The reality, we’re now finding out, is far from so neat and tidy. It appears less as though Pence said “enough is enough,” and more as though he really entertained doing Trump’s bidding but found that he had no actual authority to make it happen.
Tuesday brought the first big drop from an upcoming book by The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Robert Costa called “Peril.” The big headline is that Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley so feared that Trump would spark a military confrontation with China that Milley made secret calls to his counterpart in Beijing to assure them that the United States would not strike.
But perhaps Headline 1(a) involves new details about Pence’s fateful decision not to heed Trump’s calls to unilaterally help him stay in office. And it involves a cameo appearance from a man you might not have thought about for some time: Dan Quayle.
So intent was Pence on being Trump’s loyal second-in-command — and potential successor — that he asked confidants if there were ways he could accede to Trump’s demands and avoid certifying the results of the election on Jan. 6. In late December, the authors reveal, Pence called Dan Quayle, a former vice president and fellow Indiana Republican, for advice.Quayle was adamant, according to the authors. “Mike, you have no flexibility on this. None. Zero. Forget it. Put it away,” he said.But Pence pressed him, the authors write, asking if there were any grounds to pause the certification because of ongoing legal challenges. Quayle was unmoved, and Pence ultimately agreed, according to the book.
Further details from the book reveal that, in the course of their conversations, Pence also echoed Trump’s false claims that the election results in Arizona were faulty.
There is no question this was a tough call for Pence, and the decision he made came with obvious political pain — including for his hopes of ever becoming president in a party dominated by Trumpism. But there’s a difference between doing it because it was the right thing to do and doing it because he literally had no other choice.
The official narrative from Team Pence suggested that it was at least in part the former — that he was a constitutional conservative who believed that, whatever the letter of the law, this kind of thing was not what the founders intended.
“As a student of history who loves the Constitution and reveres its Framers, I do not believe that 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 Congress, and no Vice President in American history has ever asserted such authority,” Pence said in a letter the morning of Jan. 6.
He added: “It is my considered judgment that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not.”
There are some fine lines here, including just what Pence’s endgame was. Perhaps he didn’t really want to be the guy who actually overturned an election for his own running mate, but just wanted to buy time to satiate Trump.
It’s also possible he was asking such skeptical questions not necessarily because he truly wanted to do what Trump told him to, but because he wanted to explore every counter-argument — for which he could perhaps be forgiven, given the circumstances. But CNN reports the book also quotes Pence telling Quayle, after Quayle pushed back on him, “You don’t know the position I’m in.” That suggests that Pence was indeed looking hard for a way out of his political bind.
And as we saw over and over during the Trump presidency, entertaining Trump’s whims can also come with consequences. There’s no better example of that than the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. High-profile Republicans didn’t necessarily echo Trump’s wild claims about voter fraud, but they also declined to repudiate them and offered watered-down justifications for questioning the results. The result is that lots of people came to believe Trump’s claims, specifically, and resorted to drastic measures. Much of the party believes them to this day in ways that continue to baselessly undermine democracy.
There was also really no doubt, from the beginning, that Pence lacked the authority to do what Trump wanted him to do. It wasn’t even a gray area, as numerous experts made clear well before Jan. 6. But Pence apparently searched pretty hard for some kind of potential justification to do it, even though it would be based upon nothing and could have plunged the country further into chaos.
Perhaps the fact that he didn’t ultimately even attempt it and that the likes of Quayle were able to prevail upon him is a credit. Others might have at least given it the old college try, as we saw repeatedly over four years.
But to set the bar at “didn’t seek to overturn democracy based upon lies” is to set it pretty low — especially when it sounds like there was a real effort to seek an unprecedented mechanism for participating in just that.