The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans are not lining up to defend Trump’s Jan. 6 argument

Vice President Mike Pence presides as Congress convenes on Jan. 6, 2021, to count electoral college votes. (Saul Loeb/Pool/AP)

Former vice president Mike Pence’s declaration Friday that Donald Trump was “wrong” in claiming that Pence could simply reject electoral college votes on Jan. 6 of last year was not a novel pronouncement, even from Pence. But it did crystallize a useful test for other Republicans: With whom do they side on the issue, Trump or Pence? Do they agree with the former president that one man can simply set aside electoral votes he doesn’t like, or do they agree with Pence that such an idea should be directly rejected?

In the days since Pence’s speech, we’ve seen a familiar pattern emerge: Most Republicans aren’t terribly eager to talk about the issue, but those who do aren’t terribly eager to agree with Trump.

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The first person to opine on Pence’s comments, quite predictably, was Trump himself. In a statement, he repeated his assertion that an effort underway on Capitol Hill to clarify the rules surrounding the vote count proves that Pence did have the power to reject electoral votes.

This argument is like claiming that a law explicitly prohibiting murder on land and sea must therefore mean that murder is legal in space. But Trump, being Trump, argues that this isn’t an effort to close a loophole but, instead, a demonstration that “they don’t want the Vice President to have the right to ensure an honest vote.”

“In other words,” he said, “I was right and everyone knows it.”

If everyone knows it, no one is saying it.

Some Republicans are explicitly rejecting Trump’s assertion. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), for example, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he disagreed with Trump’s loosely formed legal opinion — and noted that it creates a slippery slope.

“I just don’t think a vice president has that power, because if the vice president has that power, Donald Trump would defeat Joe Biden in four years, or two years, and then Kamala Harris can decide not to overturn the election,” Rubio said. “I don’t want to wind up there.”

Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, whose relationship with Trump has been the human equivalent of a ping-pong ball’s relationship with a net, took Trump’s side against Pence — while not agreeing with the legal argument about the vice president’s capabilities.

“Mike Pence is a good man. He’s an honest man,” Haley said Monday night on Fox News. “I think he did what he thought was right on that day.” And then the critique: “I will always say I’m not a fan of Republicans going after Republicans, because the only ones that win when that happens are the Democrats and the media, and we have to keep our eyes on 2022.”

One Republican says the results of a presidential election can be unilaterally rejected by one of that election’s losers. Another says they cannot. Why must there be all of this intraparty fighting with the midterm elections looming?!

To Haley’s and Rubio’s credit, they at least offered an opinion. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose political ideology seems to hew most consistently to that of a host on “Fox & Friends,” declined to engage on the contentious question when asked Monday.

A reporter asked with whom he sided. “I’m not. I,” DeSantis began . . . before declining to continue. As with his refusal to state whether he’d gotten a booster shot, the governor would rather not take a firm position on an issue that’s splitting Republican opinion. DeSantis did add that he’d worked well with Trump’s administration.

A few people did rise to Trump’s defense. People such as Stephen K. Bannon and Roger Stone. Rep. Matt Gaetz (Fla.) said on Bannon’s podcast that he’d been part of a group trying to persuade Pence to reject the election results in a meeting at the White House before Jan. 6 and that he was “quite disappointed” that the effort didn’t yield results. Particularly given the source, the defense of the former president was not particularly rousing.

Appearing on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (who’s made one or two fewer trips over the ping-pong net than Haley) went after Trump, saying the Capitol riot was “incited by Donald Trump in an effort to intimidate Mike Pence and the Congress into doing exactly what he said in his own words last week: overturn the election.” (Ping!) He later moderated that assertion a bit. (Pong!)

Since 2015, the pattern within the Republican Party has been to figure out how to make Trump’s more extreme positions morally, rhetorically or logically palatable. So we get the obviously untrue claims about rampant voter fraud repackaged as concerns about increased access to voting, for example. Here, though, there’s not really a compromise position. Either Pence could have simply rejected cast ballots or he couldn’t. And, presented with that yes-or-no question, it doesn’t yet seem that Republicans are eager to flatly say yes.