Former Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday he couldn’t defend himself criminal charges against Donald Trumphis former boss and current campaign rival, in a federal indictment accusing the ex-president of mishandling classified documents.
Still, Pence echoed the idea of a “two-tier” justice system that Trump and his allies have pushed as they seek to undermine prosecutors who are leading an unprecedented case against the former president.
“This indictment contains serious allegations, and I cannot defend what is being alleged,” Pence said on CNBC. “Squawk Box.”
Trump pleaded not guilty Tuesday to 37 counts related to his alleged mishandling of classified records, hundreds of which were stored at his Mar-a-Lago resort home after he left the White House in 2021. Trump is accused of willful withholding of national defense information, conspiracy to obstruct justice, concealment of documents and false statements.
After his arraignment in Miami, Trump traveled to his golf club in New Jersey to give a campaign-style speech and hold a fundraiser that raised just over $2 million, according to a Trump campaign adviser.
Pence’s remarks to CNBC came a week after he entered the 2024 Republican primaries, where polls show Trump maintaining a significant lead despite mounting legal troubles. Pence clashed with Trump after he refused to help the former president reverse his 2020 loss to the president Joe Biden. The decision eroded Pence’s GOP standing, which has largely stuck with Trump, even as he continues to falsely insist the 2020 race was rigged against him.
Pence’s opening speech criticized Trump in strong terms at times, but he still tried to push the agenda they had jointly approved in the White House. His remarks about Trump’s latest criminal indictment attempted to walk a similarly fine line.
“The handling of classified material is a very serious matter,” Pence said, but “the former president is entitled to his day in court.”
“I can’t believe politics didn’t play a role here,” Pence added. “If I have the honor of being president of the United States, we’re going to clean up the Department of Justice. We’re going to find men and women who are universally respected by both political parties, and we’re going to restore public confidence and equal treatment under the law.”
Pence repeated his call for new leadership and peppered his thoughts on Trump’s impeachment with campaign rhetoric.
“Two things can be true at the same time,” he said, explaining that while he won’t defend the “serious” allegations against Trump, “it doesn’t change the fact that tens of millions of Americans feel like there’s a two-tiered justice system.”
He referred to the investigation into Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election, claiming that former FBI Director James Comey “excused very similar behavior” by the then-Democratic candidate. Pence also pointed to former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling and the alleged suppression of information about Biden’s son, Hunter Biden.
Legal experts do he argued that Trump’s case, which involves alleged violations of the Espionage Act and an alleged conspiracy to obstruct the government, is markedly different from other cases involving politicians who have held onto records after leaving office.
Trump’s federal impeachment drew a range of reactions from his Republican primary rivals.
Pence’s stance contrasts sharply with remarks Wednesday morning by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was also once a federal prosecutor. Christie has been a more vocal critic of Trump, who said the GOP leader’s speech after the impeachment in New Jersey showed he “doesn’t care about the American people.”
“This next administration of Donald Trump as president is going to be all about retribution for him personally,” Christie said on Fox News.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, has chosen to say little about Trump’s criminal case since his indictment.
Vivek Ramaswamy, a longtime contender for the GOP nomination, has already promised to pardon Trump if elected. He appeared outside a courthouse in Miami on Tuesday to urge the rest of the primary field to make a similar pledge.
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has issued a series of responses to the impeachment, said Tuesday that she “would be leaning toward clemency” for Trump if she were to become president.
— CNBC’s Brian Schwartz contributed reporting.