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Mike Pence feared for his life on Jan. 6. Americans deserve to understand why.

The Jan. 6 committee owes Americans clarification of exactly how realistic Mike Pence's fear of Trump was during the hours of the insurrection.

Forty feet. That’s the distance that separated Vice President Mike Pence from a violent angry mob at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. We learned this during Thursday’s hearing of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, which provided additional riveting evidence of the real threats posed by then-President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn a free and fair election. For Pence, those threats were existential – to our democracy – and direct — to his life. But as we also learned Thursday, there may have been a threat much closer than 40 feet.

The nation needs to know whether its vice president did or did not trust the Secret Service to do the right thing for democracy.

Pence’s former counsel Greg Jacob told the committee that he was present in a secure underground portion of the Capitol complex where the U.S. Secret Service whisked Pence in an attempt to avoid the mob that had breached the Capitol. The head of Pence’s Secret Service detail was there, and Pence’s armored limousine was also positioned in that safe space, just inches from the vice president. Still, it seems from Thursday’s testimony that the vice president wasn’t feeling all that safe.

Jacob testified that the head of Pence’s Secret Service detail tried to reassure Pence by telling him: "Were not going to drive out of the building without your permission," to which Pence replied: "I know you, I trust you, but you're not the one behind the wheel." How could the vehicle, specially designed to serve as a safe haven from bullets and bombs, be perceived as a threat to the person it’s there to protect? From Jacob’s testimony, we’re left to infer that Pence’s comment reflected not only his resolve to remain in the building to complete certification of the electoral college vote, but also his fear that certain Secret Service agents might be more loyal to Trump than to the Constitution. If our inference is misguided, the committee needs to tell us, and quickly.

Pence’s apparent concern about getting in his own limo appears to have been first reported in the book “I Alone Can Fix It,” by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonig. The book contains the following description of events:

At 2:26, after a team of agents scouted a safe path to ensure the Pences would not encounter trouble, Giebels (Secret Service leader) and the rest of Pence’s detail guided them down a staircase to a secure subterranean area that rioters couldn’t reach, where the vice president’s armored limousine awaited. Giebels asked Pence to get in one of the vehicles. “We can hold here,” he said. “I’m not getting in the car, Tim,” Pence replied. “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.”

The language attributed to Pence could be interpreted as either Pence being worried that his detail might think he’d be safer somewhere else, or that certain agents on his detail could go rogue if ordered by Trump. Pence’s “I’m not getting in the car” sentiments took on added significance, and a more sinister feel, more recently when committee member Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., publicly referenced it in the context of evidence found by the committee.

In other governments, palace guards may swear allegiance to a king. But in America, we don’t have kings, and those agents work for us.

Speaking about the threats to Pence on Jan. 6 and the shouts by rioters to hang him, Raskin said, “The vice president's Secret Service agents – including one who was carrying the nuclear football – ran down to an undisclosed place in the Capitol." Those agents, who Raskin said he suspects were reporting to Trump’s Secret Service agents, were trying to whisk Pence away from the Capitol. At that point, Raskin said, Pence "uttered what I think are the six most chilling words of this entire thing I've seen so far: 'I'm not getting in that car.'" According to Raskin, Pence "knew exactly what this inside coup they had planned for was going to do.”

The nation needs to know whether its vice president did or did not trust the Secret Service to do the right thing for democracy and uphold the oath taken by its agents to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.

In the upcoming hearings, the committee should plan to dive deeper into this question – likely through testimony from Tim Giebels, who headed the Pence detail – and any other questions surrounding the performance of the agency we entrust with the lives of our highest elected officials. In other governments, palace guards may swear allegiance to a king. But in America, we don’t have kings, and those agents work for us — and we deserve to know.