MANCHESTER, N.H. — Mike Pence
saved American democracy
on January 6
, and no one, not even Pence, wants to talk about it.
With his boss, then-President Donald Trump
, publicly and privately urging him to overthrow the November election victory of Democrat Joe Biden
and instead award Trump a second term in office, Pence refused.
After the violent mob Trump had invited to Washington
stormed the Capitol
, chanting "Hang Mike Pence!" as they searched for him, the vice president returned to the dais in his role as Senate
presiding officer, visibly angry, and completed the job.
“To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win. Violence never wins. Freedom always wins,” Pence said, using language that could have been aimed at Trump.
“Literally, our democracy hung in the balance,” said J. Michael Luttig, a retired federal judge
whose 165-word Twitter
thread Pence cited earlier that day in explaining his decision.
Yet, barely 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 have all but been forgotten, and many, if not most, Americans refuse to see them as such.
Mike Pence was no hero; he was simply unwilling to be America's greatest monster, which is exactly what he would have been.
Amanda Carpenter, a former aide to Texas
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz
Following the law
and the Constitution, Democrats
argue, should not be the basis for praise, especially after four years of adoration for Trump. Many independents give him grudging credit for averting disaster, but do not see anything heroic. And for many Republicans
, the majority of whom still support the former president, he is exactly as a former top Trump White House
adviser described him.
Ironically, the person least interested in making a big deal
out of Pence's actions may be Pence himself, as he attempts the seemingly impossible task of winning over the voters
who are most angry with him for refusing to steal the presidency from Trump and instead charting a path to win it himself.
Indeed, at a gathering of Christian conservatives
in late April
, Pence described Trump's attempt to overturn the election as a "tragedy at our nation's Capitol," one of several challenges the country faced in the previous year, such as the pandemic
or civil rights
It wasn't until last week in New Hampshire
that Pence finally admitted he and Trump didn't 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 tempered, both before and after, with lavish praise for the man who asked him to end American democracy and pride
in the "Trump-Pence record."
And, according to Pence's detractors, those words, which included a comparison of Trump to former President and conservative icon Ronald Reagan
, demonstrate 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 insurgency, and he didn’t say boo until Jan. 6.”
A Coup In America
In the 220 years since John Adams' election in 1800, 16 sitting presidents have failed to win re-election, with Trump being the first to attempt to overthrow democracy itself in order to retain power, with some advisers even discussing the use of martial law.
It got to the point where Trump's top Defense Department
appointee was actively concerned 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 didn't start promoting his Jan. 6 plan centered on Pence and Electoral College certification until Dec. 19, the road map for that day was laid out months earlier, when Trump began telling his supporters that he couldn't possibly lose a fair election.
“The only way we can lose this election is if it is rigged,” he told supporters in Oshkosh, Wisconsin
, on Aug. 17.
That baseless claim was repeated frequently at his rallies and in media
interviews, and it, along with Trump's refusal to promise that he would accept the November results if he lost, provided a clear indication of his strategy if Biden won.
Following the tear-gas-and-beating-enforced clearing of Lafayette Square
on June 1, 2020, 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 apologise.
The message to Trump was clear: whatever scheme he had in mind if he lost, the military would not be involved.
In fact, top White House adviser Peter Navarro complained on Stephen Bannon's pro-Trump podcast that the statements were disrespectful to the president.
“The secretary of defense had it in for the president; he was so disruptive to the White House last year, 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 for the country? This is a litmus test for being a Republican: you must claim that the election was rigged or you will be denied the right to vote.
Former federal judge J. Michael Luttig
Navarro, who did not respond to Stardia's inquiries 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 quell civil rights protests and riots last summer. "The Pentagon
, Esper and Milley, they fought that tooth and nail," Navarro said.
With the military refusing to cooperate, Trump turned to the courts to overturn the election results, which saw him lose by 7 million votes
nationally and 306-232 in the Electoral College. He claimed that states had illegally changed the rules of the election. He claimed that noncitizens had voted. He claimed that dead people
had voted. None of these claims were successful, as court after court either dismissed or dismissed them.
Trump then turned to state legislatures, pleading with Republicans to reject the vote tallies and simply award him their electoral votes; however, those efforts were futile, and Biden's victory was declared official by the Electoral College on Dec. 14.
As a result, Trump's attention was drawn to his ever-faithful vice president.
The Boss vs. the Constitution
Such was the backstory on Jan. 6, when the fate of the republic was placed in the hands of a onetime radio talk show host turned congressman turned governor
. Pence had been facing a difficult reelection in Indiana in the summer of 2016 when he was plucked as Trump's running mate, owing primarily to his low-key demeanor and popularity with evangelical Christian voters.
For four years, he made his public persona an extension of his boss's, constantly praising his boss's leadership, wisdom, strength, and broad shoulders. At times, his actions drew open mockery — perhaps most famously, 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 heightened his break with Trump, which came at 1:02 p.m. on Jan. 6 in the form of a Twitter post of Pence's two-page letter to every member of Congress, explaining that, despite his own concerns about the way the election was conducted, he had no power to do anything about it.
“It is my considered judgment that my oath to support and defend the Constitution prevents me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should and should not be counted,” he wrote.
who were hanging on his every word found that statement astonishing, given that Trump had claimed less than 24 hours earlier that Pence had 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 was, predictably, false; 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, speaking on the 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 a short thread on Twitter explaining that Pence lacked the authority to do what Trump wanted, and that refusing to do so was not a sign of disloyalty to Trump, but rather of loyalty to the Constitution.
“I knew what he needed and why he needed me to do it; I’m not naive,” Luttig recently told Stardia. “He needed someone who could speak directly to the president, as well as Republicans and all conservatives.”
Pence continued to explain to Trump that he lacked the authority to overturn an election, with the most recent phone call taking place late on Jan. 6, just minutes before Pence left for the Capitol to perform his duties.
'Mike Pence should be imprisoned!'
Trump, on the other hand, continued to act as if Pence's next moves were still a mystery
At a rally on a grassy field with the White House in the background, Trump told the tens of thousands of supporters he had summoned to the nation's capital on that specific date and 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 the lie he began telling just hours after the polls closed on Nov. 3 that he had won the election and that it had been stolen from him, telling his supporters that they needed 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 supporters that he would walk to the Capitol with them to put pressure on Pence and Congress to do what he wanted. But, just as Trump was wrapping up his hour and ten minutes on stage, Pence's letter to Congress arrived 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.
His mob had already broken through police
lines and invaded the Capitol, and news
of Trump's tweet enraged the rioters even more; hundreds of them roamed the halls, arriving at the Senate chamber barely a minute after Secret Service
had evacuated Pence, his family, and top aides to safety.
“Once we found out Pence turned on us and that they had stolen the election, like officially, the crowd went crazy, it became a mob,” one of the rioters explained in a video.
Another, famous for wearing horns and going shirtless
, left Pence a note that said, "It's only a matter of time, justice is on its way."
Four Trump supporters were killed, including one who was shot by police while attempting to climb through a broken window into an anteroom from which House members were still being cleared. 140 officers were injured, one of whom died the next day, and two others committed suicide
in the days that followed.
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 keep watching it because it was sickening and terrifying.
Others in Congress and Trump's own administration played critical roles in squelching Trump's power grab that day, from military leaders who made clear they would play 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 Trump's decision to honor the election a "decision to honor the election."
But no one played a more prominent role than Pence, who attended Biden's inauguration even as Trump was ensconced 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 enough credit for it,” said George Conway
, a longtime courtroom lawyer, member of the conservative Federalist Society, and outspoken Trump critic.
At a local GOP
Lincoln-Reagan Day dinner in New Hampshire last week, Pence gave his most detailed public account of that day yet, admitting for the first time that he disagreed with Trump about 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.
Pence later added a biblical reference to his own role, saying, “Be ready to keep our oath even when it hurts, as the good book
‘Ungoverned, Chaotic, and Potentially Violent’
It almost comically undersold what he had rescued the country from.
There was no mention of what would have happened if Pence had done what Trump, his inner circle of advisers, and his hard-core supporters wanted in his explanation to New Hampshire Republicans.
Because, while it is true that neither the Constitution nor the Electoral Count Act give the vice president the authority to choose which states' votes to accept and which to reject, documents and laws do not operate on their own; they require officials in positions of authority to honor and abide by them.
If Trump had a more obedient vice president — for example, chief of staff Mark Meadows
, who had already assisted Trump in attempting to coerce Georgia
election officials into "finding" 12,000 extra votes for him there — his plan would almost certainly have gone forward, and the consequences for the country would have been horrific, legal experts agree.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
and McConnell, who was still Senate majority leader at the time, would have rejected such a move, according to Conway, who believes Pence would have been legally constrained.
“He couldn’t have declared Donald Trump the winner; all he could have done was muck up the proceedings and slowed things down,” Conway said.
But that ignores Trump's likely refusal to accept a congressional ruling that contradicted his vice president's, as well as what he might have told his supporters — including a sizable number of white supremacist "militia" members — to do on his behalf, according to Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe.
“Chaotic, ungoverned, potentially violent,” he said, adding, “It’s terrifying how all of that has become normalized.”
That, and the subsequent "and-then-whats," take us into 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,” Tribe said, “and I don’t think there’s any plausible path for the Supreme Court to have brought normalcy.” “The court would not have been eager to plunge itself into this whirlwind,” he added.
“This would have been a true constitutional crisis,” said Luttig, who served on the federal appellate bench for 15 years and was considered for the Supreme Court by former President George W. Bush.
He also recalled watching television
coverage from the Capitol that day, knowing that Trump and his ilk were reacting to Pence's actions, which he had recommended. "I couldn't watch it much longer because it was sickening," he said. "And it was scary."
Elites Who Didn't Resign
Scholars of autocracies believe that a key moment in their demise occurs when the autocrat suffers a setback that makes him appear weak, which leads to denunciations from top aides and allies, resulting in the regime's demise.
According to fascism
expert Ruth Ben-Ghiat, January 6 can be viewed as a vulnerable moment for Donald Trump – if not for his rule over the United States, then for his grip on the Republican Party
, and “elite defection” could have ended him forever on that day and in the days to come.
It did not occur.
“We had an act of political violence right out of the authoritarian playbook,” said Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York
University and author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.” “Pence could have been this elite defector, and he chose not to.”
Instead, he and the Republican Party almost immediately fell back in line behind Trump, marginalizing critics such as Utah
Sen. Mitt Romney
Rep. Adam Kinzinger
Rep. Liz Cheney
, who was No. 3 in House GOP leadership, was removed from that post and replaced with a Trump acolyte.
According to one top Republican consultant who spoke on the condition of anonymity, there was a very brief window immediately following the Capitol attack
to expel Trump from the party. “Probably things could have been done on Jan. 7,” he said.
The strategy now is to try to ignore Jan. 6 as much as possible in order to retake the House and Senate in 2022, focusing instead on Biden’s policies on taxes, 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 still support him.
And it is precisely this lack of leadership, according to Ben-Ghiat, that allows Trump to continue to lead one of the country's two major parties, despite his actions.
“So many people could have been elite defectors, but they didn’t; there simply isn’t enough support to pull the party away from Trump,” she said, adding that “Trump is still the leader supreme.”
That reality is terrifying for Luttig, who worked in the Reagan White House and was appointed to the federal bench by George H.W. Bush
. “What was Trump asking Mike Pence to do to the country?” he asked. “This is a blood test for being a Republican. You have to say the election was stolen or you can't be a Republican.”
Getting Lost in Trump's Shadow
The Rotary Club of Portsmouth met in the second-story clubhouse of the Portsmouth Country Club for their weekly meeting, forty miles east of Pence's Manchester speech, and a few hours earlier. Members pledged allegiance to the flag, sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee," bowed their heads for an invocation, noted the month's birthdays, and discussed the upcoming calendar before settling in for a meal.
There was not a single mention of politics
, let alone presidential candidates for 2024.
However, it is voters like these – older, wealthier Republicans and Republican-leaning independents – who could make the difference for Pence in a 2024 New Hampshire primary, especially with no competitive Democratic contest to attract away voters in the open-primary state.
Unfortunately for Pence, they are not enthusiastic about his candidacy, at least for the time being.
Cathy Nickerson, 61, a registered Republican who sells insurance
in neighboring New Market, sympathizes with Pence but believes he is not 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,” Rick Wallis, a 62-year-old banker from nearby Dover and an independent voter, said, adding that he cannot stand Trump and believes Pence has been 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
until he was caught in its jaws.
Jennifer Horn, former chairman of the Republican Party of New Hampshire
According to David Axelrod
, the architect of former President Barack Obama
's successful campaigns, Democrats are unlikely to come to the aid of the man who enabled Trump for four years and who, even after fleeing the Capitol for his personal safety, continues to refuse to forcefully condemn him.
“I think many people are grateful he did his duty, but they are tainted by the fact that he defended Trump for months and years as he gathered all the kindling that erupted on the 6th,” he said.
Meanwhile, Trump supporters view Pence with skepticism and will continue to do so as long as Trump continues to attack his former running mate for failing to do what he demanded on January 6.
“Definitely. I think Trump carries a lot of weight with his supporters. He’s still the party’s leader,” said Bruce Breton, a Town of Windham selectman and an early Trump supporter. “They are avid Trump fans
, and they actually follow his every move and every word.”
Even Republicans who defected from Trump early on – a small but potentially significant segment of the voting
population – say they cannot see themselves supporting Pence.
“He thought he could ride the tiger until he found himself in its jaws,” Jennifer Horn, a former New Hampshire GOP chair, said. “The fact that he displayed a minuscule respect for the system in the final moments of his term does not excuse everything else.”
For those who are less interested in Republican Party dynamics, the bigger question is how the country will recover from Jan. 6 when not even the man who saved it from an autocrat wants to discuss it.
“What happens when one party abandons democracy in a bipartisan system?” Ben-Ghiat pondered.
Tribe expressed gratitude for Pence's actions that day, saying, "God knows where we would be now," but expressed concern 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 verge of either taking off and proving the autocracies wrong or collapsing."