The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump put Pence in more danger than we knew

On June 16, the House committee investigating Capitol attack described a steadfast Vice President Mike Pence despite pressure from President Donald Trump. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)
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We now know that there were two moments when Vice President Mike Pence’s life was in particular danger on Jan. 6, 2021.

The first came shortly after Pence was evacuated from the Senate chamber following rioters having gained access to the building. The vice president was hustled into a ceremonial office across a short hallway, just moments before a crowd of rioters climbed a set of stairs to arrive near the same spot. Had Officer Eugene Goodman not had the presence of mind to goad the rioters in the opposite direction, they would have passed down the hallway and past the door of the room in which Pence was sheltering.

We knew about that brush with danger. During the hearing on Thursday of the House select committee investigating the riot, we learned about the second — one that came after Donald Trump had specifically targeted his vice president with tweeted words of condemnation.

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A lot happened between 2 and 2:30 p.m. on that day. At 2:12 p.m., a member of the far-right Proud Boys extremist group smashed a window with a stolen police shield and rioters began flooding into the Capitol. At 2:13 p.m., Pence was evacuated and, shortly afterward, arrived in that nearby office. Chris Hodgson, Pence’s director of legislative affairs, told the committee’s investigators that, soon after, “the noise from the rioters became audible.”

A few minutes later, Fox News aired an interview with a Trump supporter who expressed frustration at Pence’s by-then public refusal to accede to Trump’s plan to reject the electoral votes submitted by states. Shortly after that, Trump — quite possibly watching Fox’s coverage — tweeted a condemnation of Pence:

“Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!”

During Thursday’s hearing, the committee played several snippets of video showing Trump supporters reacting both to Pence’s initial refusal to play along with Trump’s plan and to Trump’s tweet about it. In a prepared video, the committee noted that the tweet was followed quickly by a new push from the rioters in multiple locations.

Around 2:25 p.m., the video stated, Pence was evacuated from the ceremonial office down some stairs to a more secure location. In an animation, the committee showed how close the rioters were as that evacuation was taking place: 40 feet.

Diagrams show — for the first time —how Pence was evacuated from the Senate chamber and how close rioters came to him on Jan. 6, 2021. (Video: The Washington Post)

This is important information for several reasons.

One is that it reinforces that the danger to Pence was ongoing. Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) revealed in the hearing that “a confidential informant from the Proud Boys told the FBI the Proud Boys would have killed Mike Pence if given a chance.” Given that members of the Proud Boys were both among the earliest arrivals inside the building and had a demonstrated predilection for violence, that’s not an idle threat.

Another is that it reveals that Pence was in peril even after Trump’s tweet.

The crowd was already furious at Pence; Trump’s tweet seemed like “pouring gasoline on the fire,” as one former White House aide said in recorded testimony. That’s because the staff — and, almost certainly, Trump — knew about the violence that was already underway at the Capitol, another significant revelation that emerged from the hearing.

Ben Williamson, an aide to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, texted Meadows at 2:02 p.m. suggesting that “we may want to put out some sort of statement because the situation was getting a little hairy over at the Capitol,” as he put it. He then went down to see Meadows to reiterate the recommendation. Meadows quickly got up and left the room. In a separate bit of testimony aired during the hearing, Williamson described following Meadows to the Oval Office — suggesting he was going to speak with Trump.

Aguilar stated during the hearing that Meadows probably knew about the violence even before that. (By 1:50 p.m., rioters had reached the scaffolding in place for the inauguration.)

“We received testimony that the president’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, was notified of the violence at the Capitol by 2 p.m. and likely earlier,” Aguilar said. “The testimony further establishes that Mr. Meadows quickly informed the president and that he did so before the president issued his 2:24 p.m. tweet criticizing Vice President Pence.”

Again, though, this was only the last point at which Trump intentionally directed the mob’s anger at Pence. In his speech during the rally at the Ellipse, Trump repeatedly insisted that everything hinged on the vice president’s decision — though multiple advisers had informed Trump and his team that Pence had no power to derail Joe Biden’s inauguration.

“Our investigation found that early drafts of the January 6 Ellipse speech prepared for the president,” Aguilar stated at another point, “included no mention of the vice president.”

So Trump’s excoriations of his vice president in that speech — for example: “Mike Pence, I hope you’re going to stand up for the good of our Constitution and for the good of our country, and if you’re not, I’m going to be very disappointed in you” — were late additions meant either to put pressure on Pence directly or to spur the crowd to do so.

Pence’s team members had warned the Secret Service the day prior that they expected the vice president to be a focus of anger on Jan. 6; they understood what it meant to buck Trump on this. Sure enough, just before 2:30 p.m. on Jan. 6, Pence and his family were being hustled to a new, more secure position in the Capitol with rioters 40 feet away.

At that same moment, Trump was busy: trying to leverage the delay in the counting of the electoral votes to make phone calls pressuring senators to reject the submitted votes. In other words, to do what Pence had understood he had no power to do.

“Did Donald Trump ever call the vice president to check on his safety?” Aguilar asked Greg Jacob, a Pence attorney who testified on Thursday.

“He did not,” Jacob replied.