Pence’s actions on Jan. 6: Heroic or the bare minimum?

·7 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

During a public hearing last week, the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot zeroed in on efforts from then-President Donald Trump and his allies to pressure his vice president, Mike Pence, to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.

Though Pence himself wasn’t present, two witnesses who were directly involved in his decision-making at the time testified that he faced repeated calls from the president and others to single-handedly block certification of Biden’s win and create space for Trump to be declared the victor. J. Michael Luttig, a retired Republican-appointed federal judge and Pence confidant, told the committee that, had Pence gone along with the scheme, it would have plunged the country into what “would have been tantamount to a revolution within a paralyzing constitutional crisis.”

The committee also detailed the significant danger Pence faced when a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in an attempt to stop Congress from ratifying Biden’s win. The hearing also featured videos of rioters chanting for Pence to be hanged and never-before-seen images of the vice president hunkered down in a loading dock as he waited for the mob to be cleared from the Capitol. Many hours later, Pence would return to the Senate chamber to formally certify Biden as the next president of the United States.

Before Jan. 6, Pence had been a loyal ally to Trump throughout the then president’s many controversies. More recently, he has mostly steered away from discussing the topic of Jan. 6, though he has occasionally pushed back against Trump’s claims that he could have unilaterally altered the election result — an idea he has called “un-American.”

Why there’s debate

Several members of the committee, including a number of Democrats, praised Pence for his actions on Jan. 6. “We are fortunate for Mr. Pence's courage,” committee chairman Rep. Benny Thompson, D-Miss., said during the hearing. That sentiment has been echoed by many political commentators who expressed admiration for Pence’s willingness to stand up for American democracy at a time of great turmoil for the country, a move that created a risk to his safety and likely dealt a major blow to his own political ambitions.

But others push back at the notion that Pence should be lauded for simply performing the duties of his office and declining to take part in a potentially illegal attempt to subvert the will of the voters. There are also some indications, they say, that Pence’s refusal was rooted more in his belief that the scheme would fail than in his allegiance to the Constitution, including a report that former Vice President Dan Quayle had to repeatedly tell him there was nothing he could do to change the outcome. Some believe that, despite his actions on Jan. 6, Pence is complicit in the “big lie” because he helped fuel the baseless conspiracies about voter fraud that inspired the mob and hasn’t done enough to denounce Trump since leaving office.

Trump supporters, of course, generally view Pence as a coward for failing to overturn an election they falsely believed was fraudulent.

What’s next

Members of the Jan. 6 committee have said they’re interested in hearing from Pence directly and have said they may use a subpoena to get him to testify, but it’s unclear whether they will ultimately issue one.

Though Pence hasn’t made any formal announcements, many political insiders believe he could be gearing up for a presidential run in 2024. If he does choose to pursue the presidency, polls suggest he’ll likely face steep odds in a Republican primary dominated by voters who back Trump and agree with his lie that the 2020 election was stolen.



Mike Pence saved American democracy

“The story of Mike Pence is the negative space in the January 6 Committee investigation. … Without him, we might not have this committee. Without him, we might not even have this republic.” — Jonathan V. Last, Atlantic

It took enormous courage for Pence to fulfill his duty under the circumstances

“I strongly disagree with those who denigrate Pence’s courage on January 6. Yes, he ‘merely’ did his duty, but we have a long and proper tradition of honoring those who do their duty under extreme duress. A fireman who runs into a burning building is ‘doing his duty.’ So is a soldier who responds with courage under fire. Yet we honor them unreservedly, as we should. Why do we honor those who do their duty under duress? Because sometimes doing what’s right requires every ounce of courage a man or woman might possess.” — David French, Dispatch

Even Pence’s political rivals recognize his bravery

“For one thing, Mr. Pence truly believes in the Constitution. In the tumult of Jan. 6, he was the indispensable man, standing his ground no matter the political cost. The committee lauded Mr. Pence’s ‘courage.’ This is worth doing.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

Pence deserves credit for defending the country but must do more

“​​Now don’t get me wrong, the former vice president does deserve recognition for his actions on January 6. … He also deserves credit for being stalwart in the face of legitimate physical danger. … But watching the hearing I was left a little cold. Amidst all of this lavish praise of Pence, and the compelling, if fawning, testimony from his own counsel, Greg Jacob, the proceedings felt like they had a phantom limb. Vice President Pence himself.” — Tim Miller, Bulwark

Pence has shown Republicans that there’s an alternative to Trump’s anti-democratic attacks

“In refusing to play by the rules as set by Trump, [Pence has] shown courage that should be encouraging to others in the party. Being an ambitious Republican doesn’t have to mean promoting or accepting falsehoods about 2020.” — Rich Lowry, Politico

He made a major personal sacrifice to uphold the Constitution

“Under great pressure both public and private, he weathered the storm and did his duty, even though his political interests may have been better served by lending more credence to ‘stop the steal.’” — Isaac Schorr, National Review


There’s nothing heroic about declining to take part in a coup

“Yes, the vice president ultimately refused to take part in Donald Trump’s power grab. But this isn’t heroic. He did not go above and beyond his constitutional obligations. He simply chose not to break the law. He did close to the absolute minimum of what we should expect from a person in his position.” — Jamelle Bouie, New York Times

Pence is complicit in a long list of Trump’s worst offenses

“Pence must have recognized Trump’s manifest unfitness for the presidency, but all the while he said nothing. Perhaps he thought the Republican-passed tax cuts and the conservative judicial appointments were worth overlooking Trump’s misconduct. Perhaps he hoped to someday inherit Trump’s loyal following and become his successor. Whatever his mind-set, he was complicit in the toxic dysfunction of the Trump era.” — Eugene Robinson, Washington Post

He refused only because he knew Trump’s plan wouldn’t work

“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.” — Hayes Brown, MSNBC

Pence has shirked his duty to hold Trump accountable since leaving office

“Subsequent to January 6, Pence hasn’t cooperated with efforts to investigate Trump’s failed coup, instead talking about how he wants to move on—actions clearly designed to preserve his status in the Republican Party.” — Jeet Heer, Nation

Trump’s plan would have flopped even if Pence had gone along with it

“So while Pence’s refusal to act might have saved the Republic from a crisis even worse than the one we experienced on January 6, let’s not credit him for saving the Constitution on his own. There were other protections in place had Pence played the toady.” — Ed Kilgore, New York

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