As Donald Trump has desperately tried to overturn November’s election results during the past two months, his vice-president Mike Pence has performed a delicate balancing act.
Mr Pence has publicly backed his boss while also declining to repeat some of the wild and erroneous claims of widespread voter fraud perpetuated by Mr Trump and others in the president’s inner circle.
It is a role that Mr Pence has played throughout his time in office: he never contradicts the president, but has nonetheless managed to distance himself from some of Mr Trump’s most divisive positions.
The strategy has served Mr Pence well. Until now.
On Wednesday, Mr Pence will preside over a messy joint session of Congress to certify Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. The traditionally ceremonial role has become politically explosive, after more than a dozen Republican senators announced they would object to what should be a rubber-stamping exercise.
Mr Trump has pressured Mr Pence to block the certification, falsely claiming on Tuesday that the vice-president had the “power to reject fraudulently chosen electors”.
At a rally in Georgia this week, the president said he hoped Mr Pence “comes through for us, because, if he doesn’t . . . I won’t like him quite as much.”
David McIntosh, president of the conservative Club for Growth and a friend of the vice-president, predicted Mr Pence would resist the pressure on Wednesday and perform his duties as required under the US constitution.
“He’s a constitutionalist at heart. He’s going to look at this and say ‘what’s my role as vice-president?’,” said Mr McIntosh.
“And it ends up being president of the Senate, of the proceedings. That doesn’t mean he has the power to make decisions himself.”
Mr Pence has given no indication that he will bow to Mr Trump’s last-gasp effort to nullify the election, and US media reported on Tuesday that he told the president he lacks the power to do so.
Mr Trump denied those reports in a statement late on Tuesday night. “He never said that. The vice-president and I are in total agreement that [he] has the power to act.”
Mr Pence recently objected to a lawsuit from a Republican lawmaker — since thrown out by a federal court — that sought to force him to tamper with the vote count in favour of the outgoing president.
But the high-stakes drama encapsulates a bigger dilemma for Mr Pence, who has tried to tout his loyalty to Mr Trump while maintaining his image as a squeaky clean, conservative evangelical Christian from Indiana with a claim to the party’s presidential nomination in 2024.
In many ways, Mr Pence would be a natural standard bearer for the party in three years, winning support from the religious right, “country club” Republicans and Mr Trump’s base. But that theory only holds if he is still seen as loyal to the outgoing president — and if Mr Trump decides not to run again himself.
Michael Steele, a former Republican official who worked with Mr Pence when he was House Republican Conference chairman, said the outgoing vice-president was in “the strongest position . . . to unite the most fervent supporters of the president with more traditional conservatives”.
But Mr Steele said Mr Pence’s future was “largely in the hands of President Trump”.
“That starts with whether the president chooses to run again himself, and also whether he acknowledges the years of loyalty and leadership from the vice-president in the administration and how critical he was to his successes,” Mr Steel added.
During Mr Trump’s four years in office, Mr Pence has been lampooned for his obsequiousness to Mr Trump and his contentedness to stay in his boss’s shadow.
“After you see the debate tonight, you’ll forget I was even here,” Mr Pence said at one of his rallies last September, which took place on the eve of one of Mr Trump’s pre-election debates with Mr Biden.
It has been reported that Mr Pence wavered over whether to stay on the presidential ticket with Mr Trump in 2016, following the emergence of the Access Hollywood tape. Mr Pence’s wife, Karen, in particular was apparently livid at the revelations.
But Mr Pence’s staff have denied there was ever any friction.
Mr McIntosh said: “Mike has been incredibly loyal and has told me — and said publicly — his role as vice-president is to support President Trump and make him successful.”
He said both Pences saw their roles as vice-president and second lady as “servant leaders”.
“I think if Mike had a disagreement with President Trump, he’d tell it to him in private and then respect his decision [in public],” Mr McIntosh added.
David Tamasi, a founder of Chartwell Strategy Group and donor to Mr Trump, said Mr Pence had benefited over the past four years from being “a very disciplined” communicator and politician.
“That discipline helps him and enables him to navigate trickier terrain that less disciplined politicians would be unable to do,” Mr Tamasi said.
That tricky terrain threatens to become impassable on Wednesday, given that Mr Pence has few options other than to certify Mr Biden’s win, according to Edward Foley, an elections expert and law professor at Ohio State University.
While Mr Pence could try to disqualify the electoral votes for Mr Biden from one or more states, he would only be delaying the inevitable: there is expected to be a majority in both the House and Senate who would override any such attempt.
“There isn’t really anything for Pence to do other than to let the process unfold,” Mr Foley said.