The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pence says ‘history will hold Donald Trump accountable’ for Jan. 6

‘Make no mistake about it, what happened that day was a disgrace,’ the former vice president said at Washington’s annual Gridiron dinner

Former vice president Mike Pence answers questions from the press during a book tour appearance in January. (Scott McIntyre for The Washington Post)
11 min

In a speech Saturday night, former vice president Mike Pence delivered what amounted to his strongest rebuke of Donald Trump to date, criticizing the former president for his role in the lead-up to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol as well as attempts to rewrite the history of that day.

“President Trump was wrong,” Pence said. “I had no right to overturn the election. And his reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol that day. And I know that history will hold Donald Trump accountable.”

Pence was speaking at the Gridiron dinner, a white-tie event thrown by journalists in Washington that this year included speeches by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) in addition to Pence. The annual event tends to be a lighthearted affair, with skits and parody songs performed by members of the Washington press corps.

The night also features comedy routines from politicians, who are often more willing to cut loose than usual, perhaps because the Gridiron does not allow television cameras. Pence’s performance included his own attempt at a comedy routine, replete with knocks on his former running mate.

“I once invited President Trump to Bible study,” Pence said early in his speech. “He really liked the passages about the smiting and perishing of thine enemies. As he put it, ‘Ya know, Mike, there’s some really good stuff in here.’”

Pence also hinted about his own potential run for president. “I will wholeheartedly, unreservedly support the Republican nominee for president in 2024,” he said. “If it’s me.”

But near the end of Pence’s speech, he turned serious. There was one topic, he said, that he would not joke about.

“The American people have a right to know what took place at the Capitol on January 6th,” he said. “But make no mistake about it, what happened that day was a disgrace, and it mocks decency to portray it in any other way.”

Pence’s decision to close his remarks by slamming Trump was an unexpected twist. At last year’s event, Chris Sununu, New Hampshire’s Republican governor, made news by calling Trump “f---ing crazy.” Sununu later backed away from his swipe at Trump (as was the style at the time) by saying it was just a joke. But Pence, who rose to power within the GOP by becoming one of Trump’s most loyal enablers in the years leading up to the Capitol attack, did not seem to be joking at all.

That put him a bit out of step with the tone of the rest of the event, dubbed “Circus Night at the Gridiron.”

“Hurry, hurry, hurry,” someone barked to begin the skit portion of the evening, “and step right up to see a set of performances too good to fact-check, including the world’s biggest liar, the incredible orange man, the astonishing contortionists at Fox News, the mad genius behind the astounding Jewish space laser.”

It was a strange place for a serious speech. A seriously strange place, in general.

One thing the Gridiron Club is serious about is the dress code.

In the 24 hours leading up to the dinner, there had been a run on white ties and tuxedo jackets with tails in the Washington area. M. Stein and Co. Tuxedos, which has been gussying up D.C. gentlemen for more than 100 years, was offering to ship formal wear to customers overnight from a warehouse in Little Rock. When one journalist called a local Jos. A. Bank store to explain they desperately needed something to wear for the next evening’s Gridiron, they were met with a surprising response.

“Didn’t I just speak to you?” the suit salesman asked.

Ed Solomon, the owner of Wedding Creations and Anthony’s Tuxedos in Georgetown, had a steady stream of customers in the 48 hours leading up to the dinner.

“There’s been a last-minute rush,” he said, while taking an attendee’s measurements. “Because some people have to cancel and give their tickets away.”

“I got Chuck Todd’s ticket,” said a customer who had just popped in. “He didn’t want to go.”

The phone rang in Solomon’s walk-in-closet-size shop.

“Can you spell your name for me?” he asked.

“It’s for my husband,” said the voice on the other end of the receiver. “B-L-I-N-K-E-N.”

“Ah,” Solomon said. “I know he’s got a busy schedule, but I’d like him to come in. I just want to make sure it fits perfect.”

Solomon had a reputation to uphold, and he didn’t want the secretary of state looking like a slob, especially because he was a featured speaker.

The phone rang again. The caller was a reporter from Politico who needed help figuring out how to wear the clothes.

“When I try to put the studs into my shirt,” he asked, “which way do I put them in?”

“You know,” Solomon said, “the attorney general asked me the same exact question.”

By Saturday evening, a ballroom in the Omni Shoreham was packed with men in tailcoats and women in gowns. (The Gridiron Club used to be men-only, but now the pre-dinner search for formalwear includes female guests scrambling to rent the runway.) “Looking sharp,” a man dressed exactly like Wolf Blitzer said to Wolf Blitzer, who appeared not to hear because he was graciously declining a platter of crab cakes offered by a caterer (who was dressed exactly like Wolf Blitzer). Even Blitzer, who has been to more of these dinners than he can count, apparently didn’t own the proper attire to attend.

“The shop has my measurements,” he said, “so it’s easy to just rent once a year for this event.”

Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) approached Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.) and embraced the congressman by the head. Cicilline, Coons said to a woman standing next to him, was one of the senator’s favorite people to go on international congressional delegations with.

“He is a lot of fun to travel with,” Coons said with a smirk.

John F. Kerry, the special presidential envoy for climate, had traveled here with his daughter; she’s covid-cautious, Kerry said, so he was only doing fist bumps. Neither of them wore a mask.

Are fist bumps seriously going to prevent anyone from catching the virus?

Let’s check in with Anthony S. Fauci, who was also there.

“It’s sort of where we are these days,” shrugged Fauci, who was one of two very popular science guys in attendance (the other being Bill Nye the Science Guy). “It’s sort of behind us. Nobody wears masks.”

“But we do wear white ties!” someone behind him shouted over the din.

The political press loves to write about optics. Even if something isn’t nefarious, a “bad look” can often make front-page news. So it’s fair to ask: Is it bad optics for journalists to yuk it up with the politicians they cover at an event so fancy that pretty much nobody — not even the secretary of state, apparently — owns the required formalwear?

George Condon, Gridiron member and the club’s historian, says no.

“It’s not on TV,” Condon said. “Nobody sees it. Nobody sees the songs. Nobody hears the speeches. In order for there to be a perception, people have to know it’s happening. And that’s just not the case with Gridiron.”

How can the Gridiron be bad optics when there are no optics? An elegant counterargument, though you wonder how the “secret society defense” would play with the conspiracy theorists — or, for that matter, many Americans who simply don’t trust the media or the government. Between the Monopoly Man suits, the kickoff speech given in near-total darkness and the presence of the CIA director, the Gridiron Club does kind of evoke a stereotypical Washington cabal. Something out of a novel. But it’s more or less a typical Washington party — people who work in and around politics socializing over dinner and drinks — except with a stricter dress code and cringier attempts at comedy. The dinner was started in the late 19th century as a way to “professionalize” the press corps, and, according to one of its founders at the time, to “rekindle the mutual trust and confidence for Washington reporting.”

These days, that apparently involves dressing up as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) to sing a lighthearted ditty about the Jan. 6 apologist/conspiracy theory dabbler, to the tune of the women’s empowerment anthem “You Don’t Own Me.”

You’ll enthrone me.

I’m not just one of your boring guys.

You’ll condone me.

My lunacy will be normalized.

Can’t you just feel that mutual trust-building?

“What I like about this dinner is it doesn’t pretend to be anything that it’s not,” said one of the Gridiron Club’s 65 active members, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss this semi-secret society. “It’s not the White House correspondents’ dinner that says it’s about charity but really is about getting Chrissy Teigen to hang out. F--- that, we are just here to party.”

Despite appearing like something out of a Dan Brown fever dream, this meeting of the elites was hardly the stuff of political thrillers.

The evening’s entertainment included at least three references to space lasers. There were jokes about President Biden’s age, and a song sung by a George Santos impersonator. (“Pretend you’re someone who’s not you / like, say, a nonobservant Jew.”) In one sketch, Gridiron Club performers dressed as Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen and Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome H. Powell, and a third performer dressed as an overflowing bag of money. “My sweet dream,” the person playing Powell sang. “Just raise the rates and get in the limousine.” (If only the limo drivers parked down the block coulda heard that one!)

Mike Pence had seemed to enjoy the entertainment. He sat on the dais with other featured guests, shaking his head and chuckling when a singer dressed to look like him sang a version of “All by Myself.”

In ’21,

They said that I should just be hung.

To POTUS it was all in fun.

I wouldn’t run.

Now I’m all alone.

Ha, ha, ha! But seriously, folks!

No — seriously, folks.

“I don’t know whether you noticed, but one thing I haven’t joked about is January 6th,” Pence said.

Up to that point, the audience — perhaps with the aid of attentive waitstaff who never seemed to let a wine glass get less than half-full — had laughed their way through Pence’s routine. He’d poked fun at his own religiosity. (“There’s this idea that I’m some religious nut. I’m really not. Just ask my sons Jedidiah, Obadiah or Zechariah.”) He referred to the time Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg took off after adopting twins with his husband as “maternity leave,” according to his prepared remarks. And he’d gently needled Trump’s ego. (“Before our weekly lunches he actually liked me to sing, ‘Did you ever know that you’re my hero?’”)

But now the audience was silent as Pence — who refused to testify before the House committee that investigated the Jan. 6 attack, and who is now fighting a subpoena from the special counsel looking into Trump’s push to overturn the 2020 election — broke the mood by solemnly criticizing the former president, as well as those on the right who are still trying to downplay the attack.

“January 6th was a tragic day for our nation,” Pence said, speaking against a backdrop that looked like a giant spatula surrounded by roses. “It was not, as some would have us believe, a matter of tourists peacefully enjoying our Capitol. Tourists don’t injure 140 police officers by simply sightseeing. Tourists don’t break down doors to get to the speaker of the House. Tourists don’t threaten public officials.”

It was a strange place to make news. Then again, Pence was simply stating the obvious.

The fact that his remarks were newsworthy was funny, but not really.