“President Trump is wrong. I had no right to overturn the election,” he said in a speech to a gathering of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group. “There are those in our party who believe that, as the presiding officer over the joint session of Congress, that I possessed unilateral authority to reject Electoral College votes.”
“The presidency belongs to the American people, and the American people alone,” he added. “And frankly, there is no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president.”
Pence’s remarks represent the harshest language to date by the former vice president against Trump, who has repeatedly spread false claims about President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. Pence’s comments came just days after Trump blasted him for failing to overturn the results of the 2020 contest when Congress tallied states’ votes.
A person close to Pence told NBC News later Friday that the sharpened tone against his former boss is the result of “seeing Trump dig his heels in even deeper and going after him more personally.”
Pence may also feel “a sense of duty” to speak out, and “even if the party is pretending the election denial is ‘normal’ and ‘OK,’ it is wrong and politically not the right way to go into a presidential cycle,” the person said, according to NBC.
An aide to Trump, meanwhile, accused Pence of being “disingenuous,” telling NBC that the former president “didn’t ask him to overturn” the election, but rather merely to send electoral votes back to the states.
“I think it’s clear who actually has the Republican Party voters behind him,” the aide told NBC. “Pence is trying to get relevance. As far as the voters are concerned, they’re not going to buy what Pence is selling.”
Trump claimed in a statement released Sunday that an ongoing congressional effort to pass legislation to explicitly prohibit the vice president from overturning the results of a president election is proof that Pence once had the power to do so.
“What they are saying, is that Mike Pence did have the right to change the outcome, and they now want to take that right away,” Trump added earlier in the week.
The two men are both considered potential contenders for the Republican nomination in 2024 and could face each other in a future primary contest.
Pence on Friday described the events of Jan. 6, 2021, as “a dark day in the history of the United States Capitol,” when hundreds of Trump’s supporters stormed the building and halted the process of transferring power to Biden.
Prior to the riot, Trump had heaped pressure on Pence to “do the right thing” and send electoral votes “back to the states to recertify,” claiming that if Pence “does the right thing, we win the election.” Pence refused to reject the Electoral College votes, saying in a letter that he believed he did not have the power.
While storming the Capitol, pro-Trump rioters chanted, “Hang Mike Pence,” as others displayed a noose outside the building. Trump later defended those rioters, saying, “It’s common sense that you’re supposed to protect. How can you — if you know a vote is fraudulent, right? — how can you pass on a fraudulent vote to Congress?”
Trump’s pressure on Pence to overturn the election has led senators from both parties to consider changes to the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which outlines guidelines for resolving presidential election disputes and certifying results.
The lawmakers aim to make it harder to challenge results in the future.
“To me, President Trump’s comments underscored the need for us to revise the Electoral Count Act because they demonstrated the confusion in the law and the fact that it is ambiguous,” Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican and one of the lawmakers working on the effort, said Monday following Trump’s statement.
— CNBC’s Kevin Breuninger and Jacob Pramuk contributed reporting.