Iowa senator points to Republicans’ Trump off-ramp. Why won’t Mike Pence follow her? | Opinion

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Former Vice President Mike Pence was in Des Moines on Saturday for a discussion about foreign policy hosted by Sen. Joni Ernst and the Bastion Institute.

Many great local reporters were there, from The Iowa Capital Dispatch, The Des Moines Register, Radio Iowa, The Cedar Rapids Gazette, KCCI, WHO, WOI, The 19th News and maybe more. Sorry if I missed anyone. I would link to the reporting already out there, but I’m being lazy on a beautiful Sunday on the cusp of spring. Here is The Iowa Capital Dispatch coverage to give you a place to start. Trip Gabriel with The New York Times was also there.

We had all learned earlier that Donald Trump had “truthed” on his Truth Social network that he was being arrested on Tuesday, and he called for his supporters to protest.

A national news crew was upstairs, apparently staged for a one-on-one interview with Pence. I presume the guy up there with the telegenic genes in a suit was the news anchor for a network. He’s familiar, but I can’t come up with a name. (Turns out it was Jonathan Karl with ABC, who did a fine interview that aired on Sunday.) While we are waiting at these types of events, I usually walk around and introduce myself to other news people I don’t know, but when I say, “Hi, I’m Bob, small-town radio, who are you with?” the national news people — especially the anchors — often turn away, saying little, irritated either that I’m a small town radio guy and I briefly entered their bubble, or because I didn’t recognize them. Or maybe it’s my suspenders.

And it’s not just TV. When Mitt Romney was running for president, in a very crowded room in Pella, I found myself next to a woman who eventually turned out to be the legendary Maureen Dowd of The New York Times. When I asked her who she worked for, she gave me a look that would have killed a mule.

Continuing down this rabbit hole for just another sentence or two, Romney’s people wanted a photo op outside, and I found myself walking beside him on a warm summer day while the rest of the press and his staff trailed behind us.

Romney turned to me and asked, “What are those plants over there, across the road?”

“Beans,” I said. “Soybeans.”

“Oh, so that’s what they look like!” he said.

‘Politically charged prosecution’

Let’s start with Pence.

He began by saying the imminent charging of Trump is “another politically charged prosecution of a former president of the United States,” a theme he repeats several times in a few short minutes.

It’s irrelevant. While in a perfect world, an investigation shouldn’t be politically motivated, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the evidence that comes about as the product of the investigation. Republican Rep. Jim Jordan’s investigation of the so-called “weaponization” of the federal government under the Biden administration is certainly politically motivated. Still, it’s apparently a flop because of a lack of evidence. Saying it is politically motivated is a red herring. A distraction.

Pence says the investigation is “unprecedented.” That too, is irrelevant. The Trump administration’s apparent criminality is not only unprecedented — it’s spectacularly, and previously unimaginably, unprecedented. And this is the stuff visible to the public! Saying it is “unprecedented” is a red herring.

Pence was asked if Trump was sending the same message he sent about protesting on Jan. 6, 2021, and if he was inciting violence. Pence said the American people have every right to protest, and share their frustration. He stressed that the protests should be peaceful.

“There can be no tolerance with the kind of violence that we saw on Jan. 6, or throughout the summer of 2020.”

Republicans often conflate the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 and the insurrection, using bothsidesism as an excuse to minimize the insurrection and stoke the flames of racism. Both types of violence should be condemned, but the violence that broke out in a mostly peaceful response to centuries of repression and police killings of unarmed Black people isn’t of the same magnitude as a coup and Trump’s attempt to destroy American democracy. It’s another red herring.

Pressed again on Trump’s call to protest, Pence bothsidesed it again, and said violence will not be tolerated, and that those who are violent will be prosecuted to the “fullest extent of the law.”

Now isn’t that interesting? Pence wants people who are violent to be prosecuted to the “fullest extent of the law,” but the man who incited the violent insurrection on Jan. 6 — Trump — escapes prosecution? And if there is violence after Trump’s call for protests after his apparently imminent arrest(s)? No accountability?

Pence said that the “Manhattan D.A., in the midst of a crime wave in New York City, says indicting the former president is his highest priority tells you everything you need to know about the liberal unintelligible in this country.”

Trump is part of that crime wave, but I guess Pence only wants certain segments of the population to be prosecuted “to the fullest extent of the law.” Mentioning the crime wave is another red herring.

He said people are “focused record inflation, the crisis at our border, and high energy prices.” True, but red herrings. And many of us are also focused on Trump and his minions paying for their crimes.

‘Trump can take care of himself’

Pence said, a couple of times, “I know President Trump can take care of himself.” Which, of course is hilarious. Trump has been taken care of by sycophants and enablers since he was in diapers. He’s never taken care of himself.

Pence then was asked about running for president, and the mood turned lighter. He talked about how great the Trum-/Pence administration was, blah, blah, blah. Oh, and Biden bad, blah, blah, blah.

Someone tried to break in with something about Trump’s call to protest, saying, “what kind of message …” but Pence cut him off, mumbling about having to go.

I blurted out, “If he broke the law, should President Trump be prosecuted?”

Pence replied, “Let me just say again — I’m — the idea of indicting a former president of the United States is deeply troubling to me, as it is to tens of millions of Americans, and particularly happening in what appears to be a politically charged environment, in New York where the attorney general and other elected officials literally campaigned on a pledge to prosecute.” More red herrings.

He may have paused, but I may also have interrupted.

I blurted out, “But if he broke the law …”

Staff then interrupted to try to get him back on schedule, but Pence paused, started to say something, then stopped, and started again. “No one is above the law. I’m confident President Trump can take care of himself. My focus is going to be on the issues that are affecting the American people.”

He then went on to say that at the event, only one person mentioned the issue, and that he was going to continue working on issues that were important to the American people, blah, blah, blah. Red herring, red herring, red herring.

For most of the reporting covering this event, the lede was something like, “Pence calls Trump indictment politically motivated.” If I were writing for a real media outlet, instead of just my Substack, my suggested lede would have been something like, “Trump faces indictment; Pence says, ‘No man is above the law!’” But if I had written it that way, say, for The New York Times, Pence would have wet his pants, and millions of Trump supporters might have swarmed him, tearing him limb from limb, which is a much worse fate than the more gentle hanging he previously faced. Fortunately, I was not in a position to write such a lede, and cooler, more responsible, heads prevailed.

Joni Ernst: Protest ‘needs to be peaceful’

I caught up with Sen. Ernst after the presentation was over, and before the press gaggle with Pence.

I asked, “Any thoughts on President Trump calling for protests?”

“Not OK, it’s not OK,” she said, then followed up saying the protests need to be peaceful.

I then asked, “And anything with respect to the imminent arrest, it appears, any thoughts on that?”

Ernst replied, “I don’t know enough behind that, we’ve heard it from President Trump, but we haven’t heard it from the Department of Justice, or, so, so we’ll see what happens this week, but I’m just going to say if you are going to protest, it needs to be peaceful.”

So, that’s the off-ramp for Republicans: “I don’t know enough. We’ll see what happens.”

Let the chips fall where they may. Hopefully, other Republicans will follow Ernst’s lead. It might not seem like much, but it’s a start, and certainly much better than Pence’s enabling.

Sooner or later, the tie to Trump will be cut, and most Republicans will turn on him. They will have to. It should have been done long ago, but there is no better time than now. With so many possible indictments coming, Trump isn’t going to escape them all.

Whatever the outcome, I don’t think Trump should be jailed.

Instead, if charged and found guilty, I think he should be confined to Mar-a-Lago wearing an ankle bracelet and an orange jumpsuit, where he’s allowed to wander aimlessly, restricted to the use of a flip phone.

After all, as Mike Pence begrudgingly told me, “no man is above the law.”

Robert Leonard is an anthropologist and radio host in Knoxville/Pella, Iowa. This is adapted from his newsletter Deep Midwest: Politics and Culture at