How will Americans view Mike Pence and his actions on Jan. 6?

·Reporter
·12 min read

WASHINGTON — Sometime in the near future, a marble bust of former Vice President Mike Pence will presumably be placed outside the U.S. Senate chamber, along with the other former vice presidents.

The bust will likely sit just yards away from where rioters almost attacked him, before he and his family were shepherded to safety by the Secret Service on Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of pro-Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol as Congress counted the Electoral College votes.

But what will tourists visiting the Capitol think of when they walk past Pence’s visage? And what will the general public remember of Pence?

Former Vice President Mike Pence
Former Vice President Mike Pence. (Matt York/AP)

After talking with more than 100 Republicans and Democrats, historians, journalists and more, the answer seems to fall somewhere between “savior of the republic” and “traitor to the cause,” though the most common assessment so far has been a reserved yet declarative, “He did the right thing.”

“Democracy is never saved. It’s daily work. But, by doing his job and upholding his oath of office, Pence was one of the people, along with hundreds of brave officers, who kept us from lapsing into autocracy, martial law or mass political violence on that day,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, and a constitutional law professor, told Yahoo News.

Pence’s role on Jan. 6 and his refusal to abide by former President Donald Trump's push to overturn the election will be put on public display Thursday, when Greg Jacob, who served as Pence’s chief counsel, and J. Michael Luttig, a former federal judge who advised Pence in the lead-up to Jan. 6, are expected to testify in front of the House committee.

Marc Short, center, with Mike Pence
Marc Short, center, chief of staff for Vice President Mike Pence, right. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

Jim Manley, the former longtime aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Ted Kennedy prior to that, said Pence clearly stopped an attempted coup on Jan. 6. But he also did the bare minimum, Manley said, and is hard to characterize as a hero because [of] the actions he didn’t take once he knew Trump’s plans.

Former Pence spokeswoman Alyssa Farah Griffin said Pence clearly stopped an attempted coup, “and for that he’s an American hero.”

Others say Pence’s role is overstated and that Jan. 6 is hardly the threat to democracy that it appears.

“American democracy was never under real threat and did not need saving. Pence was one player in a field of many involved in our electoral process,” said Rick Gates, the former Trump campaign adviser who helped vet Pence for the ticket in 2016. “The entire system of democracy in our country is designed so that we are never reliant on one person for anything. We have been in the midst of constitutional crises before and I would argue this same point. Instead, the events during the 2020 election and January 6th showed America, and the world, that our democracy is resilient and very much alive."

Pence’s chief adviser, Marc Short, who was with him at the Capitol during the attack, has been cooperating with House investigators. The committee played a brief clip of him detailing what he said was Pence’s driving principle.

Former President Donald Trump
Former President Donald Trump. (Chet Strange/Getty Images)

“I think he was proud to have stood beside the president for all that had been done. But I think he ultimately knew that his fidelity to the Constitution was his first and foremost oath, and that’s — that’s what he articulated publicly and I think that’s what he felt,” Short testified.

But as the public learns more details of Jan. 6 and the lead up to the insurrection, revealed in part by the House Jan. 6 committee's investigation, perceptions of Pence’s actions become fuzzier.

Pence methodically investigated his role in the certification of the election and avoided repeating Trump’s election lies in the months between Election Day and Jan. 6. But he also didn’t alert the public to Trump’s machinations, even as Trump and his allies continuously pressured him to go along with the plan which ultimately led to the riot.

Pence’s legal argument, detailed by his lawyer Greg Jacob, rested on the premise that the vice president’s role and powers were already delineated by the Constitution, Supreme Court precedent and the Electoral Count Act of 1887. (The Electoral Count Act was passed specifically to stave off what Trump and others sought — competing slates of electors throwing the transfer of power into question.)

The House Jan. 6 select committee holds its second public hearing on Capitol Hill on Monday
The House Jan. 6 select committee holding its second public hearing on Capitol Hill on Monday. (Jabin Botsford/Washington Post via Getty Images)

And Pence himself boiled down the argument in his letter issued on Jan. 6, writing that the Founding Fathers roundly rejected the concentration of power in one person (having just broken free of a monarchy.)

“Vesting the vice president with unilateral authority to decide the presidential contests would be entirely antithetical to that design,” Pence wrote. “As a student of history who loves the Constitution and reveres its Framers, I do not believe the Founders of our country intended to invest the Vice President with unilateral authority to decide which electoral votes should be counted during the Joint Session of Congress.”

Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, said that Pence may not have had the legal or constitutional power to deny authentic slates of electors and approve false slates or delay the counting of the electors, which would have delayed the official certification and potentially thrown the country into crisis.

“I don’t think Pence had the power to do any of these things. But if he tried, we could have had a full-blown constitutional and political crisis on our hands. He withstood tremendous pressure to subvert the election results,” Hasen said. “In my view, he should have recognized Biden as the winner much earlier. But he did the right thing in the end.”

The pressure campaign and Pence

Vice President Mike Pence
Vice President Mike Pence was seen via video as the House Jan. 6 select committee held its first public hearing on Capitol Hill on June 9. (Demetrius Freeman/Washington Post via Getty Images)

The House Jan. 6 committee will spend its third hearing, to be held on Thursday, focusing on Trump’s pressure campaign on Pence to try and overturn the election results and then tie the attack on the Capitol — and the threats on Pence’s life — directly to that campaign, committee aides said Wednesday.

In the days and weeks after Trump’s election loss, Pence largely stayed quiet about the baseless election claims Trump and some of his team made. Behind the scenes, according to one Pence adviser, Pence and his team were quietly investigating each claim.

As time ran out for Trump and the final certification of the results approached, Trump and his allies increasingly targeted Pence directly. Lin Wood, a now disbarred lawyer, issued death threats against Pence.

On Jan. 5, 2021, Short alerted the Secret Service that Trump was likely to turn against Pence on Jan. 6 “and there could be a security risk to Mr. Pence because of it,” longtime Trump chronicler Maggie Haberman reported.

Just before Pence left for the Capitol on Jan. 6, Trump issued his final plea to Pence. “You can either go down in history as a patriot,” Trump told Pence, according to the New York Times. “Or you can go down as a p***y.”

Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi read the final certification of Electoral College votes cast in the 2020 presidential election during a joint session of Congress, Jan. 7, 2021. (J. Scott Applewhite/Getty Images)
Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi read the final certification of Electoral College votes cast in the 2020 presidential election during a joint session of Congress, Jan. 7, 2021. (J. Scott Applewhite/Getty Images)

One hour after Pence read his letter cementing that he would not go with Trump’s plan, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-AL, alerted Trump that Pence was being whisked from the Capitol. Ten minutes after Tuberville’s call, Trump tweeted, “Mike Pence didn't have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.”

The tweet effectively became a target on Pence’s back, as rioters read the presidential missive in real time and started chanting “Hang Mike Pence!”

Security camera footage aired during the second impeachment of Trump showed Pence, then-second lady Karen Pence and their daughter Charlotte rushing out the back of the Senate chamber as rioters swarmed the building.

Pence’s Secret Service detail tried three times to get him to evacuate, but Pence refused their efforts.

“I’m not leaving the Capitol,” Pence said, according to Washington Post reporters Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig.

“Politics is about symbolism ... and that he refused to leave the campus was very, very important,” Manley said.

While the Capitol was under siege, Trump watched the events on television and reportedly rebuffed calls from his closest advisers to call off the rioters. When White House staff alerted Trump that rioters were threatening to hang Pence, Trump replied, “Maybe our supporters have the right idea. Mike Pence deserves it,” according to the House panel’s findings.

“Trump placed no call to any element of the United States government to instruct the U.S. Capitol be defended,” Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and the vice chair of Jan. 6 committee, said in the panel’s opening hearing.

Liz Cheney
Select committee Vice Chair Liz Cheney. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Instead, from a secure location in the Capitol complex, Pence called acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller and demanded he send troops to secure the Capitol.

“He was very animated, and he issued very explicit, very direct, unambiguous orders,” Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified to the committee. “Get the military down here, get the Guard down here, put down this situation.”

Later, Milley recounted Trump’s then-chief of staff Mark Meadows telling him, “We have to kill the narrative that the vice president is making all the decisions.”

“Pence is a hero of Jan. 6, maybe the hero,” said Norman Eisen, former majority counsel for the House Judiciary Committee during Trump’s first impeachment in 2019 and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “He stood up for the rule of law against Trump’s attempted self-coup and then refused to leave the building so he could see the certification through, at physical risk to life and limb.”

Mike Pence
Former Vice President Mike Pence. (Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Pence's own ambitions

Three months after the attack, Pence had a pacemaker implanted for a “slow heart rate” and a few weeks later made the first of a series of campaign-style stops in the early voting states that will likely decide the 2024 nominee for the Republican nomination.

He avoided any talk of the Jan. 6 insurrection for months, until a stop in New Hampshire that June when he demurely stated that he and Trump would likely never see “eye to eye” on the events of Jan. 6.

One Trump adviser suggested that even if Pence isn’t a viable candidate because so many in the party believe Trump over him, Pence may simply run a “revenge” campaign to try and deny Trump the White House.

Many will see Pence “acting courageously” on Jan. 6, said one longtime Pence adviser, but ultimately the date will not be as important as others make it out to be.

Mike Pence, center
Pence on his way to the House floor to tally the Electoral College votes for the president and vice president, Jan. 6, 2021. (Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

That is, in large part, the Pence adviser said, because Pence is moving on from Jan. 6. The Republican electorate also seems to be moving on from the insurrection, citing issues like gas prices and inflation in driving their choices at the polls. And Trump’s own pollster, Tony Fabrizio, has repeatedly advised Trump to stop talking about the 2020 election.

“He's acting like a past and future president now, visiting the border campaign for incumbent Republican governors,” the Pence adviser said. “He can legitimately take some of the credit in the fall when the Republicans have a big sweep. And he’s not out there endorsing candidates. He’s out there campaigning and really running for them, which is what they really want.”

But it’s that ambition, for whatever reason, which seems to have clouded views of Pence’s actions on Jan. 6 to a large degree. He did not make a more forceful argument against Trump’s election lies in the moment and he has largely avoided talking about Jan. 6 since then, making his clearest break with Trump one year after the attack by simply saying, “Trump was wrong.”

“One of the problems I have is how [he] handled the aftermath when he was playing coy about his real views about Trump,” said Manley. “All the while, as he begins to position himself, as he begins to distance [himself] from Trump for political reasons.”

Pence in the Oval Office with, from left, then-President Donald Trump, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Steve Scalise
Pence in the Oval Office with, from left, then-President Donald Trump, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

As for the busts of the vice presidents, it generally takes about two years to cut away at the block of stone and reveal the hardened likeness underneath.

Akin to the creation of each marble bust, longtime Indiana Republican and Pence friend Mike Murphy, said the pieces of history are slowly revealing Pence’s character.

"Character is not made in difficult times. It is revealed. Mike Pence did not shrink. He defended the Constitution,” Murphy said. “In doing so, Pence saved the republic."

But there remains some reluctance on the part of many in making a firm judgement about Pence just yet. More will be revealed as the investigation of insurrection continues, and lawmakers are expected to make public much more about Pence’s role on Thursday.

And Pence himself has yet to reveal what he knows of the events that led to the attack.

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