By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – Mike Pence’s Washington career began in January 2001, highlighted by his refusal nine months into his first House term to abandon the U.S. Capitol as al-Qaeda terror pilots had just assaulted the Pentagon and Flight 93 was aimed toward the citadel of American democracy.

In the Sept. 13, 2001 edition of Howey Politics, Pence described the anger he felt pumping adrenaline through his veins on Sept. 11 as F-16s crisscrossed the sky over the U.S. Capitol seeking the rogue airliner. 

He defied an order to evacuate and walked back to the landmark edifice just before 10 a.m. “I couldn’t walk away from the moment,” Pence thought as smoke billowed from the Pentagon. “I had to report to duty. It was like standing on the shore of Pearl Harbor. I did not feel any emotion but resolute anger until I heard the voice of my wife at 11 a.m. That’s when I heard how frightened she was; I was really overcome.”

Pence’s Washington career may have come to an end a little less than 20 years later, on Jan. 6 as the vice president presided over what had been known as “the peaceful transfer of power,” or the congressional counting and certification of Electoral College ballots before the building was overrun by domestic insurrectionists inspired by his boss, President Donald Trump.

Three books released this past week have highlighted the final months, days and hours of the Trump presidency and have cast Vice President Pence’s role in two ways: As a savior of American democracy when he refused to subvert the will of 82 million American voters; or as a subservient enabler who passively watched for nearly two months as Trump sought to “overturn” the 2020 election.

According to the new book, “I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year,” by Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, Vice President Pence refused a Secret Service request that he leave the building on Jan. 6, 2021, as insurrectionists invaded the building, chanting “Hang Mike Pence!”

At 2:13 p.m. on Jan. 6, Pence’s Secret Service detail removed the vice president from the Senate floor and took him through a side door to his ceremonial office nearby, along with his wife, Karen, their daughter Charlotte, and his brother, Greg, a congressman from Indiana. The Pences were hurried across one of the Capitol’s many ornate marble hallways to get there, but the path proved eerily close to danger. One or two minutes later, marauders chanting Pence’s name charged up the stairs to that precise landing in front of the hallway, and a quick-thinking Capitol policeman, Eugene Goodman, led the rioters in a different direction, away from the Senate chamber. Had Pence walked past any later, the intruders who called him a traitor would have spotted him.

Tim Giebels, the lead special agent in charge of the vice president’s protective detail, twice asked Pence to evacuate the Capitol, but Pence refused. “I’m not leaving the Capitol,” he told Giebels. The last thing the vice president wanted was the people attacking the Capitol to see his 20-car motorcade fleeing. Leonigg and Rucker wrote: “That would only vindicate their insurrection.” The third time Giebels asked Pence to evacuate, it was more of an order than a request. ‘They’re in the building,’ Giebels said. ‘The room you’re in is not secure. There are glass windows. I need to move you. We’re going.’ At 2:26, after a team of agents scouted a safe path to ensure the Pences would not encounter trouble, Giebels 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.’”

In Wall Street Journal reporter Michael C. Bender’s book, “Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost,” we got this take of the moment: Secret Service agents hustled Pence off the Senate floor and into a nearby hideaway. If the insurgents had arrived on the second-floor landing just seconds earlier, he would have been within their reach. The frenzied crowd had overrun the Capitol Police and the Metropolitan Police Department, and Pence’s safety – and that of just about everyone else in the Capitol – rested on the arrival of the National Guard. ‘I want them down here – and I want them down here now,’ Pence firmly instructed during a call with the Pentagon.”

President Trump was in his White House study, doing nothing to quell the violence he had promised would “be wild,” instead watching the melee on TV, essentially AWOL.

In Michael Wolff’s book, “Landslide: The Final Days of the Trump Presidency,” the New York Times reports that his main sources seem to be a group of aides at a second or third level of celebrity, people who see themselves as “political professionals.” Administration staff members like Jason Miller (communications adviser), Mark Meadows (White House chief of staff), Matthew Morgan (counsel to the reelection campaign) and Marc Short (Mike Pence’s chief of staff) appear often in Wolff’s accounts of White House meetings, usually attempting unsuccessfully to impose a measure of order and sanity as the president sought to overturn the election with an unprecedented coup d’etat.

“In insider political circles,” Wolff writes, “almost all politicians are seen as difficult and even damaged people, necessarily tolerated in some civics class inversion because they were elected. You took it and put up with it and tried to make the best of it, not in spite of everything, but because this was what you did; this was the job you had.” Or you thought you could help by “keeping it from being so much worse than it otherwise might be.”

Or you persuaded yourself that you were serving a larger cause, as in the case of Marc Short: “He detested the president but saw a tight-lipped tolerance, however painful, as the way to use Trump’s popularity to realize the conservative grail of remaking the federal courts and the federal bureaucracy.”

Nobody holding official power in the White House or the Republican Party – in particular, Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell – took Trump’s ravings seriously, so the horrifying events of Jan. 6 came as a surprise, probably even to Trump himself, Wolff observed. The various rallies that day had been organized by independent right-wing political entrepreneurs with businesses to promote, not by the White House, and it wasn’t yet clear to most Republicans in Washington how fully Trump’s followers had accepted his insistence that the election had been stolen. Almost nobody in the White House was actively trying to persuade members of Congress to vote for the election challenges that were before them on Jan. 6.

According to Wolff’s book, President Trump wondered how Pence “could be such a ‘stiff’ and a ‘square’”. Trump thought of Pence “as someone not tough, as someone who, he increasingly pointed out, could be ‘rolled.’”

According to a review of Wolff’s book in The Independent, during his weekly lunches with Trump, Mike Pence was afforded around 10 minutes to talk about what he was up to before Trump turned on the TV and started complaining about what was bothering him. Wolff writes that “the lunches were specifically meant to be an opportunity for Pence to tell the president exactly how hard he was working for him.”

“He usually got 10 minutes to do this before Trump snapped on the television and launched into his current list of grievances,” Wolff writes. The relationship between the two men grew tense after the 2020 election when Pence rebuffed the argument that he could reject what Trump thought were “fraudulently chosen electors” and stop Congress from certifying Trump’s loss. Both Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani hoped that Pence would swoop in to declare Trump president, a solution Pence could not legally offer. Describing a Jan. 5 meeting between the two, Trump demanded that Pence work to overturn the “stolen” results. Trump maintained that Pence would have a “heroic place in history” if he did as he was asked. “Do you want to be a patriot or pussy?’” Mr. Wolff writes. “Pence, not rising to the bait, repeated that, in the overwhelming opinion of those constitutional experts he had consulted, the Constitution did not give him the authority to do what the president thought he could do.”

Whole world watching Pence


In my Dec. 31, 2020, column, “The Whole World Will be Watching Mike Pence,” I explained reason the world would be transfixed on Pence is that President Trump has expressed his intent to “overturn” (as he tweeted) the will of the American people. “GREATEST ELECTION FRAUD IN THE HISTORY OF OUR COUNTRY!!!” this sophomoric president tweeted. He told WABC on Dec. 21, “It’s the most corrupt election this country’s ever had, by far.”

“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” Trump tweeted that December in an appeal to his supporters. Trump’s unsubstantiated allegations and his use of the Twitter pulpit have had an impact. A Fox News poll found 77% of Trump voters believe the election was stolen. A Reuters/Ipsos Poll found 68% of Republicans believe the election was “rigged.”

Since the Nov. 3 election, Trump and his allies had filed more than 50 lawsuits contesting the results, winning only one case. In case after case, judges assailed the Trump campaign for providing no substantive evidence of any vote fraud. Votes in Georgia have been counted three times with no change in results. In Pennsylvania, U.S. District Judge Matthew W. Brann, the Notre Dame graduate who is a member of the conservative Federalist Society, compared the Trump campaign legal arguments as a concoction “like Frankenstein’s Monster.” Brann said that it “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations” in its effort to throw out millions of votes.

There was a lawsuit from Texas which sought to subvert Biden’s victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona that was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court with this terse statement on Dec. 11: “Texas has not demonstrated a judicially cognizable interest in the manner in which another State conducts its elections.” In amicus briefs, this “hail Mary” attempt was supported by Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, Attorney General-elect Todd Rokita, and U.S. Reps. Jackie Walorski, Jim Banks, Jim Baird, Trey Hollingsworth and Greg Pence.

Attorney General William Barr doused Trump’s allegation of a “rigged” election, saying in late December, “To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have affected a different outcome in the election.” And the Wall Street Journal editorialized, “Republicans should be embarrassed by Mr. Trump’s Electoral College hustle. Mr. Trump is putting his loyal VP in a terrible spot, and what do Republicans think would happen if Mr. Pence pulled the trigger, Mr. Biden was denied 270 electoral votes, and the House chose Mr. Trump as president? Riots in the streets would be the least of it. Mr. Pence is too much of a patriot to go along, but the scramble to overturn the will of the voters tarnishes Mr. Trump’s legacy and undermines any designs he has on running in 2024.”

In January, Trump focused on Pence


Bender writes that by January, Trump’s attention had turned to his vice president, who was responsible for presiding over the Jan. 6 congressional certification of the election. The two men had debated for weeks whether Pence could reject the results. But the vice president wasn’t practiced in confronting Trump, Bender wrote. The only example some administration officials could remember was in 2018, when Pence’s political committee hired Corey Lewandowski, the president’s ubiquitous adviser. Trump was holding a newspaper article about the hiring and said it made him look weak, like his team was abandoning him as he was probed for his campaign’s role in Russian election meddling. He crumpled the article and threw it at his vice president. “So disloyal,” Trump said.

Pence lost it. Jared Kushner had asked him to hire Mr. Lewandowski, and he had discussed the plan with Mr. Trump over lunch. Pence picked up the article and threw it back at Trump. He leaned toward the president and pointed a finger a few inches from his chest. “We walked you through every detail of this,” Pence snarled. “We did this for you – as a favor. And this is how you respond? You need to get your facts straight.”

Bender continues: “Three years later, the moment seemed to call for another get-your-facts-straight lesson from Pence. But the vice president’s team believed he’d been clear with the president that he didn’t have the constitutional authority to overturn the vote. ‘Anything you give us, we’ll review,’ Pence told the president during a meeting on Jan. 5. ‘But I don’t see how it’s possible.’ Trump later insisted that his vice president never told him no. That night, after meeting with Pence, the president summoned aides into the Oval Office. He opened the door to the colonnade and told staff to sit and listen to his supporters celebrating near the Ellipse, the site of the Save America rally the following day. As aides shivered in the wintry breeze that filled the room, Trump signed a stack of legislation and bobbed his head to the classic rock blaring outside – precisely the kind of music he’d play ahead of his rallies.

“Trump praised his supporters’ energy and asked his team if the following day would be peaceful. ‘Don’t forget,’ Trump told them, ‘these people are fired up’.”

In “I Alone Can Fix It,” Trump faulted not only his attorney general, but Vice President Pence for lacking the bravery to do what he thought was right. “Had Mike Pence had the courage to send it back to the legislatures, you would have had a different outcome, in my opinion,” Trump said. “I think that the vice president of the United States must protect the Constitution of the United States. I don’t believe he’s just supposed to be a statue who gets these votes from the states and immediately hands them over. If you see fraud, then I believe you have an obligation to do one of a number of things.’

The irony was lost on Trump, however, that one of the central reasons he had prized Pence as his number two was his resemblance to a statue standing adoringly at his side.

“Trump then invoked the nonanalogous example he had latched on to: “Thomas Jefferson was in the exact same position, but only one state, the state of Georgia. Did you know that? It’s true. It was, ‘Hear ye, hear ye, the great state of Georgia is unable to accurately count its votes.’ Thomas Jefferson said, ‘Are you sure?’ They said, ‘Yes, we are sure.’ ‘Then we will take the votes from the great state of Georgia.’ He took them for him and the president.”

“Trump continued, ‘So I said, ‘Mike, you can be Thomas Jefferson or you can be Mike Pence.’ What happened is, I had a very good relationship with Mike Pence – very good – but when you are handed these votes and before you even start about the individual corruptions, the people, the this, the that, all the different things that took place, when you are handed these votes ... right there you should have sent them back to the legislatures.’”

Later in the conversation, Trump again expressed his disappointment in Pence. “What courage would have been is to do what Thomas Jefferson did [and said], ‘We’re taking the votes,’” he said. “That would have been politically unacceptable. But sending it back to these legislatures, who now know that bad things happened, would have been very acceptable. And I could show you letters from legislators, big-scale letters from different states, the states we’re talking about. Had he done that, I think it would have been a great thing for our country.” But, he surmised, “I think he had bad advice.”

This came in the same interview in which Trump insisted that a dream ticket of “George Washington and Abraham Lincoln” couldn’t have defeated Trump/Pence in 2020. Leonnig and Rucker marveled on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Tuesday about Trump’s penchant for grasping surreal alternative realities.

Jan. 6 insurrection

As the sun rose over Washington on Jan. 6, electricity hung in the air. “The big day had come,” Leonnig and Rucker observed. “Thousands of President Trump’s supporters began gathering on the Ellipse to stake out a good spot from which to see the president, who was scheduled to address the “Save America” rally around noon. Organizers had obtained a federal permit for 30,000 people, but it looked as if the crowd would be even larger than that. Thousands more prepared to make their way toward the Capitol to protest the certification of Joe Biden’s election. At the White House, Trump set the tone for the day with an 8:17 a.m. tweet: ‘States want to correct their votes, which they now know were based on irregularities and fraud, plus corrupt process never received legislative approval. All Mike Pence has to do is send them back to the States, AND WE WIN. Do it Mike, this is a time for extreme courage!’

“Many of Trump’s advisers knew this would never actually happen,” Leonnig and Rucker wrote. “They chalked the president’s tweet up to theater. Vice President Pence could have the courage of a lion, but there was no doubt that he would fulfill his constitutional duty and preside over the pro forma certification of Biden’s win. As one senior official recalled, ‘All of us knew this was the endgame. The clock had run out. By January 6th, it was game over … We knew we would take the blows. This was date certain. The vice president knew this.’”

Gen. Mark Milley was watching on television from his office as well, deeply disturbed by the rhetoric. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff already had been on edge, Leonnig and Rucker wrote. A student of history, Milley saw Trump as a classic authoritarian leader with nothing to lose. He described to aides that he kept having a stomach-churning feeling that some of the worrisome early stages of 20th-Century fascism in Germany were replaying in 21st-Century America. He saw parallels between Trump’s rhetoric about election fraud and Adolf Hitler’s insistence to his followers at the Nuremberg rallies that he was both a victim and their savior. “This is a Reichstag moment,” Milley told aides. “The gospel of the Führer.”

According to New Yorker reporter Susan Glasser: “Before the election, Gen. Milley had drafted a plan for how to handle the perilous period leading up to the Inauguration. He outlined four goals: First, to make sure that the U.S. didn’t unnecessarily go to war overseas; second, to make sure that U.S. troops were not used on the streets of America against the American people for the purpose of keeping Trump in power; third, to maintain the military’s integrity; and, lastly, to maintain his own integrity. He referred back to them often in conversations with others.”

Glasser continued: “As the crisis with Trump unfolded, and the chairman’s worst-case fears about the President not accepting defeat seemed to come true, Milley repeatedly met in private with the Joint Chiefs. He told them to make sure there were no unlawful orders from Trump and not to carry out any such orders without calling him first – almost a conscious echo of the final days of Richard  Nixon, when Nixon’s defense secretary, James Schlesinger, reportedly warned the military not to act on any orders from the White House to launch a nuclear strike without first checking with him or with the national-security adviser, Henry Kissinger. At one meeting with the Joint Chiefs, in Milley’s Pentagon office, the chairman invoked Benjamin Franklin’s famous line, saying they should all hang together. To concerned members of Congress, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and also emissaries from the incoming Biden Administration, Milley also put out the word: Trump might attempt a coup, but he would fail because he would never succeed in co-opting the American military. “Our loyalty is to the U.S. Constitution,” Milley told them, and “we are not going to be involved in politics.”

In a statement released on Thursday, reacting to reports about the Rucker and Leonnig book, Trump said, “I never threatened, or spoke about, to anyone, a coup of our Government.” Tellingly, Trump added, “If I was going to do a coup, one of the last people I would want to do it with is General Mark Milley.”

Leonnig and Rucker continue: “Trump called Pence, who was spending the morning at his Naval Observatory residence before heading to the Capitol. Pence again explained the legal limits on his authority as vice president and said he planned to perform his ceremonial duty, as prescribed by the Constitution. But Trump showed him no mercy. ‘You don’t have the courage to make a hard decision,’ he told Pence. Ivanka Trump, standing next to aide Keith Kellogg near a grandfather clock in the back of the room, had a hard time listening to her father badger the vice president to do something she knew was not possible. ‘Mike Pence is a good man,’ she said quietly to Kellogg, the vice president’s national security adviser who was close to Trump. ‘I know that,’ he replied. ‘Let this ride. Take a deep breath. We’ll come back at it.’ After hanging up with Pence, Trump went back into the dining room to check on the crowd on TV. Ivanka Trump followed her father and tried to convince him to see the situation rationally. But she was unpersuasive. Trump had given Pence instructions and was hellbent on getting him to follow through.

“As the Capitol was breached by the mob, back at the White House, Kellogg was worried about Pence’s safety and went to find Trump. ‘Is Mike okay?’ the president asked him. ‘The Secret Service has him under control,’ Kellogg told Trump. ‘Karen is there with the daughter.’

“’Oh?’ Trump asked. ‘They’re going to stay there until this thing gets sorted out,’ Kellogg said. Trump said nothing more. He didn’t express any hope that Pence was okay. He didn’t try to call the vice president to check on him. He just stayed in the dining room watching television.

“Kellyanne Conway tried to talk to Trump and left a message with his office, asking that her name be added to the chorus of people calling on the president to do something,” Leonnig and Rucker reported. ‘This is really bad,’ Conway said. ‘People are going to get hurt. Only he can stop them. He can’t just tweet. He’s got to get down there.’ Alyssa Farah, watching on television from Florida, was heartbroken and reached out several times to Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, her former boss. ‘You guys have to say something,’ she told him. ‘Even if the president’s not willing to put out a statement, you should go to the [cameras] and say, ‘We condemn this. Please stand down.’ If you don’t, people are going to die.’”

Meanwhile, Leonnig and Rucker write that it was Pence who had assumed command: At 4 p.m., Pence called acting Defense Sec. Christopher Miller from his secure location. The vice president was calm. He had no anxiety or fear in his voice. Pence delivered a set of directives to the defense chief. “Get troops here; get them here now,” the vice president ordered. “We’ve got to get the Congress to do its business.”

“Yes, sir,” Miller said.

It was the sternest Miller or the other Pentagon officials listening had ever heard Pence. “Get the Capitol cleared,” he told Miller. “You’ve got to get down here. You’ve got to get the place cleared. We’ve got to do what we have to do.” 

“Yes, sir,” Miller answered.

At 6:01 p.m., Trump tweeted: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”

At no time that Wednesday since the Capitol siege began did these government and military leaders hear from the president. Not even the vice president heard from Trump. At 8:06 p.m., an emotional Pence called the Senate back into session. “To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win,” he said. “Violence never wins. Freedom wins, and this is still the people’s house.”

At 3:32 a.m. Jan. 7, Pence cited the results for Biden’s victory in Vermont, pushing the Democrat past the 270 electoral votes for Congress to confirm him as the next president nearly 15 hours after the joint session began. “Are there any objections to counting the certificate of the state of Vermont?” Pence asked. There was only silence.

“The announcement of the state of the vote by the president of the Senate shall be deemed a sufficient declaration as persons elected president and vice president of the United States,” Pence said at 3:41 a.m.

HPI’s takeaways

What emerges from these three books on a future one by Susan Glasser and Peter Baker of the New York Times is many of those closest to President Trump saw he was irrational and dangerous. They stayed on either as so-called “guardrails,” or in the case of Short and Pence, saw Trump as a means to political and policy goals.  Pence ended up insuring his place in history as the last link guardian from an unprecedented coup d’etat, but he has been severely burned politically.

Epilogue

Los Angeles Times editorial writer Michael McGough asks: “Was Mike Pence a hero in the siege of the Capitol? Certainly Pence was a potential victim.” A few points:

“When he issued a statement early on Jan. 6 indicating that he lacked the unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted, Pence was stating the obvious. It was a ‘Profiles in Courage’ moment only by the low standards of the Trump administration.

In that statement, Pence felt obliged to provide a sop to Trump and his supporters. The letter includes this gratuitous sentence: ‘After an election with significant allegations of voting irregularities and numerous instances of officials setting aside state election law, I share the concerns of millions of Americans about the integrity of this election. ... As presiding officer, I will do my duty to ensure that these concerns receive a fair hearing.’

”Between the election and Jan. 6, Pence offered moral support for Trump’s campaign to discredit the election results, which culminated in Trump’s inflammatory speech on Jan. 6. On Dec. 10, Pence, campaigning for Republican Senate candidates in a Georgia runoff election, endorsed a preposterous lawsuit filed by the attorney general of Texas asking the Supreme Court to overturn election results in four states. ‘God bless Texas!’ he said. (The Supreme Court rejected that suit the next day.)

”The Democrats are right to portray Pence as a potential victim on Jan. 6. The insurrectionists’ chants of “Hang Mike Pence!” were chilling. But the fact that Pence did his duty doesn’t make him a hero.”