Former Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday he could not defend the criminal allegations against Donald Trump, his former boss and current campaign rival, in a federal indictment charging the ex-president with mishandling classified documents.
Pence nevertheless echoed the notion of a “two-tiered” justice system that Trump and his allies have pushed as they seek to undermine the prosecutors pursuing the unprecedented case against the former president.
“This indictment contains serious charges, and I cannot defend what is alleged,” Pence said on CNBC’s “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 charged with willfully retaining national defense information, conspiracy to obstruct justice, concealing documents and making false statements.
After his arraignment in Miami, Trump traveled to his New Jersey golf club to deliver a campaign-style speech and host a fundraiser that raked in just over $2 million, according to a Trump campaign aide.
Pence’s remarks on CNBC come one week after he entered the 2024 Republican primary race, where polls show Trump has maintained a significant lead despite his mounting legal troubles. Pence fell out with Trump after he refused to aid the former president’s efforts to overturn his 2020 loss to President Joe Biden. The decision eroded Pence’s standing in the GOP, which has largely stuck by Trump even as he continues to falsely insist the 2020 race was rigged against him.
Pence’s campaign kickoff speech criticized Trump in occasionally forceful terms but still sought to champion the agenda that they passed together in the White House. His remarks about Trump’s latest criminal indictment attempted to walk a similarly fine line.
“The handling of classified materials is a very serious matter,” Pence said, but “the former president has a right to his day in court.”
“I can’t believe that politics didn’t play some role here,” Pence added. “If I have the privilege to be president of the United States, we’re going to clean house at 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 reiterated his call for new leadership and imbued his thoughts on Trump’s indictment with campaign rhetoric.
“Two things can be true at once,” he said, explaining that while he will not defend the “serious” charges against Trump, it “doesn’t change the fact that tens of millions of Americans have a sense of a two-tiered system of justice.”
He referenced the investigation of Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the 2016 election, asserting that former FBI Director James Comey “excused very similar behavior” by the then-Democratic nominee. Pence also pointed to the investigation of Russian election meddling by former special counsel Robert Mueller and alleged suppression of information about Biden’s son, Hunter Biden.
Legal experts have argued that Trump’s case, which involves alleged violations of the Espionage Act and alleged conspiracy to obstruct the government, differs significantly from other instances of politicians holding onto records after leaving office.
Trump’s federal indictment has spurred a variety of reactions from his Republican primary rivals.
Pence’s stance contrasts sharply with remarks earlier Wednesday morning from former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was also once a federal prosecutor. Christie is a more vocal Trump critic who said that the GOP leader’s post-arraignment speech in New Jersey shows that he “doesn’t care about the American people.”
“This next administration of Donald Trump as president will be all about retribution for him personally,” Christie said on Fox News.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, has opted to say little about Trump’s criminal case since his arraignment.
Vivek Ramaswamy, a long-shot candidate for the GOP nomination, has already vowed to pardon Trump if elected. He appeared outside the Miami courthouse on Tuesday to call on the rest of the primary field to make a similar pledge.
Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has issued numerous reactions to the indictment, said Tuesday that she would be “inclined in favor of a pardon” for Trump if she became president.
— CNBC’s Brian Schwartz contributed reporting.