Before heading to the U.S. Capitol to preside over a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, Vice President Mike Pence undertook one last unpleasant task from his Naval Observatory home: a phone call with Donald Trump, the president to whom he had always been loyal.
Trump called Pence a “wimp,” Trump aide Nicholas Luna testified. Trump’s badgering of his own vice president so distressed his daughter that she walked the halls of the White House, expressing her displeasure to multiple aides, several testified. She told her chief of staff that “her dad had just had an upsetting call with the vice president,” the aide testified, noting that Trump had called Pence the “p-word.”
The day that began with the vice president being called a “p----” by his boss ended with him huddled in a parking garage with his family, as a violent mob intent on doing him physical harm rampaged through the seat of American democracy and a top aide read from a Bible nearby.
The Democratic-led committee unspooled new details of Pence’s terrifying day on Jan. 6, as it sought to explain how easily democracy could have fallen if the Republican vice president had not resisted an unrelenting campaign from Trump to ignore his legal advisers and his own conscience and use his role to give Trump a second term.
“Mike Pence said no. He resisted the pressure. He knew it was illegal. He knew it was wrong,” said Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.). “We are fortunate for Mr. Pence’s courage.”
The committee painted Pence as the hero of the day — but he was an absent one. While Pence’s former top lawyer Greg Jacob testified publicly and testimony from several of his top aides including former chief of staff Marc Short was played via video, the former vice president declined to provide testimony to the committee. The committee’s efforts to convince Pence to testify never went anywhere, though he blessed his aides’ appearances, according to one person who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private negotiations. The committee did not ask Short to appear publicly.
Pence’s aides say he has not shied away from what he did that day — but he does not view talking about it incessantly as a politically wise move and is aware that he still faces considerable backlash from many Republican voters. He is considering a run for president, and has told others he would run against Trump, who is also considering running in 2024. Pence has said he does not plan to wage a scorched-earth campaign against Trump or to criticize him aggressively.
Pence was traveling in Ohio Thursday, where he was doing a roundtable on oil and gas issues with Gov. Mike DeWine (R). But as a measure of support, he texted a Bible verse, Psalms 37:6, to Jacob shortly before the hearing began, an aide said: “He shall bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.”
Without his testimony, the committee relied instead on a speech Pence delivered to the Federalist Society in February. “The presidency belongs to the American people and the American people alone,” Pence told the conservative group. “And frankly, there is no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president. Under the Constitution, I had no right to change the outcome of our election.”
The first half of the committee’s hearing Thursday focused on the mounting and frenzied pressure applied to Pence and his team in the days leading up to Jan. 6, including off-the-wall legal theories advanced by law professor John Eastman that held that the vice president’s role presiding over the joint session conveys on him the power to determine which electoral college votes to count. Testimony and emails showed that Eastman acknowledged his theory would violate federal law and would likely be rejected by the Supreme Court on a 9-to-0 vote.
The remainder of the hearing focused on Trump’s volcanic anger at his vice president at his refusal to go along — and what it meant for Pence as he attempted to carry out his constitutional duties.
Shortly after hanging up from berating Pence that morning, Trump headed to the Ellipse to address his thousands of supporters. According to early drafts of the speech obtained by the committee, Trump did not plan to mention Pence in the speech, said committee member Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.). “The president revised it to include criticism of the vice president and then further ad-libbed,” he said.
In the speech, Trump declared that Pence needed to have the “courage” to act. “I hope Mike is going to do the right thing,” Trump said. “I hope so. I hope so, because if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election.”
Pence’s aides were enraged at the time that Trump let the crowd believe that there remained mystery about the vice president’s intentions given that Pence had repeatedly told Trump about his plans. They believed Trump’s tease stoked the crowd.
Pence announced in a statement shortly before the joint session was to begin at 1 p.m. that he did not believe the Constitution allowed him to follow Trump’s wishes. The committee demonstrated the crowd’s immediate reaction using video clips of rioters taken that day. “It’s real simple — Pence betrayed us, which apparently everybody knew he was going to do. And the president mentioned it like five times when he talked. You can go back and watch the president’s video,” said one woman, in a clip played by the committee.
At 2:11 p.m., the first rioters breached the Capitol. Two minutes later, Pence was hustled off the Senate floor by his Secret Service detail. Aides to Trump told the committee that they began agitating for the president to put out a tweet to try to calm the crowd. Instead, at 2:24 p.m., Trump tweeted: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution … USA demands the truth!”
Former Trump aide Sarah Matthews testified that when a group of the president’s aides saw the tweet, they told one another that it had been “the last thing that needed to be tweeted at that moment.” Some of Trump’s most loyal and long-standing aides, including his daughter, said privately at the time they could not fathom Trump treating Pence as he did.
“The situation was already bad and so it felt like he was pouring gasoline on the fire by tweeting that,” Matthews said.
Pence, his wife and daughter and closest advisers were then escorted by the Secret Service to a garage in the basement of the Capitol Visitor Center. The committee revealed that the group came within 40 feet of the rioters as they wound their way through the underground complex. They then cited an affidavit from an FBI informant who has told authorities that rioters would have killed Pence had they found him that day.
Two Pence advisers who were with him at the time have previously told The Washington Post that they could not hear the crowd chanting “hang Mike Pence,” but they quickly saw footage of the disturbing images on Twitter as they all scrolled looking for updates.
Jacob testified that when they reached the garage, the Secret Service ordered the group into vehicles. He and others dutifully piled in but Pence refused, afraid the security detail might speed him to safety before he could object. “The vice president did not want to take any chance that the world would see the vice president of the United States fleeing the United States Capitol,” he said.
Photographs newly released by the committee showed Pence in the garage well into the 4 p.m. hour, making calls to congressional and military leaders. One photo showed Pence staring intently at his phone, as his daughter Charlotte looked on. The committee said the photo depicts Pence watching a video posted by Trump to Twitter at 4:17 p.m., in which Trump urged supporters to “go home” — but added, “We love you. You’re very special.”
Jacob testified that never once during the hours Pence was in danger did Trump call to inquire about his safety. Asked how Pence and his wife, Karen, reacted to Trump’s silence, Jacob said: “With frustration.”
Trump did not talk to Pence for five days, until Jared Kushner told Short that Trump would like to see Pence, The Post has reported.
Several people close to Pence said his anger died down over Trump’s actions that day, particularly after Trump showed regret privately in a meeting with Pence in the Oval Office a few days later and suggested they still be friends. But Pence’s anger at times has been rekindled in recent months as Trump has attacked him. The two have not spoken for about a year, aides said, and Pence does not have any plans to talk to Trump as he eyes a 2024 bid.
Short and Jacob’s testimony Thursday indicated that as the day wore on, both turned to the Bible for comfort. For Short, it was 2 Timothy 4:7, which he texted to Pence at 3:50 a.m., after Pence had reconvened Congress, concluded the counting of the electoral college votes and declared Biden the next president: “I fought the good fight. I finished the race. I kept the faith.”
For Jacob, it was Daniel 6, which tells the story of a godly man serving as second-in-command to an immoral king, which he read to himself while huddled in the parking garage and still in danger.
“He refuses an order from the king. He cannot follow, and he does his duty and consistent with his oath to God,” Jacob testified. “And I felt that that’s what had played out that day.”