Pence seeks to express support for Trump — while avoiding baseless election claims

By Josh Dawsey,

GAINESVILLE, Ga. — The raucous crowds outside Atlanta were spoiling Friday to join President Trump’s fight to overturn the November election results.

“Stop the steal!” the crowd roared within 90 seconds of Vice President Pence taking the stage here, in a dirt-floor rodeo arena, to stump for two Republican Senate candidates. “Four more years!” they had hollered earlier in the day in another event in a parking lot outside a conference center in Canton.

As Pence has done since 2016, he sought to stand behind Trump and signal his support — but without echoing exactly what the president was saying. He smiled at both chants but did not directly address them.

He encouraged the two crowds to fight for “every legal vote” to be counted and for “every illegal vote” to be discarded, without calling the election rigged, as Trump has done. Nor did he espouse other baseless theories — such as claims of a wide-ranging conspiracy involving a dead Venezuelan president — that Trump’s attorneys have been pushing this week with no evidence. He quickly moved on from the topic altogether during two 20-minute speeches.

He referred to the Bible and struck a happy-warrior social-conservative demeanor, with none of the anger Trump has unleashed in all-caps tweets in the weeks since an election they lost. He continued to say the president would fight to make America great again, without acknowledging that he was defeated.

“We may not know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future,” Pence said in Gainesville, repeatedly encouraging crowds to pray. “Pray for America.”

Back in Washington, Trump falsely declared from the White House lectern Friday that he had won the 2020 election; wooed Michigan state legislators in a bid to change electors; accused drug companies of delaying a vaccine to damage his presidential bid; opined that Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) was the subject of a fair-and-square “slaughtering” by President Barack Obama in 2012; and propagated a range of wild claims about the election.

He also took aim at elected officials in Georgia, where the Republican secretary of state on Friday certified President-elect Joe Biden’s victory after a hand recount.

“The Governor of Georgia, and Secretary of State, refuse to let us look at signatures which would expose hundreds of thousands of illegal ballots, and give the Republican Party and me, David Perdue, and perhaps Kelly Loeffler, a BIG VICTORY,” Trump tweeted Friday.

Pence was focused on a different topic — campaigning on behalf of Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, who face a runoff election in January — and made no mention at either of his events of Georgia going to Biden or any dissatisfaction with the officials. He greeted Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) warmly at the airport.

“It’s great to be in the Peach State,” he said at one rally.

Allies say that Pence is 100 percent loyal to Trump but is also eyeing his own political future, which could be complicated by a weeks-long fight over the election or a Trump declaration that he is running again.

Pence has kept a lower profile in recent weeks as Trump has waged war on the election results and grown increasingly brazen in his attempts to overturn the result. He has tried to publicly support the president while not mirroring his rhetoric; on election night, Trump declared that they won, while Pence did not.

[Most Senate Republicans greet Trump’s push to overturn the election with the customary response: Silence]

Aides have sought to focus on other topics, such as the coronavirus vaccine effort, and some Pence advisers have grown increasingly discomfited with the president’s ongoing campaign. He is expected to return to Georgia several more times, his team says, while aides say Trump is less interested in a trip.

The day of traditional campaign travel — short stump speeches, lavish introductions, country music and long bus rides — also highlighted the conundrum for Pence and the GOP. The bid was to drive GOP turnout for Loeffler and Perdue, who need to win on Jan. 5 so Republicans can hold on to a two-seat majority in the Senate.

Most voters were seemingly most excited about Trump, however, wearing his gear, chanting his name and showing off his bumper stickers. “We love Trump!” the crowd chanted in Gainesville. Pence promised to return and tell the president they sent their best. He was repeatedly interrupted with chants for Trump to remain in office.

Pence used the same crafted phrasing in both events: “We are going to keep fighting until every legal vote is counted. We’re going to keep fighting until every illegal vote is thrown out. Whatever the future holds, we will never stop fighting to make America great again.”

When some in one of the crowds chanted “Stop the steal,” Perdue offered back, “Hold the line” — ostensibly meaning the Senate but open to interpretation.

Meanwhile, the trio sought to convince voters of the importance of the special Senate election.

[As Democrats fume, the Trump appointee who can start the Biden transition is in no hurry]

“They’ll have the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives,” Perdue said at one point, arguing to the crowd why they needed to keep Republicans in the Senate majority.

Pence said, “We need Georgia to defend the majority.” He did not mention that the GOP had already won 50 seats — and if Trump were actually to keep the presidency, they would have a majority with Pence’s tiebreaking vote.

He often spoke about Trump’s presidency in the past tense, but also used lines that sounded similar to his own campaign speeches.

“Our agenda is American greatness. Their agenda is American decline,” Pence said. “We are in the miracle business,” he said of an expected coronavirus vaccine, not mentioning that 250,000 people in the country who have died. “Friends don’t let friends vote alone,” he said of the election.

In some ways, Pence did what some of the president’s advisers wish Trump would do. He bragged about Trump winning more than 73 million votes and a larger share of non-White voters than in 2016. He touted some of the president’s achievements, such as getting Supreme Court justices confirmed, cutting taxes and regulations, and moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Those got chants, but his final words in north Georgia drew the bigger reaction.

“Stay in the fight,” he said, leaving the stage in Gainesville to “Only in America” by Brooks & Dunn. “For the integrity of this election.”

Source: WP