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Pence defends RNC’s Jan. 6 resolution, avoids criticism of Trump in Stanford speech

Former vice president Mike Pence speaks at Stanford University on Feb. 17. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Former vice president Mike Pence on Thursday defended the Republican National Committee’s resolution to censure two of the party’s members of Congress, saying that the declaration’s reference to “citizens who engaged in legitimate political discourse” during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection has been misinterpreted.

Pence — who repeated his assertion that “January 6th was a tragic day” — said he does not think the RNC’s resolution, which has been criticized by Republicans and Democrats, was “talking about people that engaged in violence against persons or property that day.” Instead, he said, it was referring to “a whole range of people that have been set upon” by the House committee investigating the riot.

The defense, made during Pence’s Thursday evening appearance at Stanford University, reflects the fractious divide in the Republican Party over how to talk about the attack on the U.S. Capitol, which was carried out by a pro-Trump mob. The resolution censuring Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, which passed overwhelmingly this month, sparked backlash among Republican senators who feared it would hurt the party in the midterm elections. The RNC has since said it was not supporting violent insurrectionists, an assertion Pence echoed.

“I just don’t know too many people around the country, including my friends at the RNC, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, who have any different view than it was tragic day, that the people that ransacked the Capitol were wrong and should be held to account in the law,” Pence said. “And I think they made a very clear statement, after the fact, that said, ‘We were talking about what’s happening in Washington today, with the January 6th committee’ … and I believe them. They’re good people, and I believe that’s what they meant.”

The Stanford speech, organized by the school’s College Republicans, marked Pence’s first high-profile public appearance since he said, two weeks earlier, that former president Donald Trump was “wrong” when he called for Pence to overturn the election results on Jan. 6. The right wing’s reaction was swift and rancorous, led by Trump, who called him an “automatic conveyor belt” to “get Biden elected president as quickly as possible.”

As GOP censures Cheney and Kinzinger, Pence says: ‘President Trump is wrong’

In prepared remarks and a Q&A session, lasting nearly an hour, Pence sidestepped chances to reiterate his direct criticism of Trump, saying only that he is “proud” of what they accomplished while in office.

“The Constitution was quite clear on that tragic day in January,” Pence said in response to a student’s question. “I knew what my duty was. And I kept my oath even though it hurt. And we moved the nation forward. And I don’t know if the president and I will ever see eye to eye on that. I really don’t.”

Pence also declined the opportunity to defend Cheney, Kinzinger and former senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, all Republicans who have lost standing in their party after angering Trump, instead answering a question about the trio by inveighing against “cancel culture” on college campuses.

Pence’s visit to Stanford marked his first foray into a blue state during his recent lecture tour of college campuses, making previous stops at schools in Iowa and Texas. His stated topic was not subtle — the talk was titled “How to Save America from the Woke Left” — but the speech was less a handbook for political action and more a recitation of his conservative political platform.

The remarks were prefaced by a lengthy video that attacked the Biden administration and highlighted the former vice president’s accomplishments, several minutes of edited footage that resembled a campaign ad. Pence, however, did not discuss — and was not asked — whether he would run for president in 2024.

He blasted Biden’s handling of the conflict in Ukraine, and he claimed the recent San Francisco school board elections as a victory against “woke” liberalism.

Stanford’s College Republicans have extended invitations to a string of controversial conservative figures in recent years, including the provocative right-wing commentators Ben Shapiro and Candace Owens, and in the days leading up to Pence’s appearance, they accused campus “leftists” of attempting to undermine the event.

Dozens of students protested outside the campus’s Dinkelspiel Auditorium on Thursday, holding signs that read, “Stand against hate” and “Refuse fascism.” Inside, the occasional heckle or expletive could be heard in the 710-seat auditorium, which the event page said was sold out, but there were no major disruptions to Pence’s speech.

During the Q&A portion, a couple of students sneaked in gag questions, with one taking the microphone to ask the former vice president whether he knew where the nearest bathroom was.

“The one I used is out this back door,” Pence answered to a chorus of laughter. “Hey, this is a real thing,” he added. “President Harry Truman said, ‘Don’t ever pass up the opportunity to use the restroom.’ ”