WASHINGTON — For four years, Vice President Mike Pence has walked the Trump tight rope more successfully than anyone else in the president’s orbit, staying on his good side without having to echo his most incendiary rhetoric.
But in the final weeks of Mr. Pence’s term, his relationship with President Trump is facing what may be the vice president’s toughest challenge yet.
Mr. Pence must now balance his loyalty to an enraged president making baseless claims of voter fraud against his own political future and reputation. He also has to deal with how Mr. Trump’s talk of running for president again in 2024 could leave him with no lane to run in. It also makes it difficult for Mr. Pence to even start raising money if the president is floating his own name.
So far, Mr. Pence appears to be handling the pressure much as he has over the past four years: appearing to be unflinchingly loyal while also steering clear of engaging in Mr. Trump’s pressure campaigns.
In the last few months of Mr. Pence’s time as vice president, his advisers want him focused on leading the coronavirus task force and helping the two Georgia Republicans facing runoffs that will determine whether the party maintains its Senate majority.
Those advisers said they would prefer that the vice president steer clear of the Trump campaign’s legal fights contesting the election results, and so far, Mr. Pence has been careful not to repeat Mr. Trump’s most baseless attacks on the electoral system while simultaneously remaining the good soldier.
In his brief remarks early Wednesday morning after election night — he kept them to 53 seconds — Mr. Pence tried to make what amounted to a non-endorsement of the president’s claim that the election was a “major fraud on our nation” into something that sounded like unquestioning support.
“As the votes continue to be counted, we’re going to remain vigilant, as the president said,” Mr. Pence told the crowd. “We’re going to protect the integrity of the vote.”
For almost a week afterward Mr. Pence was not seen or heard in public, though it was reported that he spent time with Mr. Trump in the Oval Office on Friday.
Then on Tuesday, he spoke to Republican senators at their weekly lunch, continuing his somewhat restrained tone while giving an update on where the campaign’s lawsuits stood and thanking senators for supporting Mr. Trump without making any demand that they fall in line, according to two people who attended the meeting.
Mr. Pence told the lawmakers he planned to travel to Georgia on Nov. 20 to campaign for Republican senators in the two runoff elections. He joked that he considered himself an honorary Iowan because of all the time he had spent campaigning for Senator Joni Ernst, a seeming wink to his own presidential ambitions, which would most likely run through Iowa.
But in the same kind of nod to Mr. Trump’s claim for a second term that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the same day, he also told the lawmakers that he wanted to keep serving with them, as the president of the Senate, and that he thought he would.
In reality, Mr. Pence’s allies expect him to return to Indiana and make a living giving paid speeches and potentially writing a book. It will be the first time in a long time that Mr. Pence will live as a private citizen — he moved from the governor’s mansion in Indiana to temporary housing in Washington during the presidential transition four years ago to the Naval Observatory. He currently does not own a house.
But before he starts to think about what kind of house he will live in, and how to fill the years before the 2024 election cycle, he still has a role to play in the end of the 2020 election.
Mr. Pence has already faced an array of tests publicly and privately since Election Day, as he has had to calculate how far to go in supporting the president’s attempts to overturn the election.
In one of the most glaring examples, Corey Lewandowski, a Trump ally, pushed for Mr. Pence to travel to the Pennsylvania Convention Center last week to observe votes being counted, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The image of the vice president — who has strong support with the social-conservative wing of the Republican Party — descending on a counting center in a state where Mr. Trump’s campaign was making baseless claims of widespread fraud would have aided the president’s narrative that the election was being stolen. Mr. Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, vetoed the request, the person said.
The furthest he has gone, rhetorically, is lending his name to campaign fund-raising emails that warn of “DEFENDING the Election from voter fraud.”
A campaign spokesman described his efforts on behalf of the president more effusively.
“Vice President Pence has been in constant contact with our team and extremely involved in the campaign’s legal efforts, doing everything we and the president have asked of him as well as leading efforts to raise money for the legal fund,” a Trump campaign spokeswoman, Ali Pardo, said in a statement.
But in his role as president of the Senate, Mr. Pence has a constitutionally designated role that could be a coda to Mr. Trump’s insistence that he won re-election — and awkward for the loyal vice president.
The Constitution calls on the vice president to oversee a joint session of Congress, to be held this time on Jan. 6, in which the votes from the Electoral College are officially counted. Typically, vice presidents simply read from a script and take no actions to interfere with the results.
In 2000, Vice President Al Gore had to certify the disputed election results after the Supreme Court effectively handed the presidential election to his opponent, George W. Bush.
“It was awkward and difficult for Vice President Al Gore in 2000, but that was his job,” recalled Michael Feldman, Mr. Gore’s former chief of staff. “The vice president has very few jobs as prescribed by the Constitution. Presiding over that process as president of the Senate is one of them.”
For Mr. Pence, the day he will have to announce Mr. Trump’s defeat is two months away. In the meantime, he has resumed more traditional duties of the job, appearing with the president on Wednesday at a Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. And he postponed a family vacation to Florida, opting instead for a speaking engagement on Friday.