It’s been months since we learned of a remarkable scene deep inside the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. As The Washington Post’s Carol D. Leonnig and Philip Rucker reported in their 2021 book, Vice President Mike Pence told a Secret Service agent who wanted to put him into an armored limousine, “I’m not getting in the car.” Pence was worried the Secret Service would whisk him away from the Capitol, against his wishes.
Some have raised questions about precisely why Pence rejected that. The obvious answer is that he was there to fulfill his constitutional duty, and wanted to project strength — not to let the rioters flush him out and hijack the process he was due to oversee in Congress that day. Top Pence aide Marc Short explained that “he did not want our adversaries across the globe to see a 15-car motorcade fleeing the Capitol.”
But some aren’t satisfied with that explanation. And now they’ve got a member of Congress pressing the issue publicly: Jan. 6 committee member Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.).
The intimation is that Pence worried about what would transpire with Congress’s counting of electoral votes if he weren’t there — or even that he thought certain people wanted him removed for reasons other than his personal safety. Pence, after all, was set to deliver the final blow to President Donald Trump’s hopes of overturning the election, and everyone knew it.
Raskin has now suggested that indeed there might be more to this.
At a speech at Georgetown University last week, Raskin pledged that the House committee investigating Jan. 6 would “blow the roof off the House.” And while making those comments, he rekindled the Pence questions. He called Pence’s comments about not getting in the car “the six most chilling words of this entire thing I’ve seen so far.”
“He knew exactly what this inside coup they had planned for was going to do,” Raskin said, adding: “It was a coup directed by the president against the vice president and against the Congress.”
Raskin again chewed over the issue in a lengthy segment Monday night on MSNBC. He said he found the words chilling “because they were trying to remove him from the situation.”
Raskin’s meaning isn’t entirely clear; he certainly knows certain things we don’t. We’ve known from Leonnig’s and Rucker’s reporting that Pence and his aides regarded the Secret Service with some suspicion about whether they might whisk him away against his wishes. They were also suspicious of the intentions of a senior Secret Service leader who was also a political aide to Trump.
But Raskin’s comments, combined with some new revelations via testimony from a White House aide, have unleashed a new round of theorizing.
So let’s evaluate what we know.
This line of thinking doesn’t come out of nowhere. Leonnig and Rucker reported that Pence expressed some sort of suspicion in real time. When asked to get into an armored limousine in a secure area beneath the Capitol by Tim Giebels, the lead special agent in charge of his protective detail, Pence suggested he didn’t trust others involved not to whisk him away.
“I’m not getting in the car, Tim,” Pence said. “I trust you, Tim, but you’re not driving the car. If I get in that vehicle, you guys are taking off. I’m not getting in the car.”
Nor was Pence the only one to feel the need to insist he not be removed. So, too, did Pence’s national security adviser, Keith Kellogg — even as an agent reportedly told him that was indeed the plan.
Around this time, Kellogg ran into Tony Ornato in the West Wing. Ornato, who oversaw Secret Service movements, told him that Pence’s detail was planning to move the vice president to Joint Base Andrews.“You can’t do that, Tony,” Kellogg said. “Leave him where he’s at. He’s got a job to do. I know you guys too well. You’ll fly him to Alaska if you have a chance. Don’t do it.”Pence had made clear to Giebels the level of his determination and Kellogg said there was no changing it.“He’s going to stay there,” Kellogg told Ornato. “If he has to wait there all night, he’s going to do it.”
Ornato denied the conversation. His role is also something that will be chewed over plenty moving forward, including by the Jan. 6 committee. That’s because he was not only a senior Secret Service agent with oversight duties that day but also a political adviser to the White House — an unprecedented setup.
In recent days, we’ve also learned that Ornato had informed White House chief of staff Mark Meadows shortly before Jan. 6 about the prospect of violence.
On MSNBC, host Chris Hayes wagered Monday night that it “sure sounds like it was a Trump loyalist in charge of Pence’s security movements attempting to help Donald Trump effectuate his coup by removing the vice president from the building.”
But Raskin declined to explicitly tie Ornato’s actions to some kind of political effort to remove Pence. “I can’t say, because we really have not discussed that yet, and we’re not there yet,” Raskin said. But he added: “This was a marriage between an inside political coup at the highest levels of the administration, with street thugs and hooligans and neo-fascists.”
And a spokesman for the Secret Service, Anthony Guglielmi, told The Post on Tuesday that Ornato “had absolutely no involvement in vice presidential movements or operations on January 6, 2021.”
Some of the theorizing about Pence has gone well beyond the publicly available evidence, despite the very credible and non-conspiratorial explanations available.
After Raskin’s comments and the disclosure about Ornato’s warning, some pointed to something else that transpired, on Jan. 5: Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the president pro tempore of the Senate, had said then that he would preside over the Senate’s Jan. 6 session because he didn’t expect Pence to be there.
This caused a kerfuffle at the time — in large part because some thought he had referred to the joint session Pence was due to preside over. Some on social media wagered that it showed Pence’s removal was the plan all along, and Grassley had let it slip. But Grassley’s actual comments referred to a Senate session, and indeed the two chambers were due to meet separately to consider objections to a state’s election results.
Beyond that, there are very logical and non-conspiratorial reasons the Secret Service might have wanted Pence removed and Pence might have resisted.
Pence, however much he might have entertained doing what Trump wanted that day, had signaled that he would ultimately take a principled (and politically difficult) stand against the plot. What’s more, fleeing the scene would have given the rioters — who were chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” whether he knew it or not — what they wanted.
In addition, Pence has in the past emphasized the importance of symbolically and literally holding your ground in similar instances. Amid the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he reportedly refused to evacuate the Capitol even as Flight 93 was still in the air:
He defied an order to evacuate and walked back to the landmark edifice just before 10 a.m. on Black Tuesday, Black Sept. 11.“I couldn’t walk away from the moment,” Pence thought as smoke billowed from the Pentagon. “I had to report to duty. It was like standing on the shore of Pearl Harbor.”
Short, the top Pence aide, has called the theories about Pence and the Secret Service “conspiratorial and insulting."
As for the Secret Service, its chief job is to protect, and removing Pence from a chaotic riot in a secure vehicle would seem to have been the best way to do that.
At the same time, those motivations aren’t mutually exclusive from a desire to whisk Pence away for additional, political reasons — or Pence’s possible concern about that.
Removing Pence from the scene might not have ultimately mattered, and Congress might not have continued without him there. But whether Pence was whisked away to “Alaska” or somewhere somewhat closer, even a delay in the process would have served Trump’s purposes. Trump was trying to buy time for a plot that wasn’t coming together, including by virtue of the fact that the states he wanted to call their own election results into question or submit alternate slates of electors hadn’t yet done so.
What’s clear is that this appears to be a focal point for Raskin and the committee, so perhaps we’ll have something firmer on these questions.
As Leonnig summarized in response to Raskin’s comments on Friday: “We don’t know whether or not Pence thought this was a coup. What we know is Pence was super suspicious and insistent on staying.”
This post has been updated.