WASHINGTON – Before leaving office, President Barack Obama awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor – the Presidential Medal of Freedom – to his vice president.
In President Donald Trump’s final days, he has presented similar honors to California Rep. Devin Nunes, one of his most vocal supporters during impeachment, and to three professional golfers.
To his vice president, Trump bestowed the label of coward.
The staunchly loyal Mike Pence was excoriated by Trump on Wednesday for his refusal to illegally intervene to prevent Congress from certifying the results for the presidential election that Trump lost.
“Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution,” Trump tweeted in a post that Twitter removed Wednesday evening.
Trump has also barred Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, from the White House.
“He’s blaming me for advice to VP,” Short told RealClearPolitics.
‘Never seen Pence as angry’
Pence has not spoken publicly about the rift.
But Sen. Jim Inhofe told the Tulsa World on Wednesday that he’s “never seen Pence as angry as he was today.”
The Oklahoma Republican told USA TODAY he talked to Pence about Trump’s rebuke. Pence, he said, was “very upset” with Trump.
Trump’s public denunciation of his vice president is unprecedented in the history of the modern vice presidency, according to scholars. And it comes after more than four years of Pence showing extreme deference to Trump, leading critics to deride him as an obsequious enabler of a volatile president.
“(Trump’s) turning on Pence is particularly striking given Vice President Pence’s loyalty to the president which some, myself included, would regard as having been excessive in the history of the office,” said vice presidential scholar Joel Goldstein.
The break adds to uncertainty about what’s in store for the remainder of Trump’s term, particularly in the aftermath of the violence that engulfed Washington on Wednesday when Trump supporters stormed the Capitol.
A person close to Pence who was not authorized to speak publicly said that while Pence’s team expected Trump to be upset, his behavior was “a shock to all of us.” The person said it’s “really unclear” how the dynamic between the president and vice president will work going forward.
While some speculated Trump might step down at the last minute so Pence could issue a pardon to him, that’s even less likely now, said Todd Belt, a presidential expert at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
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The 25th Amendment
Calls have increased for Pence to replace Trump through the 25th Amendment, which includes a never-used mechanism for a vice president and a majority of the Cabinet to seize control from a president.
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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., on Thursday said Pence should immediately invoke the amendment.
Schumer said he and Pelosi tried to call Pence Thursday morning. But after being kept on hold for 25 minutes, an aide told them Pence would not come to the phone, Schumer said.
“We have not yet heard back from the Vice President,” they said in a joint statement Thursday night.
Pence’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Multiple media reports have said conversations about invoking the amendment have taken place among senior officials.
An administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity Thursday morning said the prospect of invoking the 25th Amendment had not been brought to the vice president.
Trump had spent much of Tuesday afternoon in the Oval Office with Pence, trying to persuade his No. 2 to bend to his will. Trump and his allies also leaned on those close to Pence.
Pence had promised to thoroughly study the issue. Over the past two weeks, he put together a legal team, consulted with experts on congressional rules and thought about what the founding fathers intended.
Besides being a lawyer by training, Pence is a self-proclaimed student of history who has said he gets “chills” when he visits Independence Hall.
In the lengthy letter Pence released shortly before he began presiding over Congress’ counting of the electoral votes Wednesday, he referenced his reverence for the Constitution and said he was bound by his oath of office to uphold it.
Trump tweeted his disdain for Pence’s position as the supporters he had addressed at an earlier rally responded to Trump’s call to march to the Capitol.
“For Trump, Pence was there to be a loyal servant, as was everyone else,” Belt said.
‘Courage,’ his daughter tweeted
When rioters broke through the perimeter and rampaged the building, Pence, his wife and older daughter were whisked away to a secure location by the Secret Service.
Pence’s daughter later issued what could be read as a rebuke of Trump.
“Courage,” Charlotte Pence Bond tweeted as she recirculated the end of her father’s letter of explanation, which concluded: “So Help Me God.”
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After the Capitol was secured and lawmakers finished counting the votes, a stoic Pence announced his and Trump’s election defeat at 3:41 a.m.
Pence bowed his head and closed his eyes as the Senate chaplain, in a closing prayer, said the “quagmire of dysfunction that threatened our democracy” and led to a loss of lives and desecration of the Capitol has “reminded us that words matter.”
The C-SPAN camera recording the moment for history turned toward Pence, capturing a slight nod of his head, when the chaplain said God has “strengthened our resolve to protect and defend the Constitution.”
“Amen,” the devoutly Christian Pence softly said at the conclusion of the prayer.
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Doing ‘his duty’
Since signing on as Trump’s running mate in 2016, Pence has tried to strike a balance between remaining loyal to Trump while not parroting his most divisive rhetoric and unfounded claims.
Pence deserves credit for standing firm this week, said public affairs professor William Inboden, who worked for President George W. Bush. But merely upholding his oath of office when he did not have the power to act otherwise “should not be mistaken as a profile in courage or principle,” he added.
Pence must continue to do his duty, amid “Trump’s madness and demagoguery,” to try to hold the executive office of the president together for the next 13 days.
“After January 20,” Inboden said, “Pence will have ample time to reflect on the loyalty he showed to Trump for four years – and what it cost.”
Contributing: Ledyard King and Christal Hayes, USA TODAY