I am really glad, even grateful, that then–Vice-President Mike Pence didn’t obey Donald Trump’s order to use imaginary vice-presidential powers to stop the confirmation of Joe Biden’s election on January 6, 2021. He was clearly under a lot of pressure to do so from the Boss, whose other plays to stay in power had failed by then. The more we understand about what was happening that day, the clearer it is that everything else Trump did depended on Pence playing his assigned role. There were never enough votes in the Democratic-controlled Congress to overturn the recognition of Biden electors. And the mob Trump incited to attack the Capitol could not have done anything other than delay the inevitable for a day or two (or, as it happened, a few hours). So yes, Pence’s refusal to take a blatantly unconstitutional and perhaps even treasonous action mattered a great deal.
But let’s not get carried away. As the House committee investigating January 6 prepares to launch public hearings, Jonathan V. Last (whom I greatly esteem) suggested in The Atlantic that Democrats could take away some of the partisan atmospherics of their inquiry by showing some serious love to Pence. And he means serious love:
Congress can name a building in his honor. The House and Senate could propose nonpartisan resolutions recognizing Pence for his service to democracy. And then Joe Biden could give Pence the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Because while Pence may not be the hero you or I might have wanted, he was the hero America needed.
Last’s basic argument is that if someone more subservient to Trump (if that’s possible) had been in Pence’s position, then … well, “it’s not clear what would have happened next,” as he puts it. I respect Last for acknowledging it’s not at all likely that the Pence-led coup Trump demanded would have worked. Had Pence tried to recognize fake Trump electors, he would almost certainly have been overruled by Congress. If he had instead abruptly adjourned the January 6 joint session to (as Trump kept putting it) “send it back to the states” … again, where would this have led? Congress could have called itself back into a joint session to do its job with or without Pence’s consent, and the machinery wasn’t in place for Trump to get the electors he needed from Republican legislators. The courts would have almost certainly intervened, and had Trump just refused to leave the White House on January 20 when it was time for Biden to take office, I think military intervention would have been a real possibility. So while Pence’s refusal to act might have saved the Republic from a crisis even worse than the one we experienced on January 6, let’s not credit him for saving the Constitution on his own. There were other protections in place had Pence played the toady.
Last also stresses Pence’s personal courage on January 6, and maybe he has a point. It’s true that some members of the mob looked at Pence as a traitor and might have done him harm if given the opportunity, as they threatened with their “Hang Mike Pence” chant. I’m in no position to judge whether the VP really was in danger that day; perhaps the January 6 committee will cast more light on that.
But didn’t Pence show great courage in defying Trump to begin with? Well, that’s less clear. It seems everyone he consulted while he wavered (and he clearly wavered), including former Republican vice-president Dan Quayle and greatly respected conservative legal scholar J. Michael Luttig, told him that of course he had no authority, constitutional or statutory, to do what Trump was asking. The only person telling Pence he did have the authority was Trump’s attorney John Eastman, whose specious arguments would have probably gotten him bounced from a basic constitutional-law course. Indeed, you have to ask yourself whether Eastman would have made this plea to anyone with less than Pence’s long record of intensely, almost religiously obsequious conduct toward Trump. So the veep’s own craven history led to the order he so bravely denied, which means he would come to any Presidential Medal of Freedom award with unclean hands.
It’s also relevant that Pence’s revolt against Trump was and remains extremely limited, as I noted when he got a lot of praise for tough talk about the “un-American” nature of Trump’s demands of him on January 6:
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 lose only if the election were 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 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.
Last’s underlying pitch is that Democrats should be trying harder to separate Republican voters who don’t accept Trump’s authoritarian ways from the GOP he still dominates. That makes sense. Is Pence their beau ideal? I certainly hope not since he never repudiated many of the terrible policies the Trump-Pence administration promoted. And as my colleague Ross Barkan recently argued, Pence may be a greater threat than Trump going forward, given his rich history of atavistic cultural and economic positions married to the Hoosier respectability that supposedly saved him and his country from perdition on January 6.
I’ll say it again: Thanks, Mike. I’m glad that, like most Americans, you managed to do your job without (on at least one fateful day) undermining its very purpose. We’re the better for it. But you don’t get a medal for refusing to lead a coup d’etat, and I hope you’ll have a few thousand more second thoughts about the president you served so fervently before applying for the same job yourself.
More on January 6
- The January 6 Committee’s Best and Worst Cases Against Trump
- The Secret Court Battle That Threatens Trump After Election Day
- Steve Bannon Sentenced to Four Months in Jail