Former Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday night made his most forceful attempt yet to separate himself from his former boss, Donald J. Trump, on the issue of certifying the 2020 election results.
Speaking at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Mr. Pence defended the constitutionally mandated role he played in certifying the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6, when a violent mob of Trump loyalists — some chanting “Hang Mike Pence” — stormed the Capitol while the president did nothing for hours to stop them.
“I will always be proud that we did our part on that tragic day to reconvene the Congress and fulfilled our duty under the Constitution and the laws of the United States,” Mr. Pence said, noting that as vice president, he had no constitutional authority to reject or return electoral votes submitted to Congress by the states. “The truth is, there is almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president.”
It was the furthest that Mr. Pence, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2024, has gone yet in defending his role that day or distancing himself from Mr. Trump, to whom he ingratiated himself during their four years together in office.
In the speeches Mr. Pence has delivered since leaving the White House, he has gone out of his way to praise Mr. Trump and his agenda, even reiterating some of the former president’s grievance-fueled messaging that latches onto the country’s culture wars.
On Thursday night, Mr. Pence argued that “critical race theory,” a graduate school framework that has found its way into K-12 public education, was effectively “state-sanctioned racism.”
And he spent much of his speech reciting what he said were Mr. Trump’s accomplishments on many issues, including free trade, border security and relations with China. “President Trump changed the national consensus on China,” he said.
Mr. Pence also compared Mr. Trump to former President Ronald Reagan.
“He too disrupted the status quo,” Mr. Pence said. “He challenged the establishment. He invigorated our movement and set a bold new course for America.”
But so far, Mr. Pence has only tiptoed around the issue of how to remain the loyal soldier while distancing himself from the events of Jan. 6.
Speaking at the Lincoln-Reagan Dinner in Manchester, N.H., this month, Mr. Pence admitted that he and Mr. Trump might never see “see eye to eye” about the Capitol riot, stopping short of criticizing one view over another.
On Thursday night, he declined to state firmly that he and Mr. Trump had lost the 2020 election, a reality that the former president has continued to deny.
“I understand the disappointment many feel about the last election,” Mr. Pence said. “I can relate. I was on the ballot. But there’s more at stake than our party or our political fortunes in this moment. If we lose faith in the Constitution, we won’t just lose elections — we’ll lose our country.”
Whether Mr. Pence will succeed in having it both ways — being viewed as an ally and a critic of Mr. Trump — remains to be seen. Polls show that a majority of Republican voters believe that Mr. Trump won the 2020 election and buy into his baseless claims about voter fraud.
Mr. Pence is also testing the patience of a man who still looms over the political landscape and the Republican Party. While Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence have spoken several times since leaving office, Mr. Trump has showed flashes of frustration with his former loyal No. 2.
In private and at a Republican National Committee donors event at Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s resort in Florida, shortly after a book deal for Mr. Pence was announced, the former president has mocked Mr. Pence for certifying President Biden’s Electoral College victory, according to people familiar with the discussions as well as a detailed description of the remarks that evening.