as last week, Israeli officials were considering new coronavirus-related restrictions to reverse growing outbreaks.

The U.S. has faced similar trend lines since late fall, as colder temperatures, increased indoor activities and uneven adherence to social distancing guidelines are believed to be the culprit for a rapid acceleration in Covid-19 cases not seen since earlier this spring. The worsening conditions have created an increased workload for Pence since the Nov. 3 election. While Trump has kept his focus on furnishing long-promised evidence of mass voter fraud — something he’s been unable to provide so far — the vice president has hosted calls with state and local leaders, toured vaccine production facilities and continued to work with the relevant agencies involved in the pandemic response.

On Monday, Pence held a conference call with the nation’s governors to discuss distribution of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine and the anticipated approval of a second coronavirus vaccine from Moderna by the FDA later this week.

“Be confident that we have cut red tape, but we’ve cut no corners when it comes to the development of this vaccine,” Pence said Tuesday at a vaccine production center in Bloomington, Ind. “I look forward, in the days ahead, to receiving the vaccine myself and do so without hesitation.”

In between his task force duties, Pence has traveled twice to Georgia for “Defend the Majority” rallies in support of GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. He is scheduled to visit the state again on Thursday for campaign stops in Macon and Columbus. The two races, slated for Jan. 5, will determine which party controls the Senate.

“He’s still helping out where asked by the [Trump] campaign, but the biggest help is him being in Georgia,” a senior White House official said of the vice president’s schedule.

The vice president’s most recent appearance in the state included a brief and rare nod to the alleged voter-fraud scheme Trump claims cost him the election.

Referring to a lawsuit challenging the election results in four battleground states that was led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Pence said Trump “deserves his day in court … and all I can say is: God Bless Texas.”

The lawsuit was subsequently rejected by the Supreme Court, joining more than 40 other cases that the Trump campaign has lost or withdrawn across Nevada, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan and Arizona in the weeks since Election Day.

Some of the vice president’s top allies have also become more vocal about the reality confronting Trump and the importance of shifting the Republican party’s attention to the Georgia runoff races. During a Monday night appearance on Newsmax, a conservative TV network that has promoted Trump’s voter-fraud claims, former Pence communications director Marc Lotter said there’s been a lack of evidence provided “that would allow [the election result] to be overturned in a court of law.”

“I think we have to be honest with ourselves, it’s not just one state we have to flip. … It would basically be overcoming three Mount Everest-size hurdles in three different states,” said Lotter, who also worked on the 2020 Trump campaign, referring to the number of states Trump would have to flip to win.

Such hurdles will disappear altogether when both chambers of Congress convene next month to lock Biden in as president-elect — thus hammering one final nail into the coffin of Trump’s election-fraud crusade. The tense moment is sure to attract attention, both for its finality and for the theatrics that are expected to unfold.

While Pence allies said there is no reason to doubt he will perform his duties as prescribed, some congressional Republicans have already vowed to push their colleagues to reject enough electoral votes to block Biden from becoming president. If Pence were to decline, the president pro tempore of the Senate would step in for the first time since 1969, when incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey — also the defeated Democratic nominee for president at the time — skipped the proceedings to attend a funeral.

The effort, led by GOP Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, is unlikely to yield Trump’s desired result but could easily leave Pence in an excruciating situation. One White House official compared the task at hand for Pence — which will include opening and counting electoral votes sent from each state — to someone delivering a death notice.

“By no means is this going to be an easy moment for the vice president or president to stomach,” the official said.

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