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Opinion Why Trump’s private comment about hanging Mike Pence really matters

(Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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The complicated dynamic that played out between Donald Trump and Mike Pence leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol has been of intense interest to the House select committee investigating that event. That’s because it could shed additional light on Trump’s true insurrectionist intent, both in the lead-up to Jan. 6 and on the day itself.

In the latest revelations, the New York Times reports that at one point while the violence unfolded and rioters chanted for Pence to be executed, Trump apparently suggested this might not be a bad idea.

Whatever Trump’s true intent with this remark — the Times clarifies that it isn’t clear whether he was joking — it’s important for reasons that go beyond the actual intent of the remark itself. In particular, they could further illuminate Trump’s evolving intentions toward the mob as the riot worsened.

Here’s how the Times characterizes the new details:

Shortly after hundreds of rioters at the Capitol started chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” on Jan. 6, 2021, the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, left the dining room off the Oval Office, walked into his own office and told colleagues that President Donald J. Trump was complaining that the vice president was being whisked to safety.
Mr. Meadows, according to an account provided to the House committee investigating Jan. 6, then told the colleagues that Mr. Trump had said something to the effect of, maybe Mr. Pence should be hanged.

These new details, according to the Times, were provided to the Jan. 6 committee by witnesses to Meadows’s recounting of it. Remember, Meadows himself is not cooperating with the committee; this suggests that what he may be covering up is quite incriminating.

Again, we don’t know whether Trump was joking. But the larger context of that day’s events is key: The rioters focused on Pence because Trump told them that Pence was the reason the election was being allegedly stolen from Trump.

Indeed, in haranguing the rioters on Jan. 6 before they stormed the Capitol, Trump repeatedly cast Pence’s treachery as a form of disenfranchisement and disempowerment of them. He told them in urgent terms that Pence was assisting in an effort to take their country from them, and that they shouldn’t let Pence get away with it.

And so, any suggestion that Trump conceived of the mob as applying actual pressure on Pence in some sense is important. That’s because of an angle of inquiry that the Jan. 6 committee is pursuing: It is trying to develop a full picture of Trump’s state of mind while the violence raged.

In particular, the committee’s efforts to question the likes of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) show that investigators want to fill in a picture of Trump’s refusal to call off the rioters for a good long time, even as Republicans were pleading with him to do so.

At that point, Trump was still trying to get Pence to somehow delay the congressional count of electors. Even as rioters gathered, Trump tweeted again about Pence’s treachery, which some of them even took as a signal to breach the Capitol, according to federal indictments cited by the committee.

It is obvious, then, that Trump likely came to see the rioters as a kind of weapon that could be wielded against Pence and possibly even Republican lawmakers to complete the procedural coup.

In this context, Trump’s comment about Pence hanging — and Trump’s apparent irritation that Pence was being whisked to safety — reinforce the likelihood that he actively wanted Pence to feel vulnerable to the mob’s pressure. This can be true even if Trump didn’t literally want or envision Pence’s hanging.

If so, this means that even as the mob was going on an appallingly destructive rampage that would ultimately lead to deaths and injuries, Trump came to see this as useful to his cause. That would be an extraordinary dereliction of duty at best.

Richard Ben-Veniste, a prominent member of the 9/11 Commission, says the new revelations shed additional light on Trump’s state of mind as he sought to utilize the mob’s insurrection to pressure Pence and others.

“It was one more thing, in conjunction with all the other things that he was desperately trying at the same time, to avoid and prevent the inevitable,” Ben-Veniste told us.

The key point is that this use of the mob appeared aimed at carrying out the strategy that Trump and his allies had pursued for weeks. This included pressuring the Justice Department to create a pretext for a delay in the electoral count and pressuring state officials and lawmakers to corrupt the vote count or to be ready to step in and certify sham electors for Trump.

“This was the last step,” Ben-Veniste told us.

Whether this helps build a criminal case against Trump related to Jan. 6 remains to be seen. But the latest revelations again suggest the final picture of what really happened will be much worse than we know.