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(WASHINGTON) — Former Vice President Mike Pence, eager for the opportunity to debate his boss of four years, suggested former President Donald Trump might still debate in Milwaukee this week — despite sources indicating he’s unlikely to attend.

Pressed by co-anchor Jonathan Karl in an interview for ABC’s “This Week” Sunday on what it says about Trump “if he doesn’t even bother to show up to the first presidential primary debate,” Pence said Trump still could.

“You know, I served alongside the president for a long time, and one thing I realized about him is it’s not over till it’s over,” Pence said. “So I’m actually still hoping he shows up, Jon. I mean, you know, to get on that plane, Trump Force One, and head out on that stage.”

“I think every one of us that have qualified for that debate stage ought to be on the stage, be willing to square off, answer the tough questions and also draw a bright line contrast,” he continued. “You know, my differences with the former president go far beyond that tragic day in January two and a half years ago.”

Trump is planning to skip the first Republican primary debate and has pre-recorded a sit-down with former Fox News Host Tucker Carlson that will air on Wednesday as a competing event, ABC News previously reported, according to sources familiar with the matter.

Pence said on “This Week” that Trump and others in the field are “walking away from America’s leadership in the world” and “walking away from a commitment of fiscal responsibility and reform,” leaning into his differences over support to Ukraine’s military and for reforming U.S. entitlement programs.

Pence also promised to “champion the cause of life” from the Oval Office, while he says Trump and others are “shying away” from traditional conservative causes.

Asked about his strategy for the debate and how he plans to breakthrough, Pence told Karl, “I feel like I’ve been preparing for this first Republican presidential debate my whole life.”

“One of my goals in that debate is for the American people, Republican primary voters, to get to know me in a little bit broader context and demonstrate the kind of leadership that we bring to this, which I think is what the moment calls for,” he said. “I think it’s no time for on-the-job training. I want to project when I’m on that stage, to the American people, all of what came with the experience of serving as vice president, as a governor and as a member of Congress, and my determination to bring that experience and that conservative record to bear on the challenges facing this country.”

The former vice president is among at least nine Republican candidates who appear to have qualified for the debate including Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Businessman Perry Johnson and Miami, Florida, Mayor Francis Suarez also say they’ve met the Republican National Committee’s qualifications, but the RNC has yet to publicly confirm any of the debate attendees.

Candidates have until 48 hours before the debate to qualify, according to the RNC.

Pence was “never made aware of any broad-based effort” by Trump to declassify docs
Trump has been indicted four times since he left office and denies all wrongdoing. The second set of charges against him were brought by federal prosecutors in relation to his handling of classified information while out of office.

He has pleaded not guilty to all charges in the first three cases and has yet to enter a plea in the fourth but has labeled the case a “witch hunt.”

As Trump continues to claim that he declassified all of the documents he took with him to Mar-a-Lago after leaving the White House, ABC News exclusively reported Sunday that, according to sources familiar with the matter,Trump’s last chief of staff, Mark Meadows, has told federal investigators that he knew of no such broad declassification order from Trump.

Asked by Karl whether he had heard anything to suggest Trump has issued an order declassifying documents like that, Pence said he was “never made aware” of any such efforts.

“First off, the handling of classified materials is enormously serious in the life of the nation, but I can’t really comment on your reporting. But in my case, I was never made aware of any broad-based effort to declassify documents,” he said. “There is a process that the White House goes through to declassify materials. I’m aware of that occurring on several occasions over the course of our four years, but I don’t have any knowledge of any broad-based directive from the president. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t occur. … It’s not something that I ever heard.”

Pressed about whether Meadows as chief of staff would have known about such an effort, Pence said, “I would expect so” but declined to comment further on what he suggested — without evidence — were “leaks” from the Justice Department.

“Look, President Trump is entitled to a presumption of innocence. He’s entitled to his day in court,” he said. “And I’m just not going to comment on the latest leak or the latest reporting coming out of that process.”

Despite the legal challenges surrounding him, the former president has continued to pursue his comeback bid, leaving open the possibility that somebody convicted of a criminal felony could serve in the White House.

In 2002, Pence, as a member of Congress, voted to expel from the House of Representatives James Traficant, a Democrat who was convicted of federal corruption charges.

“You, and virtually every other member of the House, voted to expel him, saying that it wasn’t right to have a convicted felon as a member of Congress. Would you hold that same standard for the White House?” Karl pressed Pence.

“If you’re saying, would I apply that to my former running mate in this race? Look, I think that needs to be left to the American people. Look, let’s let the former president have his day in court,” Pence said. “No one’s above the law. But with regard to the president’s future, my hope is when we get to that debate stage — I’m still kind of hoping maybe he’ll come — is that we could really have a debate about the challenges facing the American people.”

ABC News’ Quinn Scanlan contributed to this report.

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