The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Jan. 6 was Mike Pence’s proudest day. He should own it.

A photo of Vice President Mike Pence at the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection is seen on a video screen on June 16 behind the House committee investigating the attack. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Mike Pence did the right thing on Jan. 6, 2021. Why is he so ashamed of his actions?

That’s a rhetorical question, of course. In following the Constitution and certifying the results of the 2020 election, Pence defied both Donald Trump and the MAGA mob at the Capitol yelling, “Hang Mike Pence!” Now the former vice president wants to have a political future in the Republican Party, which requires buying into the lie that the election was “stolen” from Trump. Having punctured that lie by certifying Joe Biden’s victory, Pence can hardly reverse himself now. So he zips his lips, hoping not to magnify the contradiction by calling attention to it.

“The way he views it is, he did his duty, he doesn’t need to talk about it more,” Marc Short, who was Pence’s chief of staff, told The Post. “He doesn’t want to relitigate the past.”

As the Jan. 6 select committee showed in its hearing Thursday, however, the past isn’t done with Pence. He was the focal point of that tumultuous day, and sooner or later he is going to have to own that fact.

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Trump’s last hope of clinging to power after losing the election was the insane theory, pushed by a right-wing lawyer named John Eastman, that the vice president could decide which electoral votes to count and which to discard — effectively, that Pence could ignore the voters and decide who won the election.

Thursday’s droning testimony had all the fizz of an academic legal seminar, but it was important because it revealed the emptiness at the heart of Trump’s attempt to reverse his loss to Biden. One of the most respected conservative jurists in the nation, retired federal judge J. Michael Luttig, told the committee that Eastman’s ideas were dangerous and absurd. “There was no basis in the Constitution or laws of the United States, at all,” he said, “for the theory espoused by Mr. Eastman. At all. None.”

If Pence had done as Trump wanted, Luttig testified, that “would have plunged America into what I believe would have been tantamount to a revolution within a constitutional crisis.”

But “the vice president never budged” from his position that he had no power to reject legally certified electoral votes or somehow suspend the process and throw the election’s outcome into doubt, Pence’s former general counsel, Greg Jacob, told the committee.

And neither did Pence budge when the Jan. 6 mob overran the building and chased the members of the House and the Senate out of their respective chambers. Whisked to a secure location in the Capitol complex, he insisted on staying put until the riot could be quelled and he and Congress could finish performing their constitutional duty. Jacob testified that when the Secret Service tried to put Pence into a car, Pence refused because he worried that he would be hustled away.

That makes Pence a hero — if only for a day.

It’s hard to overlook the way he stood silently by Trump during the long years of his presidency, still as an eerily realistic statue, while Trump violated every norm in the book and generally behaved like a puffed-up, autocratic buffoon.

Pence must have recognized Trump’s manifest unfitness for the presidency, but all the while he said nothing. Perhaps he thought the Republican-passed tax cuts and the conservative judicial appointments were worth overlooking Trump’s misconduct. Perhaps he hoped to someday inherit Trump’s loyal following and become his successor. Whatever his mind-set, he was complicit in the toxic dysfunction of the Trump era.

At the critical moment when Trump enlisted the MAGA hordes to pressure his vice president to overturn the will of the voters, though, Pence stood firm. He made the right choice.

He might want to pretend that Jan. 6 never happened, but history won’t let him. Nor will Trump.

Pence can’t have it both ways. He can’t be the loyal sidekick who rode shotgun with Trump for four years and also be the public servant who bravely defied a president’s illegal order to stage an effective coup d’état. He has to choose one of those identities, because he can’t occupy both at the same time. It’s a sad sign of the Republican Party’s distorted values that Pence’s best moment is a millstone around his neck.

If he tries to run for president in 2024, does he imagine that Trump will do anything but attack him for his act of betrayal? Pence has a career in the GOP only if Trump’s hold on the party is broken. And he should know by now that Trump interprets silence as weakness.

It should have been Pence in the witness chair at Thursday’s hearing. Pence should have volunteered — should have demanded — to testify. Pence kept our democracy alive; he could help restore the nation by treating that act as a point of pride.