The most chilling revelation from the first public hearing of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol was the reaction of President Donald Trump to news reports that the insurrectionist mob he had incited was proposing to execute his vice president.
In her opening remarks during the prime-time hearing, Representative Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who effectively cochairs the committee, recounted how, “aware of the rioters’ chants to ‘hang Mike Pence,’ the President responded with this sentiment: ‘Maybe our supporters have the right idea.’ Mike Pence ‘deserves it.’”
Previous reports had hinted at the idea that, as his supporters were engaged in their deadly assault on the Capitol, Trump responded approvingly with calls for stringing up Pence. Trump’s record of violent disdain for associates who fail to do his bidding is well documented. But still, the notion that the president of the United States was so comfortable with the prospect of having a crowd he incited murder his vice president had a very “Night of the Long Knives” feel to it.
The committee will dig into the matter more deeply Thursday, in a hearing that Cheney has said “will focus on President Trump’s efforts to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to count electoral votes on January 6th.” The hearing, which is expected to feature testimony from Greg Jacob, the former chief counsel to the vice president, will focus on the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of lawyer John Eastman, a Trump associate who had hatched the scheme to have Pence make a series of rulings that would reject votes from battleground states that had backed Joe Biden. Cheney relates that, in an e-mail exchange during the time when the Capitol was under assault, an outraged Jacob told Eastman, “And thanks to your bullshit, we are under siege.”
That comment will undoubtedly be reviewed Thursday.
So, too, will Pence’s carefully worded speech at a February 4 Federalist Society event, in which he said:
Our Founders were deeply suspicious of consolidated power in the nation’s capital and were rightly concerned with foreign interference if presidential elections were decided in the capital. But there are those in our party who believe that as the presiding officer over the joint session of Congress, I possessed unilateral authority to reject electoral college votes. And I heard this week, President Trump said I had the right to “overturn the election.” President Trump is wrong. I had no right to overturn the election. And frankly, there is no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president.
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But Pence will not appear to reflect on those remarks, let alone to expand on them.
The former vice president has given no indication that he wants to engage with the inquiry into a coup in which his life was threatened, despite the fact that committee chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) has said, “We’ve always had the effort to reach out and get the vice president’s participation.” Indeed, Pence will travel to Washington during the course of the hearings to appear at an gathering the House Republican Study Committee, which is chaired by Representative Jim Banks (R-Ind.), who after the first hearing dismissed the select committee’s work as “truly a political witch-hunt that was focused more on the Democrats’ obsession with Donald Trump than anything at all about Capitol security or investigating the events that led up to January 6.”
Banks is a lying Trump apologist.
So why is Pence keeping company with this particular congressman, rather than testifying before the committee? Why isn’t the former vice president testifying not just about his belief that Trump’s assessment of the vice president’s power to overturn an election was wrong but, more importantly, about the fact that what Trump did before and during the January 6 coup attempt was wrong?
The answer to that question is all too obvious.
Pence is a craven political careerist who is always looking out for what is best for Pence. He did the right thing on January 6, 2021, and for that he deserves credit. But his appropriate action on that day—when even House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was rebuking Trump—was less a matter of political heroism than political positioning. Remember that Pence was so desperately afraid of crossing Trump that he turned to former vice president Dan Quayle for advice on whether he might do Trump’s bidding.
According to the book Peril, by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Pence asked Quayle if there was anything he could do. “Mike, you have no flexibility on this. None. Zero. Forget it. Put it away,” said Quayle. But Pence kept pushing: “You don’t know the position I’m in,” Pence said. Quayle replied, “I do know the position you’re in. I also know what the law is. You listen to the parliamentarian. That’s all you do. You have no power.”
Ultimately, that’s what Pence did.
But the backstory does not read like a chapter from Profiles in Courage. As Kurt Bardella, a former senior adviser for Republicans on the House Oversight Committee who has since become a Democrat, observed after reading the book, “Think about it. The vice president of the United States was calling around looking for someone who would give him permission to preside over the complete collapse of our democratic process.”
The fact is that Pence was, is, and will always be a political hack. He’s a perennial candidate, constantly on the watch for a way to pursue his ambition for higher office. He’s already campaigning for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination—visiting key early caucus and primary states, campaigning for fellow Republicans, and begging for money. It’s a failed mission. The dominant figure in the Republican Party, Donald Trump, actively despises Pence, as do Trump’s backers, who make up the defining faction in most state parties.
But Pence can’t help himself. The career politician who has rarely let an election cycle pass without positioning for another bid for another high office will keep trying to have it both ways. He wants to be seen by Trump critics as the patriot who stood up to the former president, and he wants to be seen by Trump allies as a loyal vice president who did almost everything the boss asked.
Testifying before the January 6 Committee would force Pence to take a side. He would, undoubtedly, be asked to accept the argument made by Cheney: “What President Trump demanded that Mike Pence do wasn’t just wrong, it was illegal and it was unconstitutional.”
Pence is not going to call Trump a crook. He is not going to describe Trump’s January 6 project as “an attempted coup.”
Doing so would doom Pence’s presidential prospects. Yes, those prospects are dismal. But Pence is not prepared to face the truth that his political career is over.
The former vice president will not testify because, when all is said and done, Mike Pence lacks the courage to sacrifice his own ambition for the cause of assuring that there is never another insurrection like the one that occurred on January 6, 2021. He doesn’t even have the guts to demand accountability for the thug who suggested that hanging Mike Pence might be “the right idea.”