The third House committee hearing on Jan. 6 focused Thursday on the role of former Vice President Mike Pence, who became a crucial player in stopping former President Trump’s plan to undo the 2020 elections.
Pence was among the most loyal soldiers of the Trump presidency, defending him against multiple ethics charges and praising him so effusively that many derided him as a sycophant. But on January 6, he said no to Trump’s request to exceed the authority of his ceremonial duty as vice president by counting the Electoral College vote, an action that would have constituted an illegal attempt to help Trump s cling to power.
How will Pence be judged?
Committee members and witnesses said in the strongest terms that, at least as far as Jan. 6 was concerned, Pence was a hero.
Trump tried everything, including 62 unsuccessful lawsuits and a pressure campaign against local officials, before embarking on a last-ditch attempt to persuade Pence to recognize a fake voter list from key states that Trump had lost. Trump thought that would give him enough electoral votes to stay in office, even if he didn’t win them.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) praised “the earnest efforts of Mike Pence, who was determined to uphold his oath of office.”
Retired judge Michael Luttig, hero of the conservatives and former mentor of Trump lawyer John Eastman, said Donald Trump’s “declaration as the next president would have plunged America into what I believe , would amount to a revolution in 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 “withstood the pressure. He knew it was illegal. He knew it was wrong. We are lucky for Mr Pence – his courage – on January 6. Our democracy came dangerously close to disaster. This courage put him in great danger.
What danger did Pence face?
The committee released a 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 emphasize their point. Trump, meanwhile, was incorrectly telling attendees of the Jan. 6 rally that Pence had the power to overturn the election and just needed courage to do so.
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, improvised criticism of the vice president, then sent threatening tweets, provoking the crowd.
Trump was heard by his daughter Ivanka calling Pence “the P-word” during a phone call, and the president never called Pence back to check on his safety, according to reports.
Yet even as the crowd grew increasingly violent, Pence spent 4.5 hours at the Capitol, just 40 feet from the crowd, refusing Secret Service instructions to leave in motorcade.
“The vice president didn’t want to take any chances that the world would see the vice president of the United States flee the United States Capitol,” testified Greg Jacob, Pence’s lead White House attorney.
Pence sticks 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 backed Trump’s extremely broad views on presidential power and, significantly, his unfounded view that the Constitution somehow gave him the right to stay in power. On Thursday, the committee released these remarks from Pence:
“I had no right to cancel the election. The presidency belongs to the American people and the American people alone. And frankly, there is no idea more un-American than the idea that anyone could choose the American president.
Pence followed Gore in making a ‘pretty easy choice’
Several people who advised 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 tighter election, didn’t even consider the idea.
In fact, multiple witnesses said that many of Trump’s advisers, including Eastman, knew their theory that Pence could declare Trump the winner was wrong.
The committee released a statement by Gore, reflecting 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 humanity’s best hope.
“The choice between his own disappointment in his personal career and upholding the noble traditions of American democracy: it’s a pretty easy choice in the end,” he said.
Democracy remains under threat
America may have resisted 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, in striving to elect officials who share his view that their actions after the 2020 election were justified, is “executing this plan for 2024 in full view of the American public.”
Will Pence’s act to preserve democracy help him politically?
Not likely. Pence has positioned himself as a potential 2024 presidential candidate. At first, he tried hard to avoid criticizing Trump, hoping to maintain his position in the MAGA world for the loyalty he has shown throughout the Trump years.
But Trump continued to criticize 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 bogus campaign claims. Many win elections based on them. And Trump continued to exact a heavy political price from his critics.
Cheney, the committee’s co-chair, is trying to hold off a Trump-backed candidate, Harriet Hageman, in a Republican primary.
Democrats may see Pence as a key historical figure for his role on Jan. 6, but that’s unlikely to translate to votes for him.