If you pay much attention to politics, you probably know Republicans are divided over the events of January 6, 2021. Not a lot of them will openly praise the rioters who attacked the U.S. Capitol that day, though some continue to make excuses for these would-be insurrectionists, or to claim they had nothing to do with Donald J. Trump. But there is a sharp division between Republicans who believe it was legitimate for Trump and his congressional allies to try to overturn Joe Biden’s “stolen” victory, and those who reject the idea on various grounds of fact or law. The former group has been growing steadily from the day the 45th president survived his second impeachment trial and began to restore his power as the Big Dog of GOP politics. By the end of 2021, two-thirds of rank-and-file Republicans professed to believe Biden was not legitimately elected, and many 2022 Republican candidates (particularly those seeking Trump’s endorsement) surged into the camp of true MAGA believers as well, some having to eat their own earlier words.
But in some ways the more alarming development has been that Republicans who remain openly opposed to the attempted coup nonetheless tend to treat it as an isolated moment of lawlessness in an otherwise perfectly good presidency. That means none of the many, many months of planning that went into Trump’s predictable effort to deny and then overturn his defeat are acknowledged, or the likelihood that he could try it again in 2024. Most Republicans are united in that feat of amnesia. And that’s understandable since nearly all of them supported his reelection in 2020, and most will accept his renomination in 2024 if it happens.
A leading example of pretzel logic about Trump comes from GOP superstar Nikki Haley, whose initial reaction to the events of January 6 was to adjudge Trump as having forfeited any right to future party or national leadership because “he’s fallen so far.” By April of 2021 she was pledging to support the ex-president if he ran again. Even more abrupt was the change of perspective from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (a.k.a. “Old Crow,” as Trump routinely calls him), who denounced Trump’s conduct categorically the day after his acquittal of impeachment charges but then just two weeks later said he’d back the man as a potential 2024 nominee.
But perhaps the most jarring example of selective memory about Trump’s election coup comes from the man he has singularly and relentlessly blamed for spoiling it all: former vice-president Mike Pence. To be clear, the evidence suggests that Trump’s trusty and sycophantic veep vacillated until the very last moment before he “betrayed” the boss by refusing to abuse his position as the presiding officer of the January 6 joint session of Congress by denying confirmation of Biden’s Electoral College victory. According to the latest insider account, he was shown a tweet by conservative legal luminary Michael Luttig denying any vice-presidential power to change the results before completely making up his mind the very morning of the planned heist.
Pence has not, however, wavered about the righteousness of his decision since then. Most notably, a couple of weeks ago, in front of an influential Federalist Society audience, he attacked Trump’s oft-repeated view that Pence could have won them a second term as “un-American,” and an idea that Kamala Harris might exploit to the horror of all Republicans in 2025.
That’s why it is so revealing that Pence has now suggested he shares the MAGA-friendly contention that condemnation of anything other than violent rioters in connection with January 6 is off the table, and worthy of the angry rejection the Republican National Committee recently expressed toward a congressional investigation of the broader events leading to that perilous moment. In a speech at Stanford University, the former veep refused to criticize the RNC resolution censuring Republican congressmen Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for cooperating with the January 6 committee and its interest in questioning possible January 6 conspirators who were not actually in Washington that day:
Pence — who repeated his assertion that “January 6th was a tragic day” — said he does not think the RNC’s resolution, which has been criticized by Republicans and Democrats, was “talking about people that engaged in violence against persons or property that day.” Instead, he said, it was referring to “a whole range of people that have been set upon” by the House committee investigating the riot.
On reflection, Pence has a strong natural interest in limiting congressional or media scrutiny to the isolated events of January 6. Did he ever disagree publicly or privately with the foundation for an election coup that Trump laid for months and months by attacking voting by mail and claiming his ticket could only lose if the election was rigged? Did he remonstrate with Trump when he claimed an immensely premature victory on Election Night? Did he dissent from the strategy of frantically asserted and entirely bogus fraud charges by the campaign bearing his own name as well as Trump’s? Did he object to the self-certification of victory by fake Trump-Pence electors in December of 2020? Indeed, did Pence do anything to get in the way of the attempted theft of the election until Trump called on him to accomplish it in a clearly unconstitutional coup with the whole world watching?
If so, we haven’t heard about it. And in that respect, Pence is perfectly in sync with his party, including both those who agree and disagree with negative characterizations of what Trump did on January 6 itself. The massive and steadily accumulating evidence that Trump never intended to accept electoral defeat is too much of an indictment of a Republican Party that cooperated for years in his attacks on the integrity of U.S. elections, and of the administration they still praise almost uniformly as a great triumph in governance that has tragically been reversed by the radical socialist Joe Biden.
Pence continues to allow that he and the 45th president may never entirely agree on the events of January 6. But if he and other Republicans persist in viewing those events as a one-off blip in four years of national greatness, they may never come to grips with reality, and democracy may remain as fragile as their memories.