NEW YORK (AP) -- After Donald Trump was caught on video bragging about sexually assaulting women, Mike Pence stayed on his ticket. As the coronavirus ravaged the U.S., the then-vice president praised the administration's response. And after a violent mob threatened his life during an attack on the U.S. Capitol, Pence rejected entreaties to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office.
But after years of being a subservient sidekick, Pence is beginning to distance himself from Trump as he takes increasingly overt steps toward a White House bid of his own.
Last month, Pence called out Trump by name, saying his former boss was "wrong" to insist that he had the power to unilaterally overturn the results of the 2020 election -- a power vice presidents do not possess. In a separate speech before top Republican donors, Pence urged the GOP to move on from Trump's 2020 grievances and declared "there is no room in this party for apologists" for Vladimir Putin after Trump praised the Russian leader's maneuvering as "genius" before his brutal invasion of Ukraine.
The moves show how Pence, a former congressman and Indiana governor, is working to craft a political identity independent of his former boss. The strategy carries substantial risk in a party still dominated by Trump and his lie that the 2020 election was stolen. But if Pence successfully navigates this moment, it could offer a model for Republicans to benefit from their work with Trump without being tied to his most toxic behavior, which has consistently hurt the party with crucial suburban voters who often determine elections.
"When you're in the role of vice president, there's certain opportunities that affords and certainly certain constraints," Marc Short, who served as Pence's chief of staff at the White House, said of Pence's recent moves. "You sort of assume a different identity for those four years because your job is to support the president and what he's doing."
Aides stress that Pence, who spent decades in conservative radio and politics before joining Trump's ticket in 2016, has a host of views and principles that are deeply held, including some that deviate from Trump's. They expect him to frequently invoke those views, including his fierce opposition to abortion rights, as he campaigns for Republicans ahead of this year's midterms.
They note in particular that Pence has long been a critic of Putin, and expect him to keep speaking out on Ukraine. In a trip that seemed to cast Pence with a presidential aura, he made an unannounced visit to the Ukrainian border with Poland shortly after the invasion, where he crossed into Ukraine and helped deliver aid to the flood of refugees who were escaping the war.
The Rev. Franklin Graham, the evangelist and president of Samaritan's Purse, the international Christian relief organization that organized Pence's visit to the Ukrainian border, said Pence's evolution was a natural one.
"People are seeing the real Mike Pence. As vice president, you have to toe the line of the president and you have to be in step with everything the president says," Graham said. Now, "people are seeing who he is and what he's standing for and what he says. So it's not repeating what the president says. It's saying what he believes. ... He's speaking for himself now and not President Trump."
Pence has spent the past several months traveling the country, delivering policy speeches, raising money for midterm candidates and visiting early-voting states, while working on a pair of books. In the coming months, he is planning a return visit to Iowa, which holds the party's first nominating contests of the presidential election cycle, as well as two visits to South Carolina, another early-voting state.
His political group, Advancing American Freedom, announced a $10 million ad campaign targeting congressional Democrats and urging them to support an expansion of American energy production in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. And he is preparing to release a new "Freedom Agenda" aimed at providing candidates a positive policy agenda that makes clear to voters what Republicans are not just against, but what they're for.
He has also been spending time with top donors. Before his visit to Ukraine, Pence flew to Israel where he had dinner with former prime minister and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Trump has reportedly criticized, and met with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Pence also spent time with billionaire donor Miriam Adelson, on whose plane he flew, marking the second time the two have met in recent months.
The efforts also make clear the lane Pence could occupy if he chooses to compete in what may be a crowded 2024 GOP primary contest that could include Trump himself. While there remains a portion of the party that will never forgive him for abiding by his constitutional role on Jan. 6, allies believe that Pence could be in a unique position to merge the traditional conservative movement with successes of the Trump-Pence administration.
Still, early polls show that Trump remains the decisive favorite among GOP voters if he chooses to mount another run. Without Trump in the race, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis so far appears to be the early favorite.
Other potential candidates are trying to make similar moves as they deliver high-profile speeches and visit early-voting states. Mike Pompeo, who served as Trump's CIA director and secretary of state, for instance, recently traveled to Taiwan and met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, while Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, in a high-profile speech at the Reagan Library, praised Trump's record while also criticizing him for signing bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation.
Pence so far has been coy about his plans for the future. Asked on Fox Business whether he intended to run, Pence said all his focus currently is on 2022.
"In 2023, I'm confident the Republican Party will nominate a candidate who will be the next president of the United state of America," he went on. "And at the right time, my family and I'll reflect and consider how we might participate in that process."
For now, Trump has kept mum on Pence's attacks, unusual for someone who responds to the most minor slights. Trump's spokesman did not respond to questions, but some speculate that the former president doesn't want to antagonize Pence before his book publishes and he begins a publicity tour.
Still Trump has made clear that his anger has not subsided.
"Mike and I had a great relationship except for the very important factor that took place at the end," Trump told the Washington Examiner in an interview last week. "I haven't spoken to him in a long time."
He also ruled out the possibility of another Trump-Pence ticket.
"I don't think the people would accept it," said Trump, who has mused about other vice presidential prospects.