The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s callous new comments on Pence reinforce what he really thought of Jan. 6

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence at a coronavirus task force briefing in March 2020. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Donald Trump made it abundantly clear on Jan. 6 that he wasn’t exactly broken up about his supporters violently storming the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn an American election — and indeed that he might well have approved of it.

And the evidence has only grown that the latter, specifically, is true.

A new development Friday morning is one of the most shocking to date. We knew Trump didn’t show much regard for his vice president, Mike Pence, during or after rioters stormed the Capitol chanting for Pence’s hanging. And it turns out Trump viewed it as part of a rational enterprise.

In an interview for his new book, ABC News’s Jonathan Karl pressed Trump on the scene in a way we haven’t seen yet. And Trump not only didn’t denounce his supporters, he said what they were doing was “common sense.”

A brief transcript:

KARL: Were you worried about him during that siege? Were you worried about his safety?
TRUMP: No, I thought he was well-protected, and I had heard that he was in good shape. No. Because I had heard he was in very good shape. But, but, no, I think —
KARL: Because you heard those chants. That was terrible. I mean —
TRUMP: He could have — well, the people were very angry.
KARL: They were saying, “Hang Mike Pence.”
TRUMP: Because — it’s common sense, Jon. It’s common sense that you’re supposed to protect. How can you — if you know a vote is fraudulent, right — how can you pass on a fraudulent vote to Congress? How can you do that? And I’m telling you: 50/50, it’s right down the middle for the top constitutional scholars when I speak to them. Anybody I spoke to — almost all of them at least pretty much agree, and some very much agree with me — because he’s passing on a vote that he knows is fraudulent. How can you pass a vote that you know is fraudulent?

While the way Trump spoke about this is remarkably callous, it jibes with plenty we already knew about the situation. The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey and Ashley Parker reported that Trump didn’t call Pence for days afterward, for instance, despite the danger his VP faced.

It’s also become evident that the effort to lean on Pence didn’t go away after the riot began. Reporting has indicated Trump was still pushing for Congress to overturn the election even after the riot. And a Post investigation last month revealed that, when Pence went into hiding, Trump lawyer John Eastman told a Pence aide that he blamed Pence for the riot, given Pence had declined to help overturn the election using his historically ceremonial role. Afterward, Eastman tried to use the fallout from the riot to get Pence to throw the process into question based upon a technicality involving timing.

It all fills out a picture that seemed rather obvious in real time but, thanks to Trump’s often unclear and mostly suggestive comments, allowed his allies to suggest perhaps it wasn’t all it seemed.

To wit:

  • Trump tweeted attacking Pence even after the riot had begun.
  • Trump’s response to the Capitol riot was slow — slow enough that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) floated Congress censuring him for it. And when Trump did urge peacefulness, he often layered it with sympathy for those who stormed the Capitol — i.e. “Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!” and “Go home. We love you.”
  • Trump tweeted the evening of Jan. 6, “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”
  • Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has stated that Trump was “walking around the White House confused about why other people on his team weren’t as excited as he was.”
  • Of the calls we know Trump made to lawmakers during the riot, they generally went to those who agreed with his effort to challenge the election results, including Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.).
  • Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) submitted evidence during Trump’s impeachment that Trump told McCarthy during the riot: “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”

That last one is key. It landed late in Trump’s impeachment trial, during which Democrats called no new witnesses and didn’t dwell upon new evidence beyond never-before-seen videos of the riot.

The impeachment trial was about Trump’s alleged incitement of the rioters — not so much what he did after it began. But this spoke to a separate but very related issue: the idea that he relished the scenes of his supporters violently trying to overturn an American election or, at the very least, felt it was justified. If you don’t approve of that or at least see value in it, you don’t say such things. But Trump said them — repeatedly, including long afterward.

Even many Republicans who voted against Trump’s impeachment or his conviction acknowledged that what Trump did was bad. They disagreed about whether it was impeachable, including by citing the legal standard for incitement and the fact that Trump was no longer in office. But since then, the party has largely moved on and suggested this isn’t worth looking into that hard — evolving more and more toward a giant shrug at the situation.

Yet here is the person who could very well lead their party into the 2024 elections stating after the fact that a historic insurrection based upon his own false claims of election fraud that resulted in multiple deaths was, to some extent, “common sense.” And it should now be much more difficult for his party to turn a blind eye to that or dismiss the idea that such things could happen again.