There’s this strong tendency with some people, that whenever you point to any comment from former Vice President Mike Pence that’s non-terrible, to immediately chime in, “It’s too late!” “He had his chance!” “Pathetic!”
But really all those things are a given and yet it’s still worth noting even his most trivial shifts in the direction of salvaging some frail shadow of dignity. I say this all to preface the observation that Trump’s coup indictment and his own conspicuous role in the indictment narrative and chain of evidence seem finally to have convinced Pence that this is a divide he simply cannot straddle. You’re either on Team Coup or you’re not.
Some quotes from the 48 hours after the indictment was handed down.
Pence: “The American people deserve to know that President Trump and his advisors … asked me … essentially to overturn the election. And to keep faith with the oath that I made to the American people and to Almighty God, I rejected that out of hand. And I did my duty that day.”
Pence: “Let’s be clear on this point. It wasn’t that they asked for a pause. The president specifically asked me and his gaggle of crackpot lawyers asked me to literally reject votes which would have resulted in the issue of being turned over to the House of Representatives.”
Pence: “President Trump asked me to put him over the Constitution. But I chose the Constitution … I really do believe that anyone who puts themself over the Constitution should never be president of the U.S.”
I think there are a few other quotes out there. But you get the gist from these. They are of course self-congratulatory. He chose the Constitution. He did his duty. He fulfilled his oath to God and the American people. He’s running for office. That’s natural. And he’s also not wrong.
One of the revelations in the January 6th indictment, not entirely surprising but still notable, is that Pence and Pence’s testimony are central to the case. He kept contemporaneous notes of key events in those crucial days. Again, not surprising but very significant as evidence at trial. And from the moment this became clear, Pence seemed to realize there was no straddling this fateful divide. He came to understand that you’re on Team Coup or you’re not. And being revealed as inevitably on the “not” side, he might as well lean into it. And he is.
Pence remains a fascinating, almost novelistic figure in this drama, almost a reductio ad absurdum, a mathematical representation of how to do the right thing with the least physically measurable quanta of dignity possible. In the two and a half years since, a hero’s role in the drama has always been there for the taking. But he’s never taken it. Indeed, he compromised it so thoroughly in real time it’s hard to say how much that role even existed. At Trump’s demand he also made pressure calls to state officials. But they seem to have been, at least in his telling, low energy and perfunctory. “I did check in with,” he told Face the Nation early last month, “not only Gov. Ducey, but other governors and states that were going through the legal process of reviewing their election results, but there was no pressure involved.” He went along with or made no clear efforts to derail the unfolding coup attempt. Indeed, he even publicly pined and anguished over whether there might yet be some way, consistent with law and constitution, he could give Trump what he wanted. Yet he finally decided, seemingly with critical guidance from retired Judge J. Michael Luttig, that he could not. It’s almost as if Pence found himself cornered, in spite of himself, with no options left other than to do the right thing.
And yet if Pence had gone along with Trump’s demands there’s little question his action would have kicked off a constitutional crisis without precedent in American history. Law, constitution, history and experience all make it crystal clear that Pence had no right or ability to do what Trump demanded. But Trump and Co. weren’t so much looking for an action as a pretext. Sure he had no power to do it. But if he did, who was going to backstop that constitutional and legal reality? The White House was in the defeated but still empowered President’s hands. The Congress was controlled by his party. The Supreme Court — yes, let’s be real here — was too. Critically, the House of Representatives, which actually chooses a President in a disputed election, had Republicans lining up to violate their oaths and provide a papery wrapper of legitimacy to Trump’s coup.
Pence had no power to do it. But who was going to stop him? He also didn’t need power. Trump had the power. He and the rest of Team Coup just needed a pretext.
For reasons beyond the scope of this post I believe Joe Biden in all likelihood still would have been sworn in as President on January 20th, 2021. But the path to getting there would have been more chaotic, more damaging and quite possibly more violent. And there’s no guarantee it would have happened at all. That treacherous enemy of the Republic, Jeff Clark, had a ready solution for anyone who didn’t like it: invoke the Insurrection Act, which is to say use the American military to enforce order against, murder any Americans who were unwilling to let the Republic be overthrown.
Since that day Pence has been in a sort of long twilight struggle to evade credit for that critical moment. But it’s unstraddleable divide. You’re either on Team Coup or you’re not.