On Thursday afternoon, Bennie Thompson, the chair of the congressional panel probing the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, offered full-throated praise for Donald Trump’s former vice-president Mike Pence for standing up to his boss that day.
“He resisted the pressure. He knew it was illegal, he knew it was wrong,” Thompson said during the panel’s third hearing. “We are fortunate for Mr Pence’s courage on January 6. Our democracy came dangerously close to catastrophe.”
For years, that would have been surprising Democratic praise for a staunchly conservative Republican. Pence, the former governor of Indiana, went on to be a loyal — even obsequious — second-in-command to Trump, tolerating the president’s erratic decision-making, tweetstorms and efforts to undermine America’s institutions of government.
But when it came to performing the largely ceremonial role of certifying the results of the 2020 election, Pence drew a line in the sand, bucking a massive campaign from Trump to keep himself in power and deny Joe Biden’s inauguration as president.
That sole, final act of defiance is now likely to define Pence’s political past — as well as his future. With the former vice-president widely viewed as harbouring hopes to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, the move may have helped to reframe him in the minds of voters. To some, it marks a belated badge of honour.
“Given the enormous pressure on him and the consistent bullying by an entire group of corrupt actors seeking to overturn a presidential election, I think getting the truth about how this all went down does change his legacy. He deserves credit for it,” said Olivia Troye, a former national security aide to Pence.
“Things could have turned out significantly differently had he not honoured his oath and carried out his constitutional duty,” she added.
Yet complicating the picture is the fact that Pence has been very careful about the ways in which he has directly criticised Trump in connection with the January 6 riots. So far he has been unwilling to testify to the panel, depriving it of his personal account of the events of that day.
“[Pence] is trying to walk a line,” said Joel Goldstein, a professor of law and a scholar of the vice-presidency at the University of Saint Louis law school. “I think in some respects, given the evidence that comes out about the way Trump treated him, and the danger that Pence was under, it’s surprising to me that he hasn’t been more outspoken in his criticism of [the former president].”
Pence did directly rebuke Trump in February of this year, saying the former president had been “wrong” in believing Pence had the authority to change the outcome of the vote.
“The presidency belongs to the American people and the American people alone. And frankly, there is no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president,” Pence said in a speech at the Federalist Society.
Though Pence has not appeared himself, key advisers have been willing to testify in the proceedings. Marc Short, his former chief of staff, has been a key witness, telling the committee that Pence had told Trump “many times” and in a “very consistent” way that he would not and could not alter the outcome of the vote.
He also recalled a conversation with the head of the vice-president’s secret service on the eve of the riot, to warn him that “the president would lash out in some way” as their disagreement became more apparent.
Greg Jacob, Pence’s legal counsel, testified that Trump was told on January 4 that a scheme cooked up by John Eastman, a lawyer, to stop the certification of the vote would violate federal law — and insisted that Pence had not wavered in his view that such a step could not be taken.
Nevertheless, Pence did not raise red flags publicly about Trump’s intentions nor clarify his position until he issued a statement on the morning of January 6. The hearings awkwardly revealed how Pence was consulting with former vice-president Dan Quayle and former House speaker Paul Ryan about his powers, rather than warning the public much earlier.
“If Pence ‘never wavered’ then why did he call up Dan Quayle to ask whether there was any way he could go along with Trump’s demand to fix the 2020 election for Trump?” asked Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, in a tweet.
Nevertheless, Pence’s ultimate resistance to Trump’s plans for a coup put him at significant personal risk as the insurrection raged. On the morning of January 6, Pence had a testy conversation with the president, during which Trump used the “p-word” to describe his number two and also called him a “wimp” — according to accounts that emerged from this week’s hearing.
Trump’s badgering of Pence continued through out the day: he urged his vice-president to have the “courage to do what he has to do” during a fiery speech at the Ellipse before the certification process began, and then wrote on Twitter his disapproval once the proceedings started, further enraging the mob.
Not only were the rioters chanting “Hang Mike Pence” as they walked through the hallways of the US Congress, but the vice-president was huddled in a room just 40 feet away from them, as his wife Karen drew the curtains to keep them out of view.
Pence even refused to get in a secret service car to be whisked to safety outside the Capitol, for fear that he wouldn’t be allowed to return to complete the certification of Biden’s victory.
That moment capped Pence’s tenure as vice-president, which he took on at a time when other Republicans were wary of working for Trump. Once in office, his performance was unremarkable. He had been put in charge of the initial coronavirus crisis response, during which he never openly challenged some of Trump’s most outlandish and unscientific ideas, such as curing the illness with bleach.
He was also tasked with selling the new Nafta trade deal struck with Mexico and Canada after months of tortured negotiations with Trump — but US trade representative Robert Lighthizer was the main architect of the deal.
Politically, he was most responsible, as a devout Christian, for keeping the religious evangelical right on Trump’s side, despite its doubts about his commitment to its causes. Now, his role in holding the line on January 6 is likely to overwhelm all those memories.
“For three years and 50 weeks, Pence was Trump’s man,” said Goldstein. “[But] on January 6, he, you know, was presented with demands to really participate in a constitutional coup. And he refused to do it.”