At an event over the weekend, former Vice President Mike Pence went a little further than he had before in his comments about the Jan. 6 riot. “President Trump was wrong,” Pence declared. “I had no right to overturn the election. And his reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol that day, and I know history will hold Donald Trump accountable.”
As rebukes go, the Hoosier’s rhetoric was incomplete, but it nevertheless represented the kind of criticism national Republicans tend to avoid when it comes to the former president and the insurrectionist attack on the Capitol.
Evidently, Donald Trump noticed. The Washington Post reported that the former president, as part of a trip to Iowa, told reporters that Pence bears responsibility for the riot.
“Had he sent the votes back to the legislatures, they wouldn’t have had a problem with Jan. 6, so in many ways you can blame him for Jan. 6,” the former president said, referring to Pence’s refusal to reject the electoral college votes in Congress as Trump wanted him to do that day. “Had he sent them back to Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, the states, I believe, number one, you would have had a different outcome. But I also believe you wouldn’t have had ‘Jan. 6’ as we call it.”
In other words, if Pence had simply agreed to go along with Trump’s illegal scheme, ignored the election results, abandoned democracy, and played his part to hand illegitimate power to a president who’d been defeated, then Trump’s radicalized followers wouldn’t have felt the need to attack our seat of government.
This blame-the-victim argument is, of course, utterly bonkers, though it’s not altogether surprising. After all, in March 2021 — just two months after the riot — the former president sat down with ABC News’ Jonathan Karl and defended rioters’ “hang Mike Pence” chants, describing the mantra as “common sense.”
More than a year later, in June 2022, the Republican headlined a far-right gathering and again targeted his vice president, telling supporters that “Mike did not have the courage to act.”
With this in mind, yesterday’s rhetoric was ridiculous, but it was not out of character.
What I’m curious about, however, is the degree to which Trump’s rhetoric represents a risk.
Let’s not forget that Jack Smith’s special counsel investigation recently subpoenaed Pence, seeking his testimony as part of the criminal investigation into Trump’s alleged Jan. 6 misconduct. The former vice president is a critically important witness, with unique insights, but he’s currently fighting the subpoena, trying his best not to cooperate with law enforcement. In the process, Pence is also shielding Trump from accountability.
In theory, the former vice president could hear Trump blame him for Jan. 6 violence, become outraged, call Smith, and effectively say, “On second thought, I have a few details I’d like to share after all.”
But in practice, Trump apparently believes that Pence is so docile, he can blame his former vice president for the violence Trump created — the violence that put Pence's own family in danger — confident in the knowledge that Pence won’t do anything provocative in response.
It’s up to the Hoosier to now decide whether that assumption is correct.