MANCHESTER, N.H. — Mike Pence saved American democracy on Jan. 6, and no one wants to talk about it. Not even Mike Pence.
With his boss, then-President Donald Trump, publicly and privately leaning on him to overthrow the November election won by Democrat Joe Biden and instead award Trump a second term in the White House, Pence refused.
After the violent mob Trump had invited to Washington stormed the Capitol, chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” as they hunted for him, was cleared, the vice president returned to the dais in his role as presiding officer of the Senate, visibly angry, and finished the job.
“To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win. Violence never wins. Freedom wins,” Pence said, using language that could have been directed at Trump himself. “And as we reconvene in this chamber, the world will again witness the resilience and strength of our democracy, for even in the wake of unprecedented violence and vandalism at this Capitol, the elected representatives of the people of the United States have assembled again on the very same day to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
“Literally our democracy hung in the balance,” said J. Michael Luttig, a retired federal judge whose 165-word Twitter thread Pence quoted earlier that day in explaining his decision. “This is really scary stuff.”
Yet not six months after Pence’s decision to stand firm — which averted, at the very least, a constitutional crisis, and quite possibly open warfare and bloodshed in the streets — his heroics are all but forgotten. In fact, many if not most Americans refuse to see them as such.
“Mike Pence wasn’t a hero. He just wasn’t willing to be America’s greatest monster, and that’s what he would have been.”
Democrats maintain that following the law and the Constitution should not be the basis for praise, particularly after four years of obsequious fawning over Trump. Many independents give him grudging credit for preventing disaster, but still do not see anything heroic. And for a lot of Republicans, most of whom still support the former president, he is exactly as a former top Trump White House adviser recently described him: “Benedict Arnold Pence.”
Ironically, the person least interested in making a big deal out of Pence’s actions could well be Pence himself as he undertakes the perhaps impossible task of winning over the voters angriest with him for refusing to steal the presidency for Trump and tries to chart out a path to win that job himself.
Indeed, in his first public remarks about Trump’s attempt to overturn the election at a gathering of Christian conservatives in late April, Pence described it as the “tragedy at our nation’s Capitol,” just one of several difficulties the nation faced in the previous year, like the pandemic or the civil rights protests.
It wasn’t until last week in New Hampshire that Pence finally acknowledged that he and Trump did not agree about what happened on Jan. 6 — “I don’t know if we’ll ever see eye to eye about that day” — but even that was leavened, both before and after, with fulsome praise for the man who had asked him to end American democracy and with pride in the “Trump-Pence record.”
And to Pence’s critics, those words, which included a comparison of Trump to former president and conservative icon Ronald Reagan, are proof that Pence’s Jan. 6 action was more about preserving his own political future than saving the country.
“Mike Pence wasn’t a hero. He just wasn’t willing to be America’s greatest monster, and that’s what he would have been,” said Amanda Carpenter, a former aide to Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. “He’s proud of the Trump-Pence record? The Trump-Pence record includes an insurrection, and he didn’t say boo about it until Jan. 6.”
An American Coup
In 220 years, starting with John Adams in 1800, 16 sitting presidents have lost attempts to win another term. Trump was the first to try to overturn democracy itself in an attempt to hang on to power — with some advisers even discussing the use of martial law.
It reached the point that Trump’s top appointee at the Defense Department actively worried about a military coup, and every living previous defense secretary signed a letter reminding the 1.4 million men and women in uniform that their loyalty lay with the Constitution, not with any single person, and that this principle would be enforced with criminal penalties, if necessary.
While Trump did not begin promoting his Jan. 6 plan centered around Pence and the Electoral College certification until Dec. 19, the roadmap for that day was actually plotted out months earlier as Trump began telling his followers that he could not possibly lose a fair election.
“The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged,” he told supporters in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on Aug. 17.
That groundless claim was repeated frequently at his rallies and in media interviews, and, combined with Trump’s refusal to promise that he would accept the November results if he lost, provided a clear clue about his strategy in the event that Biden won.
Factoring heavily into those plans were statements last June little noticed by the general public, but which some top Trump advisers saw as a major setback. Following the June 1, 2020, tear-gas-and-beating-enforced clearing of Lafayette Square so that Trump could stage a photo opportunity holding a Bible, both Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley apologized for their presence alongside the president and stated that it was inappropriate for the military to be involved in domestic politics.
The message to Trump was clear. Whatever scheme he might be contemplating in the event he lost, the military would play no part in it.
Top White House adviser Peter Navarro, in fact, grumbled in appearances on Stephen Bannon’s pro-Trump podcast that the statements were disrespectful to the commander-in-chief.
“The secretary of defense, really, he had it in for the president. He was so disruptive in that last year, to the White House, and Milley, who basically went after the president during the Bible Walk,” Navarro said on March 16, two weeks before he called Pence “Benedict Arnold Pence” for not obeying Trump on Jan. 6.
“What was Trump asking Mike Pence to do to the country? This is a blood test for being a Republican. You have to say that the election was stolen or you can’t be a Republican.”
Navarro, who did not respond to HuffPost’s queries for this story, also complained that neither man would support Trump’s attempts to use the 1807 Insurrection Act – which Navarro and other Trump advisers suggested using as a tool to stay in power ― to put down civil rights protests and riots last summer. “The Pentagon, Esper and Milley, they fought that tooth and nail,” Navarro said.
With the military unwilling to play ball, Trump turned first to the courts to reverse the election results that saw him lose by 7 million votes nationally and 306-232 in the Electoral College. He claimed states had illegally changed the rules of the election. He claimed that noncitizens had voted. He claimed dead people had voted. But none of these claims went anywhere as court after court either rejected them out of hand for lack of proof or because Trump’s team had waited too long to file its complaints about process.
Trump then turned to the state legislatures, pressing Republicans to reject the vote tallies and to simply award their electoral votes to him. Those attempts also went nowhere, and on Dec. 14, the Electoral College made Biden’s win official.
Which shifted Trump’s focus to his ever-loyal vice president.
Between The Boss And The Constitution
Such was the backstory the morning of Jan. 6, when the fate of the republic was put into the hands of a onetime radio talk show host turned congressman turned governor. Pence had been facing a tough reelection in Indiana in the summer of 2016 when he was plucked, thanks primarily to his low-key demeanor and popularity with evangelical Christian voters, as Trump’s running mate.
For four years, he made his public persona an adjunct of his boss, constantly praising his leadership, his wisdom, his strength, his broad shoulders. At times, his actions drew open mockery — most famously, perhaps, when during a 2018 meeting at FEMA headquarters, after Trump inexplicably moved his water bottle from the conference table to the floor, Pence did the same with his own.
This made his break from Trump all the more dramatic. At 1:02 p.m. on Jan. 6, it arrived in the form of a Twitter post of Pence’s two-page letter to every member of Congress, explaining that after researching the matter and despite his own concerns about the way the election had been conducted, he had no power to do anything about it.
“It is my considered judgment that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not,” he wrote.
Die-hard supporters of Trump who hung on his every word found that statement stunning, given that less than 24 hours earlier, Trump had claimed that Pence had the sole discretion to reject “corrupt” and “illegal” electoral vote tallies from states, and that he and Pence were “in total agreement that the vice president has the power to act.”
Trump’s statement, unsurprisingly, was a complete lie. In fact, Pence had been explaining for weeks, since Trump and a team of conspiracy-mongering lawyers including Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell had presented him with the idea, that it was not something he could legally do.
“Heading into the 6th, there was a lot of unfortunate advice being given to the president,” said one top Trump White House adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It was disheartening to see the clown car of lawyers with the cockamamie legal theories showing up every day.”
On Jan. 5, at the request of Pence’s advisers, Luttig posted on Twitter a short thread explaining that Pence did not have the authority to do what Trump wanted, and that refusing to do it was not disloyalty to Trump but, rather, loyalty to the Constitution.
“I knew what he needed, and why he needed me to do it. I’m not naïve,” Luttig told HuffPost recently. “He needed someone who could speak directly to the president. And he needed someone who could speak to Republicans and all conservatives.”
Pence continued to explain to Trump that he did not have the authority to overturn an election, with the last such conversation taking place by phone the late morning of Jan. 6, just minutes before Pence left for the Capitol to carry out his duties.
‘Hang Mike Pence!’
Trump, nevertheless, continued to pretend that Pence’s coming actions were still an open question.
At a rally on a grassy field with the White House as a backdrop, Trump told the tens of thousands of supporters he had asked to converge on the nation’s capital on that specific date and at that specific time that he hoped Pence would “do the right thing,” adding: “Because if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election.”
Trump also repeated his lie that he began telling just hours after polls closed on Nov. 3 that he actually had won the election and that it had been stolen from him. He told his followers that they had to fight if they wanted to change that. “Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong,” he said.
He told his people that he would walk to the Capitol with them to pressure Pence and Congress to do as he was demanding. But just as Trump was finishing up his hour and 10 minutes on stage, Pence’s letter to Congress was landing on lawmakers’ desks in the Capitol, in their email inboxes and, across the world, on Twitter. Trump instead returned to the White House — where he reacted with fury shortly afterward, lashing out in a Twitter post that Pence “didn’t have the courage” to do what was necessary.
His mob had already broken through police lines and invaded the Capitol building, and news of Trump’s tweet enraged the rioters further. Hundreds of them roamed the halls, arriving at the Senate chamber barely a minute after Secret Service had evacuated Pence, his family and his top aides to safety.
One of the rioters posted a video explaining: “Once we found out Pence turned on us and that they had stolen the election, like officially, the crowd went crazy. I mean, it became a mob.”
Another, famously wearing horns and shirtless, left a note for Pence: “It’s only a matter of time, justice is coming.”
The mayhem lasted for hours. Four Trump supporters died, including one who was shot by police as she was trying to climb through a broken window into an anteroom from which House members were still being cleared. One hundred and forty officers were injured, with one dying the next day. Two others took their own lives in the days to come.
Eventually, police and the National Guard regained control of the building and established a perimeter, and when Pence returned to the dais to resume the certification process, Trump’s last gambit to steal the election and overthrow democracy was dead.
“I couldn’t watch it much longer because it was sickening. And it was scary.”
Others in Congress and Trump’s own administration played vital parts in squelching Trump’s power grab that day, from military leaders, who made clear they would have no role in the election, to former Attorney General Bill Barr, who stated there was no election fraud of the type and scale Trump was claiming, to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who called his decision to honor the election results “the most important vote I’ve ever cast.”
But no one played as prominent a role as Pence, who then continued to obey the forms of a peaceful transfer of power by attending Biden’s inauguration even as Trump himself ensconced himself at his Palm Beach country club by the time Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath of office.
“What Pence did was commendable, and he doesn’t get credit for it,” said George Conway, a longtime courtroom lawyer, a member of the conservative Federalist Society and an outspoken Trump critic.
Pence gave his most detailed public accounting of that day yet at a local GOP Lincoln-Reagan Day dinner in New Hampshire last week, for the first time acknowledging his break from Trump over what should have happened. “As I said that day, January 6 was a dark day in the history of the United States Capitol,” he said.
A little later, Pence added a biblical reference to his own role: “Be ready to keep our oath even when it hurts, as the good book says.”
‘Chaotic, Ungoverned, Potentially Violent’
It undersold, almost comically, what he had saved the country from.
Missing from Pence’s explanation to New Hampshire Republicans was any sort of reminder of what would have happened had he done what Trump, his innermost circle of advisers, and his hard-core supporters wanted.
Because while it is correct that neither the Constitution nor the Electoral Count Act gives the vice president the authority to pick and choose which states’ votes to accept and to not accept, documents and laws by themselves are not self-executing. They require officials in positions of authority to honor them and abide by them.
If Trump had had a more pliant vice president — chief of staff Mark Meadows, for example, who had already helped Trump try to coerce Georgia elections officials into “finding” 12,000 extra votes for him there — his plan likely would have proceeded. And the consequences for the country, legal experts agree, would have been horrific.
Both Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and McConnell, who at that point was still Senate majority leader, would have rejected such a move. The pair could have gone as far as to remove the vice president from the presiding officer role and gone ahead with ratifying the Dec. 14 Electoral College results untouched, said Conway, who believes that Pence would have been constrained legally.
“He couldn’t have declared Donald Trump the winner. He could only have mucked up the proceedings and slowed things down,” Conway said.
But that fails to take into account Trump’s likely refusal to accept a congressional ruling contrary to that of his vice president’s, and what he might have then told his followers — among them a sizeable number of white supremacist “militia” members — to do on his behalf, said Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard.
“Chaotic, ungoverned, potentially violent,” he said. “It’s terrifying how all of that has been normalized.”
That and the subsequent “and-then-whats” cross into completely uncharted territory. Would Congress have asked the Supreme Court to declare Biden the winner? Would the high court have taken such a case? Would Trump have honored a ruling he didn’t like?
“All hell would have broken loose, and I don’t think there’s any plausible path for the Supreme Court to have brought normalcy,” Tribe said. “The court would not have been eager to plunge itself into this whirlwind.”
Luttig, who served for 15 years on the federal appellate bench and was considered for the Supreme Court himself by former President George W. Bush, said the country could well have faced a situation where there was no legally certified winner of the presidential election. “This would have been a true constitutional crisis,” he said.
He added that he remembers watching the television coverage from the Capitol that day, knowing that Trump and his mob were reacting to Pence’s actions that he himself had advised. “I couldn’t watch it much longer because it was sickening,” he said. “And it was scary.”
The Elites That Did Not Defect
To scholars of autocracies, a key moment in their downfalls is when the autocrat suffers a setback that makes him look weak, which triggers denouncements by top aides and allies that results in the end of the regime.
To fascism expert Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Jan. 6 can be viewed as a moment of vulnerability for Donald Trump – if not for his rule over the United States, certainly for his grip on the Republican Party. And on that day and the days to come, she said, “elite defection” could have ended him forever.
It never happened.
“We had an act of political violence, straight out of the authoritarian playbook,” said Ben-Ghiat, author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present” and a New York University history professor. “Pence could have been this elite defector. And he chose not to.”
Instead, he and the majority of the Republican Party almost immediately fell back in line behind Trump. Critics like Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger were marginalized. Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who was No. 3 in House GOP leadership, was removed from that post and replaced with a Trump acolyte. Even McConnell, who lashed out at Trump from the floor of the Senate after engineering his acquittal on his impeachment for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection, later told Fox News that he would vote for Trump in 2024 if he was the GOP presidential nominee.
One top GOP consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there was a very brief window immediately after the Capitol attack to banish Trump from the party. “Probably things could have been done on Jan. 7,” he said. “But they weren’t.”
Now the strategy is to try to ignore Jan. 6 as much as possible in an attempt to win back the House and Senate in 2022 and focus instead on Biden’s policies on taxes and spending and immigration. “If it’s about Jan. 6, that’s obviously not good for Republicans,” he said, adding that Trump remains powerful in the party because a large percentage of GOP voters continue to support him. “There’s nothing they can do because the base follows him.”
And that, Ben-Ghiat said, is precisely the absence of leadership that allows Trump to remain in charge of one of the two major parties in the nation, despite all that he has done.
“So many people could have been elite defectors, but they didn’t. There really isn’t enough support to drag the party away from Trump,” she said. “Trump is still the leader supreme.”
To Luttig, who worked in the Reagan White House and was appointed to the federal bench by George H.W. Bush, that reality is terrifying. “What was Trump asking Mike Pence to do to the country?” he said. “This is a blood test for being a Republican. You have to say that the election was stolen or you can’t be a Republican.”
Stuck In Trump’s Shadow
Forty miles to the east of Pence’s Manchester speech and a few hours earlier, the Rotary Club of Portsmouth gathered in the second-story clubhouse of the Portsmouth Country Club for their weekly meeting. Members pledged allegiance to the flag, sang “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” bowed their heads for an invocation, noted birthdays of the month, and discussed the coming calendar before settling in for the day’s guest speaker from the Shoals Marine Laboratory, who told them about their educational and research work on sea birds and aquatic life.
Not one word of politics came up, let alone any mention of the 2024 presidential aspirants.
Yet it is exactly voters like these – older, wealthier Republicans and Republican-leaning independents – who could well make the difference for Pence in a 2024 New Hampshire primary, especially with the likelihood of no competitive Democratic contest to attract away voters in the open-primary state.
Unfortunately for Pence, at least as of now, they are not thrilled with the idea of his candidacy.
Cathy Nickerson, who is 61, a registered Republican and sells insurance in neighboring New Market, says she empathizes with Pence but does not feel he is the best candidate for 2024. “He was in an absolutely no-win situation,” she said.
“I appreciate what he did, standing up on that day,” said Rick Wallis, a 62-year-old banker from nearby Dover and an independent voter. He added that he cannot abide Trump and that Pence was too supportive of him for too long. “I feel bad that he was thrown under the bus. But he is staying with the party that threw him under the bus.”
“He thought he could ride the tiger to the end, until he found himself in its jaws.”
As for Democrats, they are unlikely to come to the rescue of the man who for four years enabled Trump and who, even after having to flee the Capitol for his personal safety, still refuses to forcefully condemn him, said David Axelrod, the architect of former President Barack Obama’s successful campaigns.
“I think many are grateful he did his duty but jaundiced by the fact that he defended Trump for months and years as he gathered all the kindling that erupted on the 6th,” he said.
Trump fans, meanwhile, see Pence with at best a skeptical eye and are likely to continue doing so as long as Trump keeps attacking his former running mate for failing to do as he demanded on Jan. 6.
“Definitely. I think Trump carries a lot of weight with his supporters. He’s still the leader of the party,” said Bruce Breton, a Town of Windham selectman and an early backer of Trump. “They are avid Trump fans, and they actually follow his every move and every word.”
Even Republicans who broke from Trump early on — a small but potentially significant part of the voting pool — say they cannot see supporting Pence.
“He thought he could ride the tiger to the end, until he found himself in its jaws,” said Jennifer Horn, a former New Hampshire GOP chair. “The fact that he displayed a miniscule respect for the system in the final moment of his term does not excuse everything else.”
For those less interested in Republican Party dynamics, the bigger question is how the country can recover from Jan. 6 when not even the man who saved it from an autocrat wants to talk about that.
“What happens to a bipartisan system when one party has abandoned democracy?” Ben-Ghiat wondered.
Tribe said he is grateful for Pence’s actions that day — “God knows where we would be now” — but worries for the future. “I don’t think we’ve dodged the bullet completely,” he said. “Democracies don’t last forever, and ours is on the very edge of either taking off and proving the autocracies wrong or collapsing.”