NASHVILLE — Former president Donald Trump used an evangelical conference here to ridicule former vice president Mike Pence for upholding the Constitution on Jan. 6, 2021, choosing an audience that represents Pence’s political base as a venue to attempt to undermine him.
“Mike Pence had a chance to be great. He had a chance to be historic,” Trump said in his first remarks about his onetime governing partner amid Jan. 6 committee hearings revealing the intense pressure Pence withstood in deciding to go forward with his constitutional role certifying the election. “Mike did not have the courage to act.” He added: “Mike was afraid of whatever he was afraid of.”
Trump also referred to Pence, who did not attend the conference, as a “human conveyor belt” for his role in moving the election process forward, saying that he had considered labeling him a “robot.” Trump’s own aides have testified they told the president it would not be constitutional for Pence to move to overturn the election.
Pence’s spokesman didn’t provide an on-the-record response to Trump’s speech. Several people close to Pence said they believe time will vindicate the former vice president’s Jan. 6 position among conservative voters, even as Trump continues berating him for refusing to step outside his ceremonial role overseeing the electoral college count.
In an interview this week, Marc Short, who was Pence’s chief of staff, said that he believed Pence’s actions will eventually accrue to his favor. “The arc of history will bend toward what he did,” he said.
On Friday afternoon, Trump delivered the headline speech at the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s annual Road to Majority conference, which served as a preview of what the 2024 GOP presidential field could look like. But Pence — along with other possible presidential contenders — chose not to attend. Aside from Trump, no other speaker mentioned the Jan. 6 proceedings during the conference’s initial days.
The 90-minute speech was the first time Trump delivered an in-person rebuttal to the Jan. 6 committee’s proceedings, which have been broadcast to the public in three dramatic installments so far. His remarks — and his attacks on Pence — were met with applause from the conservative crowd.
The former president aggressively attempted to rebut the narrative of planned sedition that is emerging from the hearings. Trump told the conference he had hoped to return the 2020 election to the state legislatures rather than outright overturning it, a move that experts said would have violated the Constitution.
Pence was invited to address the convention as well, but chose not to, said Ralph Reed, the organization’s founder, who is close with both men. “If Mike Pence wanted to come and wanted to offer a rejoinder to these folks, he could have done it,” Reed said in a lunch with reporters Friday afternoon. “I’m not saying he should have done it.”
Reed said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) was also invited but did not attend.
The conference represented the first major gathering of potential 2024 GOP contenders, giving them a chance to begin testing messages with one of the most influential audiences in Republican presidential politics: evangelical leaders and activists.
Attacks against President Biden and Democrats focused on high inflation, high gas prices and references to the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Most added populist strains to their pitches, with barbs directed at Big Tech and corporate leaders. And all touched on cultural issues, bemoaning coronavirus protocols, school curriculums and shifts in gender identity that the left embraces.
Trump also hinted he might seek the White House again, at one point musing about “our next Republican president” and adding: “I wonder who that will be.” He paused as the crowd of about 2,000 gave him a standing ovation.
“Would anybody like me to run for president?” Trump asked, as the crowd whistled, cheered and some began chanting “U.S.A.”
But he was hardly the only one testing the waters. Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) who addressed the crowd on Friday morning, walked back and forth across the ballroom stage and predicted that Republicans will win majorities in the House and the Senate in November, and then, holding his hands up, added: “And then in two years — I have a dream,” a reference to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
He paused for applause, and then described the dream of GOP control in Washington. “We will show America how you recover after a gut punch,” Scott said.
Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), another Republican eyeing a 2024 run and head of the GOP Senate campaign arm, said he feels optimistic about GOP chances in November. “The backlash is coming,” he said.
Scott also referenced his controversial plan to increase federal income taxes for roughly half of Americans. Under withering criticism, Scott narrowed the plan this month and added separate proposals to reduce taxes.
The plan was widely seen as an opening attempt at a presidential platform, and Democrats have latched on to it as evidence that the GOP would implement harsh policies on the poor. “It’s not for the faint of heart,” the senator from Florida said. “It’s going to strike fear in the heart of some Republicans.”
Reed’s group made a major effort to reach out to Hispanic faith leaders, bringing in several hundred of them. Some of the first words in the program were in Spanish. A “Night of Prayer & Worship” included two prayers delivered in Spanish and translated into English, and a Cuban band.
The three-day conference is being held in a well-air-conditioned ballroom at the sprawling Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville. Vendors set up outside the conference room were selling iodine pills to protect against the effects of a nuclear fallout ($35 for a seven-day supply) and pro-Trump T-shirts, including a top-selling one emblazoned with the phrase “Trump told you so.” A booth was promoting pregnancy counseling services.
Possible GOP presidential contenders painted Democrats as not just the opposition, but as an almost anti-American force of those who dislike the country. “The left wants nothing less than a revolution,” Nikki Haley, U.N. ambassador during the Trump administration, said during Thursday’s keynote speech. “Theirs will be the opposite of 1776. They take us backwards.”
Rick Scott went further: “The militant left wing in our country have become the enemy from within.” He paused to let the audience absorb his message. “You think that’s pretty dramatic, right? To call them the enemy from within.”
Tim Scott suggested the country needs corporal punishment. “A switch is a Southern form of encouragement,” he said, after explaining how his mother used to hit him with one to push him to focus more on school. “Sometimes I look around our country today and I think we need a new form of encouragement.”
Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), who said he hopes Trump runs again, also hit on the theme. “The left doesn’t like the country,” he said. “They don’t like the people who make things, grow things and move things.”
Several spoke about Ukraine, with Haley telling a story about how she broke protocol by meeting with the Ukrainians before she met with the Russians as U.N. ambassador. She used her admiration of Ukrainian fighters to make a point about what she says is a comparative lack of patriotism she senses in America.
“I have a confession,” Haley said. “I look at the Ukrainian people and realize we used to have that kind of patriotism. That used to be us. We had that great American spirit and we need to get it back.”
There will be additional speakers, including Senate nominee Herschel Walker of Georgia, who will take the stage Saturday.
Aside from directing ire at Pence, Trump also has raged about other former advisers who have testified, including Short, Bill Stepien and former attorney general William P. Barr, according to two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, and has focused extensively on the hearings even as some of his advisers have tried to play down his interest.
During his speech Friday, Trump alleged that Barr was too fearful of being impeached to intervene on his behalf. “Bill Barr was afraid of certain things. You know what they are,” Trump said.