The Jan. 6 committee’s slate of hearings is less a chronological recounting of the events leading up to the attack on the Capitol and rather a series of discrete stories that make up a broader whole. On Thursday, the committee turns to the chapter starring former Vice President Mike Pence.
Pence, as the panel will discuss, was the subject of a weekslong pressure campaign from his boss, former President Donald Trump. The goal was as simple as it was illegal: have Pence discard the Electoral College votes from enough states to overturn the results of the 2020 election. In memos and meetings, tantrums and tweets, Pence was told that he not only had this power, but that he had to use it.
The House Jan. 6 committee is holding its third public hearing on Thursday, June 16 at 1 p.m. ET. Get expert analysis in real-time on our liveblog at msnbc.com/jan6hearings.
There were times when Pence wavered in the face of this effort. He reportedly called former Vice President Dan Quayle at one point, who was adamant that Pence had “no flexibility” on the matter. His top lawyer, Greg Jacob, argued in a memo that blocking or delaying the electoral vote count would be illegal and leave him “in an isolated standoff against both houses of Congress.”
On the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, Pence told Trump in no uncertain terms that he would not do as he was asked. Trump then berated him in person, at a rally at the Ellipse and later in a tweet that a Trump supporter with a megaphone would read out as his fellow insurrectionists ransacked the Capitol. When told that afternoon that the crowd was chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” Trump mused that maybe his supporters have “the right idea” since Pence “deserves it.”
All of this and more is likely to be recounted during Thursday’s hearing. We are slated to hear live testimony from Jacob, and likely clips from the committee's deposition with Marc Short, who served as Pence’s chief of staff and warned the Secret Service on Jan. 5, 2021, about the security threat his boss faced. Many of the sentiments expressed will likely echo a recent article in The Atlantic that argued in its headline, “Mike Pence Is An American Hero.” Its author, Jonathan V. Last, argues that Pence in his defiance “did more to protect democracy — both on January 6 and since — than any other person inside the Trump administration.”
But what of the time before the election? That will not likely be in focus on Thursday’s hearing for the inconvenient truth that it would reveal. As The New Yorker's Susan Glasser aptly noted about former Attorney General William Barr and Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien after Monday’s hearing, Pence was onboard with Trump’s lies about the election until he wasn’t.
Pence was onboard with Trump’s lies about the election until he wasn’t.
Pence did not speak out when Trump falsely warned of the dangers of mail-in balloting in April 2020. He was silent when Trump declared that there was no way that he would lose unless the election was rigged. And at no time before Jan. 6 did he speak out to counter Trump’s claim from Election Night that “frankly, we did win this election.” It was only when he was being told that silent compliance was not enough, and that his action advancing the plot was required, that he balked.
Since then he has said in a speech to the Federalist Society that Trump was wrong about the vice presidency’s power to overturn the election. Nowhere in that speech, however, did he reject Trump’s claims that there was rampant voter fraud in the election, even though his own team had debunked them before he left office. Pence did, however, find time to disparage attempts to protect voting rights, and he praised Senate Republicans’ filibuster of the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act.
On the standard alignment chart in the game Dungeons & Dragons, characters’ morality can be charted on a 3x3 grid, with one axis spanning from good to evil and one axis ranging lawful to chaotic. (Each axis also has "neutral" as an option.) Trump easily fits into the parameters of the Chaotic Evil alignment. He has no regard for rules, no sense of reverence for anything but himself and his personal profit, in the form of money, power or both. The same can’t be said of Pence — but despite the courage he showed on Jan. 6, he can’t be classified as a hero.
He was fine with the idea of disenfranchising voters in the Trump campaign’s failed court challenges to mail-in ballots. He was complicit in Trump laying the groundwork for the Big Lie. Only when he was faced with a task that fell outside of the rules that he had accepted as valid — and would result in personal consequences if he broke them — did he refuse Trump.
Those actions should lead us to characterize Pence as being Lawful Evil: willing to act in a way that will hurt others, but only within a set of rules and personal moral code. It wasn’t solely out of moral fortitude or love of small-d democracy that Pence did his duty. There just wasn’t strong enough an argument to exploit any loopholes that existed in the law. And that alone does not a hero make.