INDIANAPOLIS — Mike Pence is aiming to get to the right of Donald Trump on guns, bringing debates the two once had behind closed doors in the White House into the public eye.
The former vice president is slated to come on his Hoosier home turf for the National Rifle Association’s annual leadership summit in Indianapolis Friday, during which he is expected to draw implicit contrasts with his former boss.
His speech, according to an adviser, is likely to address both the Nashville and Louisville mass shootings, talk about the importance of mental health facilities, train and supply armed officers at schools and embrace expediting the death penalty for perpetrators.
What Pence won’t talk about, though, is perhaps more instructive: Championing red flag laws that give law enforcement officials the opportunity to intervene when a person is deemed as high-risk, as well as banning bump stocks. Those two issues were ones Trump was open to or acted upon during his administration. Pence advocated for red flag laws as vice president, but has since disavowed the idea, with his Advancing American Freedom group coming out against it in March 2022.
“It will make for interesting political theater,” said a Republican close to past such NRA proceedings who has met with both Trump and Pence on the issue of firearms, and was granted anonymity to discuss private conversations.
The reversal is part of an effort to paint Trump as unreliable on Second Amendment rights. And, indeed, when asked for comment, a Pence adviser sent a February 2018 Daily Mail item referencing Sen. Diane Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) positive reaction to Trump’s willingness to consider firearm restrictions: “Feinstein can’t contain her glee in gun control meeting with Trump.”
That article detailed an infamous gathering of lawmakers following the Parkland, Fla. shooting. In an effort to further draw a distinction, a Pence ally said that in a subsequent 2018 Oval Office meeting, Pence talked Trump down from those restrictions. A person familiar with those discussions, who has not taken a position on the 2024 primary, confirmed the exchange.
“He’s moving away from Trump, not toward him,” said longtime Pence friend Mike Murphy, a former Republican member of the Indiana House of Representatives. “He seems to be getting a little more confident in his own skin every day.”
It is all part of a political tightrope Pence is walking ahead of what is expected to be his own campaign launch later this summer: How to articulate the rationale for his candidacy and distinguish himself from the man he served unflinchingly for four years.
The cattle call in front of rank-and-file NRA members amid what is advertised to be “14 acres of guns & gear” this weekend will be the first time that both Pence and Trump have shared a stage since they left office. And it will be the first of a series of events ahead of the 2024 presidential primary where they will both be featured speakers. Pence and Trump are both addressing top RNC donors in Nashville this weekend. The two are unlikely to cross paths, a person familiar with the logistics of the event told POLITICO. And on both occasions, Trump will have the last word.
“They’ll choreograph it,” a person close to both Trump and Pence orbits said.
In addition, both will speak at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition spring kick off next week, although Trump will be giving his speech remotely.
The dueling appearances come amid an increasingly icy and unprecedented point in their relationship. Never before in American history has the sitting vice president challenged the former president of his own party.
It’s not just a political conflict. They’re also potentially at odds in the courts, too. Trump has appealed a federal court’s decision to force Pence to testify to a grand jury investigating Trump’s effort to subvert the 2020 election.
Trump appeared last year at the NRA’s annual convention in Houston just days after the deadly Uvalde school shooting. In his speech, Trump called for overhaul of school security measures, including allowing only one entrance to schools and metal detectors, and he also emphasized the need for better mental health policies. Trump, like many Republicans, has said responsible gun owners are the best line of defense in mass shootings.
Trump is a member of the NRA, and his son, Donald Trump Jr., is gun sporting enthusiast who even formed his own gun rights group, the Second Amendment Task Force, that is focused on pushing back against Democrat gun control efforts. Pence, meanwhile, is known to hunt pheasant and quail.
The two haven’t talked for two years, and often use reporters as proxies to send messages to one another. “I have debated Donald Trump before,” Pence told Bret Baier last month. “Just not with the cameras on.”
Trump seems to have noted Pence’s new tone, telling reporters last month after Pence criticized Trump at the Gridiron Club Dinner over his role in Jan. 6: “I guess he decided that being nice isn’t working because he’s at 3% in the polls, so he figured he might as well not be nice any longer.”
Playing nice with Pence has been Trump’s strategy of late. The former president has praised Pence when asked about him — before noting his unhappiness with Pence’s decision to carry out his constitutional duties on Jan. 6. That is because Trump, according to advisers and people close to his campaign, believes a crowded field that includes Pence will only work to his benefit in the primaries.
Trump’s team has so far brushed off Pence’s recent attacks and their upcoming shared stage.
“He’s clearly not only the frontrunner of this election but he’s also the head of the party and the fact that he’s the featured speaker is proof of that,” said a Trump adviser.
Ralph Reed, who knows both Pence and Trump well and whose organization, Faith and Freedom Coalition, is remaining neutral, compared the Pence-Trump dynamic to the Republican presidential battle in 1912 when two former collaborators, former president Theodore Roosevelt and incumbent President William Howard Taft, ran against each other.
“It’s two people who were very close who had a tremendous amount of affection for one another and were partners and now they’re running against each other — and it’s going to be a very interesting dynamic to witness,” Reed said. “I tend to think that Pence will tend to take the high ground while being increasingly frank and transparent about his differences with his former boss. And I think there’s a lot that will be litigated as a result of that — assuming Pence gets in.”
The tension surrounding Trump and Pence sharing two stages this weekend is heightened by the fact that few other 2024 hopefuls are appearing in person.
While Trump and Pence are jumping from state to state to make their case to gun enthusiasts and the party’s top donors, DeSantis on Friday will speak at Liberty University — encroaching on Pence’s territory with religious conservatives — and headline a GOP dinner in New Hampshire on Saturday. Scott is holding his own donor retreat this weekend in Charleston, and Haley is attending her daughter’s wedding.
Pence has avoided other cattle calls over the past year where Trump was speaking. For instance, Pence has skipped out on multiple recent CPAC gatherings — a stage where he was booed the last time he attended — but he also stayed away from last year’s Faith & Freedom Coalition conference in Nashville, where Trump took the stage. His decision to sit out an event catering to an evangelical audience highlighted Pence’s reticence at the time to take on Trump in a public manner.
Not so, anymore. But it may be too little too late.
“I don’t think there’s much interest in the story of Trump versus Pence at all anymore,” said Mike Dennehy, a Republican strategist in New Hampshire who worked on John McCain’s presidential campaigns. “I would be surprised if Donald Trump even takes a whack at Mike Pence. The only person on Trump’s radar right now is Ron DeSantis — and frankly, he’s the only candidate who should be.”