The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mike Pence’s team could see the storm coming

A woman with a noose during the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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Mike Pence had been working for Donald Trump long enough by January 2021 to know how the pattern worked. Trump was up in arms about his presidential election loss, and those around him were busy either trying to contain the damage or leverage his fury, depending on their own personal priorities. Pence was part of the first group, once again finding itself hoping that Trump would fizzle out before he blew up.

As Jan. 6 approached, Pence and his team surely understood his perilous position. He and Trump had been arguing for weeks over his ability to obstruct Joe Biden’s victory, according to Michael Bender’s book, “Frankly, We Did Win This Election.” From mid-November to the day before the Capitol riot, they’d had the same discussion about the vice president’s power “at least a dozen times.” And as other options for derailing a Biden presidency collapsed — votes were certified, electors formalized — the Pence-Jan. 6 plan became the only one left on the table.

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We talk a lot about this in the abstract, but, again, consider Pence in that moment. He knows how mad and frustrated Trump is. He hears Trump obsessing over the vice president’s purported abilities. He endures Trump pushing on it over and over again. And as Jan. 6 nears, that cajoling becomes public.

At a rally in Georgia on Jan. 4, Trump insisted that Pence was the last backstop against the election being “stolen” by the left.

“I hope Mike Pence comes through for us, I have to tell you,” Trump said. “I hope that our great vice president comes through for us. He’s a great guy.”

“Of course, if he doesn’t come through, I won’t like him quite as much,” he warned to laughter. But Trump was not kidding.

We now know Trump and Pence had spoken before the president flew to Georgia. Trump had demanded Pence listen to his attorney, John Eastman, one of the architects of the plan to have the vice president simply reject submitted electoral votes. (In an initial draft of a memo detailing that plan, Eastman glibly predicted that Democrats would “howl” at having been outplayed.)

“You really need to listen to John. He’s a respected constitutional scholar,” Trump told Pence, according to the book “Peril” by Robert Costa and Bob Woodward. “Hear him out. Listen. Listen to John.”

Pence had sought his own counsel on the question. An ally had that same day contacted the noted conservative Judge J. Michael Luttig, who publicly rejected the idea that Pence had unilateral authority to deny submitted electoral votes. Luttig’s thoughts eventually made it into the letter Pence prepared in which he formally distanced himself from Trump’s strategy.

But that letter didn’t come out until the morning of Jan. 6. On Jan. 5, Pence endured another berating by Trump. Costa and Woodward describe the scene: Pence telling Trump that experts flatly rejected the president’s plan, Trump shouting, “No, no, no!” in response. Trump telling Pence that if he failed to go ahead with the plan, Trump would no longer be his friend. Trump, furious, saying: “You’ve betrayed us. I made you. You were nothing. Your career is over if you do this.”

It was on this day — though it’s not clear when — that Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, alerted the Secret Service that he was worried about what would happen when Pence’s rejection of Trump’s demands became public. On Friday, the New York Times reported the conversation.

“Mr. Short did not know what form such a security risk might take, according to people familiar with the events. But after days of intensifying pressure from Mr. Trump on Mr. Pence to take the extraordinary step of intervening in the certification of the Electoral College count to forestall Mr. Trump’s defeat, Mr. Short seemed to have good reason for concern,” Maggie Haberman reported. “The vice president’s refusal to go along was exploding into an open and bitter breach between the two men at a time when the president was stoking the fury of his supporters who were streaming into Washington.”

This may have occurred before the Trump campaign released a statement claiming that the president and Pence were in “total agreement that the Vice President has the power to act.” Short, frustrated, called Trump aide Jason Miller to complain, according to Costa and Woodward. Trump was unchastened, tweeting late that night that “[i]f Vice President [Pence] comes through for us, we will win the Presidency.”

Shortly before Trump began his speech outside the White House on Jan. 6, he called Pence one more time. During that call, he infamously told Pence that he could be remembered either as a patriot or a wimp (though Trump used a crass synonym that alliterates with patriot). More alarming was what Trump said publicly during his speech.

“All Vice President Pence has to do is send it back to the states to recertify and we become president and you are the happiest people,” Trump told the crowd to cheers. All of the rage that he had been stoking for weeks was directed at what Pence chose to do.

Within an hour, Pence released his letter publicly rejecting Trump’s plan. Trump tweeted angrily: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.” Rioters were already in the Capitol. Those outside read Trump’s tweet over bullhorns. Chants of “hang Mike Pence” erupted — the sort of threat Short had clearly feared.

Trump, true to his warning in Georgia, was reportedly overheard by his chief of staff Mark Meadows expressing approval at the chants demanding capital punishment for Pence.

Pence, meanwhile, was inside the Capitol, being urged by the Secret Service to be moved to a safer location. As The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig first reported, Pence refused to go.

“I’m not getting in the car, Tim,” Pence told the agent Tim Giebels — the same agent who had received Short’s warning the day before. “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.”

That “I trust you” — emphasis on “you” — has sparked questions about what Pence might have thought would happen if he left the Capitol. We know some of those in Trump’s orbit were prepared for a contingency in which Pence was not overseeing the opening of electoral votes; details for one such plan were revealed in a newly released email this week. Was the backup plan to get Pence off-site?

The Post’s Aaron Blake noted that Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) had hinted at this in a television appearance in April. Raskin is a member of the House select committee investigating the riot and was pointed in suggesting that Pence’s “not getting in the car” statement was “chilling.”

Pence’s refusal to leave the Capitol can be attributed to not wanting to acquiesce to the whims of the mob. But, as Blake pointed out, the vice president’s national security adviser understood why removing Pence put his ability to defend the electoral vote counting at risk.

“Leave him where he’s at. He’s got a job to do,” Keith Kellogg told a Secret Service agent, according to Rucker and Leonnig. “I know you guys too well. You’ll fly him to Alaska if you have a chance. Don’t do it.”

It is not a stretch to think Pence and his team, including Short and Kellogg, had discussed what they might expect in the aftermath of the vice president formally and publicly rejecting Trump’s ploy. That, as they were drafting that letter in the days before Jan. 6, they were making other plans, as well, discussing other bulwarks that needed to be built. Informing the Secret Service. Agreeing to stick with the process no matter what.

If anyone in America understood the rhythms and furies of Donald Trump by Jan. 6, 2021, surely Mike Pence did.

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