Former Vice President Mike Pence’s remarkable transformation from Donald J. Trump’s most loyal lieutenant to an indispensable, if reluctant, witness for his prosecution became clear this week, when he emerged as perhaps the central character in a stinging indictment accusing the former president of a criminal conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election.
From a tense Christmas Day phone call between the two men to the fresh revelation that Mr. Pence kept “contemporaneous notes” on the tumultuous period leading up to Jan. 6, 2021, the indictment detailed Mr. Pence’s efforts to block his former boss’s schemes and laid bare the rupture in their relationship.
“You’re too honest,” Mr. Trump berated Mr. Pence as he refused to go along with the election plot, according to the indictment.
Yet Mr. Pence has been loath to embrace the role of Trump antagonist, even as he has repeatedly suggested that Mr. Trump’s push to overturn the 2020 vote is disqualifying. He casts Mr. Trump as more a victim of unfortunate circumstances than the mastermind of an election-stealing conspiracy.
“Anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be president of the United States,” Mr. Pence said in a statement on Tuesday night. But by Wednesday, he was blaming Mr. Trump’s “crackpot lawyers” during a stop at the Indiana state fair and lamenting the indictment in a private call with donors, saying, “I had hoped it wouldn’t come to this.”
It is the latest chapter in a complicated partnership that began with Mr. Trump elevating Mr. Pence to the national stage and now has them colliding in the 2024 Republican primary race, a historic clash in which a former vice president is challenging his presidential benefactor.
Mired in the low single digits in primary polls, Mr. Pence is the best-known Republican at risk of missing the first debate (his campaign manager told donors on Wednesday that he had more than 30,000 of the 40,000 donors required to qualify). Mr. Trump remains overwhelmingly popular in the party, and on the campaign trail, Mr. Pence regularly speaks with fondness about the accomplishments of the “Trump-Pence administration,” eliding that he now sees the Trump half as unfit for office.
“It was a tragic ending to a great partnership that accomplished a lot for the American people,” said Marc Short, who was Mr. Pence’s chief of staff at the end of the administration and is now a top adviser on his 2024 campaign.
From the very start of his campaign, Mr. Pence has been open about his disagreement with Mr. Trump over certifying the election on Jan. 6, 2021. Still, when a transcript of Mr. Pence’s testimony to a Washington grand jury was released last month, it featured 18 consecutive pages that were blacked out, fueling intense speculation about what evidence he might have provided against his former boss.
The answer came on Tuesday in the 45-page indictment from the special counsel, Jack Smith, with Mr. Pence involved in some of the most vivid scenes.
At the very center of the charges were Mr. Trump’s efforts to pressure Mr. Pence to stop Joseph R. Biden Jr. from being certified as the Electoral College winner on Jan. 6. Mr. Pence had a ceremonial role that day, and Mr. Trump pushed him to exploit it to stay in power.
The pressure included a Christmas Day phone call, according to the indictment, in which Mr. Pence, an evangelical Christian, called Mr. Trump to say “Merry Christmas.” The president used the call as an opening to ask him to reject the electoral vote. Mr. Pence pushed back: “You know I don’t think I have the authority to change the outcome,” he said, according to the indictment.
They spoke again on New Year’s Day, when Mr. Pence again said that he had no constitutional authority to stop Mr. Biden’s ascent and that the effort was “improper,” according to the indictment.
For months, Mr. Pence has maintained that “history will hold Donald Trump accountable” for his actions on Jan. 6. But he has avoided saying whether the justice system should.
If this distinction is a master class in political needle-threading, perhaps no politician has had a narrower needle to thread than Mr. Pence.
He spent more than four years as Mr. Trump’s running mate and vice president, a period in which he was so loyal that a prominent vice-presidential historian called him the “sycophant in chief.” But then he defied Mr. Trump’s biggest demand, that he help overturn the 2020 election in violation of the Constitution.
His own communications and actions are a crucial part of the evidence cited in the indictment. And notably, the indictment focuses on an event — the storming of the Capitol — in which Trump supporters threatened Mr. Pence’s life.
On Jan. 6, after rioters had already breached the Capitol and Mr. Pence made clear he would defy the president’s wishes, Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter that Mr. Pence “didn’t have the courage” to block the election of Mr. Biden.
Exactly one minute later, at 2:25 p.m., Mr. Pence was evacuated by the Secret Service to a secure location inside the complex.
“Hang Mike Pence!” the indictment quotes the crowd as saying. “Where is Pence? Bring him out!”
That makes this latest indictment against Mr. Trump a much deeper conundrum for Mr. Pence than the previous two, which concerned hush-money payments to a porn star and Mr. Trump’s retention of classified documents after he left office.
Mr. Pence called the first indictment “an outrage” and said that the second one sent “a terrible message to the wider world that looks at America as a standard of not only democracy, but of justice.” After reading the details of the classified documents indictment, he acknowledged that the allegations were “very serious” and said he could not defend them, but still emphasized that he thought the decision to prosecute Mr. Trump was political.
In a CNN interview last month — after the Justice Department sent Mr. Trump a target letter indicating that he was likely to be indicted in the election case, but before the indictment actually arrived — Mr. Pence said he “really” hoped the department would not file charges.
“Criminal charges have everything to do with intent, what the president’s state of mind was,” he said. “And I don’t honestly know what his intention was that day.”
According to the indictment, as chaos consumed the Capitol, Mr. Trump’s top advisers pushed him to issue a message to his supporters directing rioters to leave. Mr. Trump “repeatedly refused” to do so that afternoon.
The mob came within 40 feet of the vice president, according to lawmakers on the House committee that investigated the day’s events. Mr. Pence himself never left the Capitol.
Just before 4 a.m. on Jan. 7, Mr. Pence announced the certified results of the 2020 election.
“To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today,” he said, “you did not win.”
When it comes to that day’s events, Mr. Pence vacillates between emphasis and avoidance. He talks up his allegiance to the Constitution during some appearances, but rarely lingers too long before diving back to safer waters.
At the state fairground in Indiana on Wednesday, Mr. Pence spoke about gathering “at a very difficult time in the life of our nation.”
But he was not referring to the former president’s indictment.
“I don’t speak now about the news events that seem to continuously swirl around us,” he said. “I talk about an issue that I hear the most about as I travel all across this country, and that is the rising cost of living under the failed policies of the Biden administration.”