It’s been hard, these last couple of weeks, to watch and rewatch the horrifying events of January 6, 2021. As the House select committee investigating the attack on the Capitol has conducted its televised hearings, they have played video clips of the violence over and over again. No image is more memorable—and more disturbing—than that of the wooden gallows Donald Trump’s supporters erected on the Capitol lawn as rioters chanted “Hang Mike Pence! Hang Mike Pence!” The committee documented that those threats were real. According to an F.B.I. affidavit the panel highlighted on Thursday, a government informant said that members of the far-right militant group the Proud Boys told him they would have killed Pence “if given the chance.” The rioters on January 6th almost had that chance, coming within forty feet of the Vice-President as he fled to safety.
The malice of those in the crowd toward Pence, the holier-than-thou evangelical Christian who had spent the previous four years as Donald Trump’s slavishly loyal sidekick, was remarkable.
“If Pence caved we’re going to drag motherfuckers through the streets,” one rioter was captured on video saying. “He deserves to burn with the rest of them,” another said. A man with a bullhorn agitated the crowd. “Mike Pence has betrayed the United States of America,” he informed the already agitated mob. “Mike Pence has betrayed this President.” He finished with a threat and a promise: “We will never, ever forget.”
The explosive ending of the Trump Presidency has always been a story about the rift between Trump and Pence—two of the most mismatched figures ever to be thrown into a marriage of political convenience. For four years, Trump had tested and tried his sanctimonious No. 2, but Pence never broke. Not in public, not, as far as we can tell, in private, either. He was famous during the Trump years for doing and saying almost nothing that would make news. When he debated Kamala Harris during the 2020 campaign, his most memorable moment was when a fly landed on his impeccably coiffed white hair and he did not react for the full two minutes that it sat on his head.
But on January 6th, Pence finally did break with Trump, refusing to go along with the President’s absurd, illegal, and unconstitutional plot to have his Vice-President single-handedly overturn the will of the American people and block Congress’s confirmation of Joe Biden’s victory. On Thursday, the House committee devoted its hearing to attempting to explain Trump’s scheme to pressure Pence—which unfolded in a series of inflammatory Presidential tweets, angry phone calls, and bizarre White House meetings that were a mix of constitutional-law seminars and live reënactments of “The Godfather.” The committee introduced a new villain to a national television audience: John Eastman, the former law professor who concocted the absurd legal theory that Pence could unilaterally overturn the election—a concocted counterpart to what U.S. District Judge David Carter recently skewered as “a coup in search of a legal theory.”
If the hearing was designed to eviscerate the professional standing of Eastman, it succeeded blisteringly well. He was shown to be inconsistent, not on the level, and legally and historically shoddy in his work. Greg Jacob, Pence’s former counsel, testified that Eastman even acknowledged, at one point, that he knew his theory was unconstitutional and would likely be unanimously rejected by the Supreme Court—if it ever got there. The committee’s biggest reveal of the day was an e-mail from Eastman to Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, asking for a Presidential pardon for himself. “I’ve decided that I should be on the pardon list, if that is still in the works,” Eastman wrote. Lawyers who don’t think they did anything wrong are not in the habit of asking for pardons. When called for a deposition by the panel, Eastman cited his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination a hundred times, Representative Pete Aguilar of Texas revealed.
But, of course, Americans don’t really care about John Eastman. Nor should they. It was President Trump who desperately seized on Eastman’s absurd argument that the Vice-President determines the winner of Presidential elections. It was Trump who brought this buffoon into the White House, Trump who demanded that Pence attend repeated meetings with him, and Trump who charged ahead with the plot.
Trump did not care what Eastman’s legal theories were. He just wanted him to provide one. His goal was to keep power by whatever means necessary. Once again, the January 6th panel presented compelling evidence that Trump personally orchestrated the campaign—inflaming the mob when Pence did not cave in, as Trump apparently expected, after four years of caving in. In a dramatic phone call from the Oval Office on the morning of January 6th, with his family arrayed around him listening, the President berated and castigated his Vice-President. Trump called him a “wimp,” according to one witness. A former aide to Trump’s own daughter Ivanka recalled Ivanka telling her that Trump had called Pence a “pussy.” When Pence rebuffed him anyway, Trump, a few hours later, tweeted his anger at Pence’s lack of “courage”—even as the mob stormed the Capitol. “It felt like he was pouring gasoline on the fire,” one of his White House officials, Sarah Matthews, testified regarding the tweet.
Purely by coincidence, I’m sure, Thursday’s hearing took place on the seventh anniversary of the day when Trump kicked off his Presidential campaign with that famous escalator ride down to the lobby of Trump Tower. Soon after the hearing ended, I received a fund-raising e-mail from Trump asking, “Do you remember this day 7 years ago?” and promising that if I sent him money by 11:59 P.M. I would both get my name on “the 2022 Trump Donor Wall” and have my gift “INCREASED by 600%.” (How, exactly, was not clear.) The Trump grift continues.
And that, really, was the bigger point of Thursday’s debates about the language of the Electoral Count Act of 1887 and the powers vested in the Vice-Presidency. Trump remains not only an e-mail-fund-raising huckster but also the subject of historical inquiry. He continues to be what retired the federal judge Michael Luttig, a conservative legal icon who advised Pence, called him at Thursday’s hearing: a “clear and present danger” to the nation. ♦