Former vice president Mike Pence is garnering more praise than he deserves for criticizing Donald Trump’s role in the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection two years ago. At the annual Gridiron dinner on Saturday, he called out his ex-boss for inciting armed throngs against him, then doing nothing for hours as they erected a gallows, hunted for him, and shouted “Hang Mike Pence.”
Trump’s “reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol that day,” Pence told a roomful of politicians, government officials, and journalists, but with no cameras present. “And I know that history will hold Donald Trump accountable.”
As craven as Pence has been, this is a step forward from how he had previously characterized Trump’s culpability for the insurrection. In a speech months after Jan. 6, Pence would only go as far as saying that he and Trump “may never see eye to eye about what happened that day.” He sounded like he was referring to nothing more pressing than a debate over a movie plot.
However, because Pence is craven, he’s refusing to tell a federal grand jury investigating Jan. 6 what he just said at a fancy Washington gathering. Pence says he will “fight the subpoena from Biden’s DOJ,” which he has called “unconstitutional and unprecedented.” He said he’s “prepared to take this fight into the court, and if need be take it to the Supreme Court.”
Citing executive privilege, Trump’s attorneys have asked a federal judge to block Pence from testifying to a grand jury. Pence already ignored a request to speak with the House select committee that spent more than a year investigating the insurrection.
With his undeclared but known presidential aspirations for 2024, Pence wants to have it both ways. By becoming increasingly critical of Trump, he’s trying to create more daylight between them by offering a more sanguine alternative to Republicans tiring of the disgraced former president’s incendiary rhetoric and escalating legal problems. In a recent CNN/SSRS poll, Pence registered a measly 6 percent among choices for the GOP nominee. He desperately needs a boost.
But he has refused to stand with those working to uncover what happened before and on Jan. 6 when Trump’s angry supporters were, at one point, only 40 feet from Pence and his family. The vice president spent several harrowing hours that day sequestered and guarded in a loading dock under the US Capitol.
Trump, who thought Pence deserved the mob’s murder-minded chants, is still trying to hang Pence metaphorically. And he wrongly insists that Pence — not he — is responsible for the violent breach of the Capitol that left 140 law enforcement officers injured and at least five people dead.
“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,” Trump said Monday about Pence. “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.”
Or, call it Trump’s insurrection. He chose violence as his last resort to change the outcome of an election he lost decisively. Pence had no authority to reject the Electoral College votes in Congress and derail the election’s certification. So, as usual, Trump is lying.
Just as Tucker Carlson on Fox News — with a massive assist from toady and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who gave him exclusive access to hours of footage — is spinning a mendacious narrative about an insurrection millions watched explode in real time. Without mentioning the bombastic Fox host by name, Pence denounced efforts to recast Jan. 6 as “peaceful.”
“The American people have a right to know what took place at the Capitol on Jan. 6,” he said Saturday. “But make no mistake about it, what happened that day was a disgrace, and it mocks decency to portray it in any other way.”
It also mocks decency for Pence who, save for a few self-serving morsels to feed his White House ambitions, is withholding what he knows. The man whose only qualification to be vice president was saying “nice things” about Trump isn’t fighting for truth. He’s acting against the American public’s right to know as much as possible about the most serious assault ever on this nation’s democracy.
On this, Pence is right. History — unless its evisceration by Republicans continues unabated — should judge Trump for inciting the insurrection. But it must also judge Pence, a profile in cowardice, for refusing to cooperate with efforts to hold Trump and his many accomplices accountable.
Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.