The third hearing of the House Jan. 6 committee on Thursday focused on the role of former Vice President Mike Pence, who became a crucial player in stopping former President Trump’s plan to overturn the 2020 election.
Pence was among the most loyal soldiers of the Trump presidency, defending him against multiple ethical charges and praising him so effusively that many ridiculed him as a sycophant. But on Jan. 6, he said no to Trump’s demand that he exceed the authority of his ceremonial duty as vice president in counting the electoral college vote, action that would have constituted an illegal attempt to help Trump cling to power.
How will Pence be judged?
Members of the committee and witnesses said in the strongest terms that, at least when it came to Jan. 6, Pence was a hero.
Trump tried everything, including 62 failed lawsuits and a pressure campaign against local officials, before latching on to a last-ditch attempt to persuade Pence to recognize a fake slate of voters from key states that Trump had lost. Trump believed that he would give him enough electoral votes to stay in power, even though he did not earn them.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) praised “the earnest efforts of Mike Pence, who was determined to abide by his oath of office.”
Retired Judge Michael Luttig, a hero to conservatives and former mentor to Trump lawyer John Eastman, said the “declaration of Donald Trump as the next president would have plunged America into what I believe would have been tantamount to a revolution within a constitutional crisis.” Eastman had joined Trump in the pressure campaign against Pence.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the chairman of the committee, said Pence “resisted the pressure. He knew it was illegal. He knew it was wrong. We are fortunate for Mr. Pence — his courage from him — on Jan. 6. Our democracy came dangerously close to catastrophe. That courage put him in tremendous danger.”
What danger did Pence face?
The committee played video of rioters threatening to drag Pence through the streets in vulgar terms, calling him “a traitor,” chanting, “Hang Mike Pence,” and holding a gallows to underscore their point. Trump, meanwhile, was falsely telling Jan. 6 rallygoers that Pence had the authority to overturn the election, and just needed the courage to do it.
Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands), who helped lead Thursday’s hearing, said the committee learned that Pence was not mentioned in early drafts of Trump’s Jan. 6 speech. Trump, he said, ad-libbed criticism of the vice president and then sent threatening tweets, provoking the mob.
Trump was overheard by his daughter Ivanka calling Pence “the P-word” in a phone call, and the president never called Pence back to check on his safety, according to testimony.
Yet even as the crowd grew increasingly violent, Pence spent 4½ hours in the Capitol, just 40 feet from the mob, refusing the Secret Service’s directions to leave in a motorcade.
“The vice president did not want to take any chance that the world would see the vice president of the United States fleeing the United States Capitol,” testified Greg Jacob, Pence’s top White House attorney.
Pence holds to the Constitution
Pence has long positioned himself as a constitutional conservative, a supporter of the tea party movement’s embrace of limited government.
But many tea party supporters have since gone on to back Trump’s exceedingly broad views of presidential power and, significantly, his unfounded view that the Constitution somehow gave him the right to stay in power. On Thursday, the committee played these remarks from Pence:
“I had no right to overturn the election. The presidency belongs to the American people and the American people alone. And frankly, there is no idea more un-America than the notion that any one person could choose the American president.”
Pence followed Gore in making ‘pretty easy choice’
Several people who counseled Pence before Jan. 6 invoked former Vice President Al Gore, pointing out that he could have made himself president in 2001 if Trump’s theory were true. Gore, despite a much closer election, did not even entertain the notion.
In fact, several witnesses testified that many of Trump’s advisors, including Eastman, knew their theory that Pence could declare Trump the winner was bogus.
The committee played a statement from Gore, reflecting on the 2000 election, in which he invoked “the importance of the United States of America in all of human history” as what Lincoln called “the last best hope of humankind.”
“The choice between one’s own disappointment in your personal career and upholding the noble traditions of America’s democracy: It’s a pretty easy choice when it comes down to it,” he said.
Democracy remains under threat
America may have withstood Jan. 6, but Luttig argued that “Donald Trump and his allies and supporters are a clear and present danger to American democracy.”
He said the former president, by working to elect officials who share his view that their actions following the 2020 election were justified, is “executing that blueprint for 2024 in open and plain view of the American public.”
Will Pence’s act to preserve democracy help him politically?
Not likely. Pence has been positioning himself as a potential 2024 presidential candidate. Early on, he took pains to avoid criticizing Trump, hoping to retain his standing in MAGA world for the loyalty he showed throughout the rest of the Trump years.
But Trump continued criticizing him. And any hope Pence might have had of leading a post-Trump Republican Party has likely dissipated.
Other Republicans have been afraid to distance themselves from Trump’s false election claims. Many are winning elections based on them. And Trump has continued to make his critics pay a steep political price.
Cheney, the committee co-chair, is trying to hold off a Trump-backed candidate, Harriet Hageman, in a Republican primary.
Democrats may hold Pence up as a vital historical figure for his role on Jan. 6, but that is unlikely to result in any votes for him.