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'Pence had chance to be great, was afraid' to overturn vote

Trump: Jan. 6 panel is ‘one-sided witch-hunt,’ weak Pence was ‘human conveyor belt’

Speaking to religious conservatives, ex-president repeats false election fraud claim, derides his VP, says Democrats ‘allow babies to be executed,’ teases presidential intentions

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Road to Majority conference, June 17, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Road to Majority conference, June 17, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Making his first public appearance since the House committee investigating the January 6 insurrection began its hearings laying bare his desperate attempts to subvert democracy and remain in power, former US president Donald Trump on Friday lashed out at the panel as he continued to tease his plans for a third presidential run.

Speaking to religious conservatives at a sprawling resort in Nashville, Trump blasted the committee’s efforts as a “theatrical production of partisan political fiction” and insisted he had done nothing wrong.

He said the panel was a “one-sided witch-hunt” and said the proceedings are “getting terrible ratings.”

“What you’re seeing is a complete and total lie. It’s a complete and total fraud,” he told the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s “Road to Majority” conference.

He dismissed the harrowing video footage and searing testimony presented by the committee — including first-hand accounts from senior aides and family members — as having been selectively edited. And he downplayed the insurrection as “a simple protest that got out of hand.”

Much of Trump’s speech was focused on slamming former US vice president Mike Pence and undermining his political campaign.

Eyeing a White House bid, Pence is maintaining a brisk political schedule focused on drawing attention to Democratic vulnerabilities. But his challenges were put into stark relief Friday, as Trump continued to blast him for failing to go along with his scheme to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Former US president Donald Trump leaves the stage after speaking at the Road to Majority conference, June 17, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

While he denied ever calling Pence a wimp, Trump railed against his former vice president, saying, “Mike did not have the courage to act.”

That drew applause from a crowd that Pence, himself an Evangelical Christian, has spoken before numerous times.

“I never called him a wimp. Mike Pence had a chance to be great. He had a chance to be frankly historic,” Trump told the crowd.

“But just like Bill Barr and the rest of these weak people, Mike — and I say it sadly because I liked them — but Mike did not have the courage to act.”

Repeating his claims of widespread fraud during the 2020 elections, Trump called Pence a “human conveyor belt.”

“Mike was afraid of whatever he was afraid of,” Trump said. “But as you heard a year and a half ago, Mike Pence had absolutely no choice but to be a human conveyor belt… even if the votes were fraudulent. He said he had to send the votes… couldn’t do anything,” Trump said.

During his unforgiving speech, Trump also touted what he considered to be notable accomplishments from his administration’s term, including works on the Mexican border wall, Supreme Court conservative nominations, his actions in the Middle East and his attempt to ban abortions.

“I called in Congress to ban late-term abortions unlike Democrats who allow babies to be executed after birth… executed after birth,” he said.

“In the Republican Party we believe that every life is a sacred gift from God,” he added.

In this image from video released by the House Select Committee,  then-US vice president Mike Pence talks on a phone from his secure evacuation location on January 6 that is displayed as the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol holds a hearing, June 16, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (House Select Committee via AP)

Trump’s appearance at an event long known as a testing ground for presidential hopefuls comes as he has been actively weighing when he might formally launch another White House campaign. The debate, according to people familiar with the discussions, centers on whether to make a formal announcement later this summer or fall or, in accordance with tradition, wait until after the November midterm elections.

While allies insist he has yet to make a final decision about his plans, Trump for months has been broadcasting his intentions, and continued to tease them Friday.

“One of the most urgent tasks facing the next Republican president — I wonder who that will be,” Trump said at one point, prompting a standing ovation and chants of “USA!”

“Would anybody like me to run for president?” he asked the crowd, unleashing more cheers.

Ralph Reed, chair of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said that, for now, “We don’t know whether or not he will run, although certainly given his speech, I think he wanted to let everybody know that that is his plan.”

Trump has spent the past year and a half holding rallies, delivering speeches and using his endorsements to exact revenge and further shape the party in his image. But some supporters say the former president, who has decamped from his Florida Mar-a-Lago club to Bedminster, New Jersey, for the summer, is also growing impatient.

While he has relished his role as a party kingmaker — with candidates all but begging for his endorsement and racking up large tabs at fundraisers in his ballrooms — Trump also misses the days when he was actually king, especially as he watches Democratic US President Joe Biden struggle with low approval ratings and soaring inflation.

An announcement in the near future could complicate efforts by other ambitious Republicans to mount their own campaigns. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who was ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, for instance, has said she wouldn’t run against him.

And there also are concerns that a near-term announcement could hurt Republicans going into the final stretch of a midterm congressional campaign that appears increasingly favorable to the party. A Trump candidacy could unite otherwise despondent Democratic voters, reviving the energy that lifted the party in the 2018 and 2020 campaigns.

Ralph Reed speaks during a Donald Trump campaign event courting devout conservatives by combining praise, prayer and patriotism, July 23, 2020, in Alpharetta, Ga. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Republicans want the November election to be framed as a referendum on the first two years of Biden’s presidency. They don’t want anything, including Trump, to throw them off that trajectory.

Regardless of his decision, the aura of inevitability that Trump sought to create from the moment he left the White House has been punctured. A long list of other Republicans have been laying the groundwork for their own potential campaigns and some have made clear that a Trump candidacy would have little influence on their own decisions.

They include Pence, who has been hailed by the January 6 committee as someone who put the national interest ahead of his own political considerations.

Reed, who described himself as “a dear friend” of Pence, declined to comment on the rift, but said Pence had been invited to appear at the conference. “If Mike Pence wanted to come and wanted to offer a rejoinder to these folks, he could have done it,” he said.

Beyond Pence, other possible candidates including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have also indicated their decisions do not rest on Trump’s. And others are making moves, including Trump’s former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Florida Sen. Rick Scott and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who were all appearing at the conference, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is seen by many loyal Trump supporters as the future of his movement.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters and members of the media after a bill signing in Brandon, Florida, on November 18, 2021. (Chris O’Meara/AP)

Though it’s increasingly clear that Trump wouldn’t march to the GOP nomination unchallenged, a large field of candidates could still work to his advantage. The dynamic is beginning to resemble the 2016 campaign, when Trump faced a large and unwieldy group of candidates who split the anti-Trump vote.

“We’re going to be in pretty uncharted waters,” said Reed. “So I would tend to think that that will not be the same kind of primary as, say, ‘16 was. It would seem to me that he’d be potentially stronger in that primary by having been a former president and having had this record… On the other hand, it is not 2020. He’s going to have a primary. And he won’t be the incumbent president. And depending on who chooses to run, it’s going to be different for him, too. He’s going to have to make [a] case to those voters.”

Then-US president Donald Trump speaks in the press briefing room as then-US vice president Mike Pence listens, November 24, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Indeed, despite the audience cheers, many of those attending the conference voiced skepticism about a third Trump run.

“I don’t know. The jury’s still out with me,” said Jonathan Goodwin, a minister who works as a Faith and Freedom organizer in South Carolina. “I like him, but I think he shot himself in the foot too many times.”

Goodwin said he “definitely” had his own concerns about the 2020 election but didn’t support how Trump had handled the situation. “I think he should have bowed out gracefully,” he said, “whether it was rigged or not.”

Illinois conservative Pam Roehl, who arrived at the conference Friday wearing a red Trump baseball cap and “Trump 2020” necklace, said she still supports the former president, but increasingly finds herself in the minority among friends who have moved on, discarding their bumper stickers and embracing DeSantis.

“They’re like kind of: ’Get with the program. Why aren’t you backing DeSantis?‘” she said.

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