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It has been a year since the riot at the Capitol building. Rivers of ink will surely be dedicated to what happened that day, what it has meant for America, and who the ultimately responsible for the chaos was. Many will point their fingers at former President Trump or at some troublemakers in the crowd. Others will commend the job of the Capitol Police for taking the building back. However, the figure who will probably go unnoticed is the one who took the greatest political risk and did the right thing in face of unprecedented pressure: Vice-President Mike Pence.
The weeks before January 6th
Let us remember the weeks and days before January 6, 2021. Former President Trump spent every day –once it was clear that Biden won the election— casting doubts on the legitimacy of the vote and filing dozens of legal challenges across the country. After two months, Trump’s efforts lead to nowhere: his lawsuits died in court, the results showing Biden as the winner of the election were duly certified by the states, and they were to be counted in a Joint Session of Congress on January 6.
The noise over the election, however, was still very loud. Trump, started to publicly call Mr. Pence to take an extreme step on January 6 and single-handedly discard enough Biden electors, arguably with the hopes of keeping the presidency despite not having the appropriate number of certified electors to keep the job. Many Republican lawmakers had declared their intention to contest the results of a slew of states, however, since the House was controlled by Democrats, any legislative maneuver to give the Presidency to Trump would have to count with the approval of VP Pence.
According to Article 1, Section 1 of the Constitution, and the Electoral Count Act of 1887, the Vice-President would be the chair of the Joint Session of Congress where the electoral votes are to be opened and counted. What Trump was asking Pence, however, was not to fulfill the traditional role of a Vice-President presiding over a ceremonial and irrelevant procedure, but to unilaterally decide the results of an election. Trump was asking his VP (who was also in the ballot) to decide an election against the express wishes of the states, based on fraud allegations dismissed by the courts. Trump was asking Pence to go against tradition and custom, potentially plunging the country into a constitutional crisis.
Mike Pence took the right decision, and paid the political cost for it
Mike Pence experienced an amount of political pressure that no Vice-President has had in recent history. If Pence were to acquiesce to Trump’s wishes, the country would be facing a full-blown succession crisis just two weeks before the end of Trump’s term, as Democrats would surely protest any maneuver that gave the presidency to Trump both in the courts and in the streets, while Republicans would do the exact opposite. The alternative option, however, meant the sure fury of the President who Pence had closely worked for four years and would probably irreparably harm his political fortunes in the future.
The Vice-President, who was mocked by Democrats as a Trump lackey and stooge since 2017, made clear that he would not submit to the wishes of the President. He said he had no Constitutional authority to do what Trump asked him to do and that his oath prevented him from unilaterally deciding which votes were lawful and which ones were not.
We all know what happened afterward: the protest outside the Capitol turned into a riot and the session of Congress had to be suspended until the building was clear of trespassers. While protesters were breaching the chambers, Trump tweeted that Pence “didn’t have the courage to do what should have done,” marking the beginning of a clear divide between the former running mates.
As expected, Pence has paid a political cost for his decision, as polls show that his net favorability among registered Republicans falling substantially since the Capitol riot, while Trump’s have remained high.
Had Pence acted only on his personal political interests, the decision was fairly simple: Do what Trump asked, in the best case scenario he would be Vice President for four more years and secure himself as a standard-bearer for the Trump movement. In the worst-case scenario, he would not be VP but he would pass the ultimate loyalty test to Trump, ensuring himself a strong place within the MAGA base.
Pence’s decision was not based on personal political calculations. Certifying the results would not earn him any liberal accolades, it would potentially make him a pariah with a significant part of the GOP base while earning him very little support among the public. It was, nevertheless, the right thing to do for the country.
Some have accused Pence of not being a true conservative or called him a coward. They could not be farther from the truth: Pence made a decision rooted in the Republican tradition of the United States and its Constitution, and he decided to act against his direct political interests by doing what was right. By doing so, he was both conservative and brave.
On January 6, 2021, Mike Pence was tested as few have before, and proved that politicians can still put country over party. Even if Pence’s fellow Republicans might not value his actions on that day, history will.
Daniel is a Political Science and Economics student from the University of South Florida. He worked as a congressional intern to Rep. Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) from January to May 2020. He also is the head of international analysis at Politiks // Daniel es un estudiante de Cs Políticas y Economía en la Universidad del Sur de la Florida. Trabajo como pasante legislativo para el Representate Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) desde enero hasta mayo del 2020. Daniel también es el jefe de análisis internacional de Politiks.