WASHINGTON — There is one and only one person who would qualify as the star witness in the second impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump. That person is Mike Pence.
To call the former vice president a key figure in the events preceding and during the deadly January 6th insurrection would understate the matter. Pence amplified Trump during the president’s year-long campaign to undermine the integrity of the 2020 election, Pence remained in the executive branch during Trump’s post-election crusade to overturn the outcome, Pence presided over the Electoral College certification, and Pence ran for his life as the MAGA faithful used violence to try to stop that certification — all of this makes him the ultimate character witness and fact witness. He was also a target and a victim, as the chilling footage presented Wednesday by the House impeachment managers showed, fleeing to safety that day just moments before a mob seeking to kill him breached the Capitol’s inner sanctum. Put under oath, forced to shed his usual slipperiness with the truth and speak plainly to what happened on and before the 6th, Pence could give the Democratic impeachment managers the evidence and testimony they need to win over at least a few Republican senator-jurors.
Yet Pence is nowhere to be seen. He has gone silent, dropped off the political radar, after he attended Biden’s inauguration on January 20th and then left office. His decision to ensure the peaceful transfer of power over Trump’s objections tainted him in the eyes of the MAGA diehards; testifying as a witness in the ongoing impeachment trial would require leaving behind that movement — and much of the Republican base — for good.
“I think he’s trying to avoid the spotlight and run out the clock, and then see how things play out,” says Tim Miller, a former Republican political operative and Trump critic. (Miller is also a Rolling Stone contributor.) “No matter what you think about how the Republican Party evolves over the next four years, it’s really hard to imagine a situation where someone that actively testifies against him becomes the nominee.”
The second impeachment trial of Donald Trump for the high crime of inciting insurrection against the U.S. government has shown that Pence, and Pence alone, was there every step of the way in Trump’s campaign to reverse the election outcome and subvert the peaceful transfer of power.
Rewind the tape to the 2020 campaign. The former president’s conspiratorial, baseless, and anti-democratic attacks on the integrity of the 2020 election were the ultimate self-serving argument, the laying of a foundation that ensured Trump would be the victor no matter the final result. In Trump’s telling, “Either he won the election, or he would have some angry supporters, not all, but some who believed that if he lost, the election had to be rigged,” as impeachment manager and Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) put it on Wednesday.
Pence was, as ever, Trump’s loyal lieutenant during this all-out assault on democracy. He said in his lone debate with then-Sen. Kamala Harris that universal mail-in voting created a “massive opportunity for voter fraud” — something belied by the conservative movement’s own data even though he added it was still possible to have a “free and fair election.” At a conference hosted by the pro-Trump group Turning Point USA after the election, Pence promised to “keep fighting until every legal vote is counted” and “until every illegal vote is thrown out.” Pence campaigned in support of Georgia Senate candidates Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, both of whom amplified Trump’s disinformation about the 2020 election outcome.
And when the focus of Trump’s election-subversion efforts finally turned to the January 6th certification, Pence said through a spokesman he welcomed “the efforts of members of the House and Senate to use the authority they have under the law to raise objections and bring forward evidence before the Congress and the American people.” A big wet kiss, in other words, to the likes of Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley who were planning to challenge the certification of specific states won by Biden during the proceedings on the Senate floor.
Was Pence shouting “stop the steal” and “fight like hell” as Trump did? No. Was he a participant in Trump’s assault on the 2020 election result and peaceful transfer of power? You bet. And witness testimony to that assault could yield new and powerful information in a trial.
On the day of the certification, Pence took his turn in the spotlight when he would preside over the final step in confirming Biden’s victory. Here, Pence’s value as a witness changes from character witness and participant to victim and target. It was at this point, as the chronology of events laid out by the House impeachment managers makes clear, that Trump’s increasingly desperate efforts to stop the peaceful transfer of power turned to pressuring Mike Pence.
“States want to correct their votes, which they now know were based on irregularities and fraud, plus corrupt process never received legislative approval,” then-President Trump tweeted on the morning of January 6th. “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!”
“If Vice President @Mike_Pence comes through for us, we will win the Presidency,” Trump tweeted again on the 6th.
“Mike Pence, I hope you’re going to stand up for the good of our constitution and or the good of our country,” Trump said in his now-fateful speech at the Save America rally that day, mere moments before members of the crowd descended on the Capitol. “And if you’re not, I’m going to be very disappointed in you, I will tell you right now.”
Pence would not be intervening. For all his fealty to Trump, he had a shred more loyalty to the Constitution, at least in this case. “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 wrote to Congress.
In return, the president and the mob turned on him. They chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” and “Bring out Pence!” as they smashed the Capitol windows and built a gallows outside.
“Hang Mike Pence! Hang Mike Pence” pic.twitter.com/5Fw0hZq1VH
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 10, 2021
Security-camera footage played by the House impeachment managers revealed the mob came far closer to reaching Pence and his family inside the Capitol than originally known.
Wow. Security footage I haven’t seen before lays out just how close the Trump mob came to having an opportunity to get their hands on Mike Pence pic.twitter.com/apUGBnwcte
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 10, 2021
To their credit, Pence and the Congress insisted on finishing what they’d started, certifying Biden’s victory once the police had secured the Capitol. But surely the most damning detail, as reported by the Washington Post, was this: Trump never spoke to his vice president during the attack. “Trump never called him that day or in the days following to make sure Pence was okay — or to discuss a governmental response to the deadly riots the president incited,” the Post later reported. Instead, Trump tweeted that 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. USA demands the truth!”
This tweet alone is a key piece of evidence for the House impeachment team. But Tim Miller, the former GOP operative, says the prosecution must go further than that. “If it’s true Mike Pence and Donald Trump didn’t talk that whole time, that’s a grave personal affront to the vice president but it also shows there was no effort to plan a response to the attack on our Capitol,” Miller says, adding, “It’s incumbent on the Democrats to call on him to testify. Their presentation has been excellent but it’s missing what happened on January 6th between 1 and 6 o’clock.”
Donald Trump has already said he will not testify in his impeachment trial. That leaves one person who can tell the full story of what Trump did and didn’t do on that historic day.