Pence is central in Jan. 6 investigation as 'constitutional patriot' who defied Trump, became mob target

Vice President Mike Pence refused to single-handedly reject state electors, which made him a target of the mob that ransacked the Capitol.

Bart Jansen
  • Former Vice President Mike Pence refused to reject electors from seven states Trump sought to win.
  • Rioters on Jan. 6, 2021, chanted "Hang Mike Pence" and erected a gallows outside the Capitol.
  • House panel might not call Pence, but his top aides have cooperated .

WASHINGTON – When a violent mob breached the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Secret Service agents hustled Vice President Mike Pence off the Senate floor and down a flight of stairs restricted to lawmakers and other dignitaries.

He left while rioters prowled the Capitol halls and chanted "Hang Mike Pence." Members of the mob later pawed through the mahogany desks in the Senate chamber and sat for pictures in Pence's chair on the rostrum.

The House committee investigating the attack will focus during its June hearings on Pence's key role presiding over the Electoral College vote count.

Rather than single-handedly rejecting electors from states then-President Donald Trump lost, as the president and his allies urged, Pence refused to interfere with or delay the count certifying President Joe Biden's victory while a mob ransacked the Capitol and threatened the vice president's life.

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"I think something that stood out to me is that there were certain people who were in the right place and did the right thing," said one of the committee members, Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va. "They followed the law. They were courageous. They stood up to pressure, like the former vice president, for example. It was a tragic event for our country and there were villains that day, of course. But there were people who were heroic, who through their actions really prevented a much worse outcome."

The committee chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., told reporters the panel is unlikely to call Trump because "we're not sure that the evidence that we receive can be any more validated with his presence."

Thompson said lawmakers discussed having Pence testify, but that it might not be necessary because of cooperation from his top advisers. Pence's chief of staff, Marc Short, and counsel, Greg Jacob, were among more than 1,000 witnesses, including more than a dozen from the White House, who met with the committee.

Vice President Mike Pence presides over a joint session of Congress as it convenes to count the Electoral College votes cast in November's election, at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., stands at right. Pence did not bend to President Donald Trump’s extraordinary pressure to intervene and presided over the count in line with his ceremonial role. He announced the certification of Biden’s victory before dawn, hours after a mob of Trump’s supporters violently ransacked the building.

Short said he called Pence’s lead Secret Service agent to his West Wing office the day before the riot to warn that Trump was going to turn publicly against the vice president, which could become a security risk to Pence, according to The New York Times.

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Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to Trump's White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, told the committee he saw coverage of the riot on television Jan. 6. Hutchinson and another witness said Meadows told colleagues Trump spoke approvingly of the chants to "Hang Mike Pence," according to The New York Times.

When asked about the chants to hang Pence, Trump later told ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl that Pence was "in very good shape" and "well protected," but that "the people were very angry."

The committee hearings come as Pence increasingly distances himself from Trump. In a proxy battle in Georgia’s Republican primary May 24, Pence endorsed Gov. Brian Kemp against Trump’s preferred candidate, former Sen. David Perdue.

The political rupture came after Trump has repeatedly insisted Pence could have changed the election results. In a statement Jan. 30, Trump said lawmakers were trying to change the Electoral Count Act because the vice president could have rejected electors from contested states.

“Unfortunately, he didn’t exercise that power, he could have overturned the Election!” Trump said.

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Pence disagreed in a speech Feb. 4 to the Federalist Society.

“President Trump is wrong,” Pence said. “I had no right to overturn the election.”

President-elect Donald Trump, Vice President-elect Mike Pence and Allen Weisselberg, chief financial officer of The Trump Organization, on Jan. 11, 2017,  in New York.

Trump strategy focused on Pence

Pence’s role as Senate president was crucial to Trump’s plan. A Trump lawyer, John Eastman, outlined how Pence could reject electors from seven states and throw the race into the House, which could elect Trump.

“All Mike Pence has to do is send them back to the States, AND WE WIN,” Trump tweeted at 8:17 a.m. on Jan. 6. “Do it Mike, this is a time for extreme courage!”

Trump called Pence twice that morning, failing to connect at 9 a.m. and then chatting at 11:20 a.m., according to court records. Pence's national security adviser, Keith Kellogg, was present and described Trump berating Pence for not being "tough enough to make the call," according to court records.

Trump kept up the drumbeat during his rally speech later that day.

“Because if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election,” Trump said. “He has the absolute right to do it.”

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But Pence had refused when he met in the Oval Office on Jan. 4 with Trump, Eastman, Pence, Short and Jacob. Pence stressed his “immediate instinct that there is no way that one person could be entrusted by the Framers to exercise that authority,” according to Jacob.

Pence was also bolstered by some conservative legal firepower. Eastman had clerked for a widely respected federal appeals court judge, Michael Luttig. Pence’s personal lawyer, Richard Cullen, called Luttig on Jan. 4 to ask about Eastman.

Luttig tweeted his disagreement with Eastman’s argument the morning of Jan. 5.

“The only responsibility and power of the Vice President under the Constitution is to faithfully count the electoral college votes as they have been cast,” Luttig said. "The Constitution does not empower the Vice President to alter in any way the votes that have been cast, either by rejecting certain of them or otherwise."

U.S. District Court Judge David Carter later said Luttig found Eastman “incorrect at every turn,” when he ruled against Eastman in a case to prevent the committee from getting his emails.

Before the joint session of Congress began on Jan. 6, Pence released a letter rejecting Trump’s strategy.

“It is my considered judgment that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not,” Pence said.

A noose on makeshift gallows as supporters of then-President Donald Trump gather at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Pence hunted by mob

The decision put Pence at some personal risk. The mob that ransacked the Capitol injured 140 police officers. Members of the mob erected a gallows outside the building. Rioters chanted, “Hang Mike Pence.”

After rioters broke into the building through windows and doors, the Senate recessed at 2:13 p.m., interrupting Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., debating an objection to Arizona's electors.

Secret Service agents brought Pence to an underground parking garage for his protection. But Pence refused to leave the Capitol grounds with them until the counting of the Electoral College votes was completed.

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While seeking shelter, Jacob emailed Eastman at 2:14 p.m. saying rioters believed his theory with all their hearts and "thanks to your bull----, we are now under siege," according to court records.

As the violence unfolded on live television, Trump criticized Pence in a tweet at 2:24 p.m.

"Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify," Trump said. "USA demands the truth!"

Rioters entered the Senate galleries about 2:45 p.m., and the Senate floor a few minutes later, according to a House timeline at Trump's impeachment for inciting the attack. The House impeached Trump and the Senate acquitted him.

Pence presided when the Senate returned at 8:06 p.m.

A member of the House committee investigating the attack, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., has criticized Pence for spending four years in the Trump administration demonstrating “invertebrate sycophancy.” But Raskin called Pence a “constitutional patriot” for standing up to Trump that day.

“They were chanting – I heard them chanting – 'Hang Mike Pence' and they meant it,” Raskin said at Georgetown University’s Center on Faith and Justice.

Raskin called Pence’s refusal to get into a car with Secret Service agents, potentially to be carried away from the Capitol, the most chilling words he's heard during the investigation.

“He said, 'I’m not getting in that car until we count the Electoral College votes,'” Raskin said. “He knew exactly what this inside coup they had planned for was going to do.”