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Mike Pence broke the Constitution on Jan. 6 — but only to save it

We knew what Trump didn't do Jan. 6. Now we know more of what he did.
Photo illustration: Images of Mike Pence, rioters outside the Capitol on January 6 waving a flag and of Donald Trump.
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said rumors suggesting then-Vice President Mike Pence had “played a key role in coordinating with the Pentagon” on Jan. 6, 2021, actually minimized his efforts.MSNBC / Getty Images

Of the many disturbing allegations made by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, riot, the most unnerving of them may be the claim it made in its first hearing, on June 9. In those tumultuous hours, the committee alleged, our constitutional order broke down.

Pence ordered the deployments that quelled the riots. He had no choice.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., informed the nation that the rumors suggesting then-Vice President Mike Pence had “played a key role in coordinating with the Pentagon” on the day of the attack actually minimized his efforts. She said Pence, who was himself under siege in the basement of the Capitol, ordered the deployments that quelled the riots. He had no choice. Former President Donald Trump had done nothing even though Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill and other allies “begged” him to intervene, she said.

Trump, Cheney said, didn’t call his defense secretary, attorney general or the Department of Homeland Security on Jan. 6. He “gave no order to deploy the National Guard that day and made no effort to work with the Department of Justice to coordinate and deploy law enforcement assets,” she said.

The power of the presidency to issue such orders does not, however, devolve to the vice president. No constitutional mechanism allows for Pence’s usurpation of that presidential authority. But on Tuesday, we learned why the former vice president apparently felt he had no choice but to take the reins of the military into his own hands. Cassidy Hutchinson, a witness with firsthand knowledge of events in the White House and on the Ellipse that day, testified that Trump didn’t just fail to act; he refused to act.

Hutchinson, then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows’ executive assistant, was as close as anyone to the principal figures under investigation for their conduct that day. According to her recollection, Trump didn’t contact the military or federal law enforcement and didn’t issue orders to protect the seat of American government because he didn’t want to.

Referring to the U.S. Capitol where a joint session of Congress had gathered to certify the results of the 2020 election, Hutchinson recalled telling Meadows that he needed to "check in with" Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. She said she told Meadows, “The rioters are getting close. They might get in. And he looked at me and said, something to the effect of, ‘Alright, I’ll give him a call.’”

“No more than a minute, minute and a half later,” Hutchinson continued, “I see Pat Cipollone barreling down the hallway towards our office.” Cipollone served as White House counsel. “I remember Pat saying to him something to the effect of, ‘The rioters have gotten to the Capitol, Mark. We need to go down and see the president now.’ And Mark looked up at him and said, ‘He doesn’t want to do anything, Pat.’”

We’ve long known what Trump did not do when the Capitol was under siege. We have not had any confirmation of what the president did do. Until now.

As Hutchinson recalled, Cipollone wasn’t as nonchalant as Meadows was about the president’s abdication of his sworn duty to protect the Constitution from its enemies and told Meadows something like, “Mark, something needs to be done or people are going to die and the blood is going to be on your f'ing hands.”

When the president’s staff got word that the mob invading the Capitol was chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” who had told Trump that he was obligated to certify Joe Biden’s election as president, Hutchison said she heard Cipollone tell Meadows, “Mark, we need to do something more. They’re literally calling for the vice president to be f'ing hung.” She recalled an exasperated Meadows replying, “You heard him, Pat. He thinks Mike deserves it. He doesn't think they're doing anything wrong.”

We now have a credible allegation that Trump affirmatively supported the rioters’ aims.

Previously, the most charitable assumption that could be made about Trump’s conduct that day was that he was apathetic toward the day’s events. We now have a credible allegation — provided voluntarily, under oath and from an individual in close, contemporaneous proximity to the president and his advisers — alleging that Trump affirmatively supported the rioters’ aims.

This testimony about the president’s state of mind from those best positioned to know it must be evaluated within the context of Hutchinson’s claims about what the president knew and when he knew it. Hutchinson claimed that Trump and his senior staff were informed by security officials that rally attendees were likely armed with weapons and could be wearing body armor. The president allegedly disregarded this threat and demanded the removal of metal-detecting magnetometers, according to her testimony. She recalled the president saying “something to the effect of, you know, ‘I don’t f'ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the f'ing mags away. Let my people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.’”

In the weeks that passed after the riot, Trump attempted to make a distinction between the peaceful attendees of his rally in the Ellipse and the rioters — certainly a distinction, though not a mutually exclusive one. But as Hutchinson’s testimony contended, Trump apparently was not so eager to see justice meted out to those who ransacked the Capitol, either. Referring to a speech Trump gave on Jan. 7, 2021, Cheney asked Hutchinson, “Did you hear that Mr. Trump at one point wanted to add language about pardoning those who took part in the Jan. 6 riot?” Hutchinson replied, “I did hear that, and I understand that Mr. Meadows was encouraging that language as well.”

With that, we have credible testimony that corroborates what was previously only an implication: The former president did not act to save Congress and the Constitution from violence because he liked what he saw. We have testimony that Trump knew his rally attendees were capable of violence and likely armed, that he knew they may have committed prosecutable offenses in his name.

And he didn’t care.

Hutchinson provided the committee with several other bombshell allegations, some of which have come under intense scrutiny and have been rebutted by those she named. Those claims should be thoroughly examined by this committee. That said, Hutchinson has provided detailed allegations about what the president was doing in those pivotal 187 minutes.

This isn’t hearsay; it’s sworn testimony from a witness who was in a physical position to hear what she testified to.

There will be attempts to discredit her and her testimony wholesale, but that would be a transparent effort to avoid contending with these specific allegations. This isn’t hearsay; it’s sworn testimony from a witness who was in a physical position to hear what she testified to. This isn’t old news; much of this was not previously known. Some Republicans are arguing that Hutchinson’s testimony isn’t as urgently relevant to voters as the rising cost of consumer goods, but so what? If nothing else, establishing for posterity an account of that day’s events is valuable, if only so that it is never allowed to happen again.

The charges against the president are credible, possibly criminal, and, if true, they certainly constitute a violation of his oath of office.