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Mike Pence was not interested in defending Donald Trump

The GOP’s revisionist history of the Trump candidacy began tonight.

Mike Pence and Donald Trump at a campaign event in Ohio. CREDIT: AP Images
Mike Pence and Donald Trump at a campaign event in Ohio. CREDIT: AP Images

By all accounts, Mike Pence is running for the vice presidency on a ticket with Donald Trump. Viewers might be forgiven if they went to bed with the wrong impression after tuning into Pence’s one and only appearance on a debate stage Tuesday night, though.

Time and again, Pence was asked to defend some of his running mate’s most controversial statements and positions. And with virtually every opportunity, he instead deflected, changed the subject, or outright denied that Trump’s words were Trump’s words.

Take this exchange on nuclear weapons. This past spring, Trump raised eyebrows when he suggested it was in America’s interest if more countries—like Saudi Arabia, Japan, and South Korea—began developing nuclear weapons. He also suggested that as president, he wouldn’t be opposed to using nuclear weapons in Europe.

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To national security experts at the time and still today, Trump’s comments were as alarming as they were outlandish. And on Tuesday, Mike Pence sounded incredulous when Trump’s own words were essentially repeated back to him verbatim by his Democratic counterpart Tim Kaine.

“He never said that,” Pence insisted. Naturally, there is ample video evidence of Trump saying it, repeatedly.

Pence also couldn’t believe a presidential nominee would forget the fact that Russia invaded Crimea just two years ago. “Trump…didn’t know that Russia had invaded Crimea,” Kaine reminded viewers.

“He knew that,” was Pence’s chortled retort.

“He’s not going into Ukraine, OK, just so you understand,” were Donald Trump’s exact words in August, two years after Putin went into Ukraine. “He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down. You can put it down. You can take it anywhere you want.”

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On immigration, on foreign policy, on national security, on taxes, on insults leveled against women, Mexicans, and Muslims; every time Kaine resurfaced one of Donald Trump’s offensive, false or incoherent quotes, Pence refused to defend his running mate.

And that may have been by design.

As many commentators noted post-debate, while Kaine gave a full-throated defense of Hillary Clinton’s record at the State Department and in Congress, Pence’s primary concern on the debate stage seemed to be himself. If his aim was to lend support for Donald Trump’s policy proposals and sway undecided voters, Pence failed spectacularly.

If, however, his goal was to insulate his own political career from his highly combustable running mate, well, mission accomplished.