Mike Pence was described as the hero of the hour, the man who stood his ground to Donald Trump’s coup plot and saved America from a violent “revolution”.
Yet among the rows of committee members, witnesses, reporters, congressmen and women and young citizens at Thursday’s January 6 hearing into the attack on the Capitol, the former vice-president was nowhere to be seen. Pence was 500 miles away in Ohio to promote “American energy dominance”.
Both events could ultimately lead in the same direction: Pence 2024, a once unlikely presidential campaign illuminating the complexity of his relationship with his former boss, Trump.
Pence has dropped numerous clues already, from founding an organisation, Advancing American Freedom, to touring Republican primary battlegrounds. Nothing that the 63-year-old says on the early campaign trail, however, might be as crucial as the near three hours that played out in his absence on Thursday before a TV audience of millions.
But the panel came to praise Pence, not to bury him, or to hang him, for that matter – like some of Trump’s insurrectionists wanted. Even while he was taking part in a roundtable discussion in Cincinnati, the ex-vice-president’s ears might have been burning as the congressional committee investigating last year’s deadly assault on the US Capitol cast him as the savior of the republic.
They spoke of a man who put his loyalty to country ahead of his loyalty to Trump, a potential selling point to Republican voters who may want to move on from the former president. But the session could also prove a serious liability for Pence with the Trump base, hardening its view of him as a traitor.
The third public hearing was about Trump’s attempts to pressure Pence to overturn his 2020 election defeat. It heard how the president was told repeatedly that Pence lacked the constitutional and legal authority to meet his demands.
Bennie Thompson, chairman of the committee, began the hearing by observing: “Mike Pence said no. He resisted the pressure. He knew it was illegal. He knew it was wrong. We are fortunate for Mr Pence’s courage on January 6. Our democracy came dangerously close to catastrophe. That courage put him very close to tremendous danger.”
The vice-chairwoman, Liz Cheney, a Republican who in theory could run against Pence in 2024, added: “Pence understood that his oath of office was more important than his loyalty to Donald Trump. He did his duty. President Trump unequivocally did not.”
The committee heard how Trump latched on to a “nonsensical” plan from a conservative law professor, John Eastman, and launched a public and private pressure campaign on Pence days before he was to preside over the January 6 joint session of Congress to certify Joe Biden’s election victory.
Witness Greg Jacob, who was the vice-president’s counsel, testified that Pence refused to yield to it. The former Indiana governor understood the founding fathers did not intend to empower any one person to affect an election result and never wavered from that view.
It was the death knell for the Trump and Pence’s marriage of political convenience. The president whined: “I don’t want to be your friend any more if you don’t do this.”
And as a giant screen in the cavernous caucus room showed, it lit the fuse for a mob on January 6 to make bellicose declarations such as “Mike Pence has betrayed the United States of America!” The sound of chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” was juxtaposed with the image of a mock gallows against the backdrop of the US Capitol dome.
Computer graphics demonstrated how Pence was evacuated from the Senate chamber but was just 40 feet from the mob and in great peril. Jacob recalled: “I can hear the din of the rioters in the building while we moved. I don’t think I was aware they were as close as that.”
The committee noted that a confidential informant told the FBI that the far-right group the Proud Boys would have killed Pence if they got the chance. Jacob recalled how Pence declined to leave, insisting that the world must not see the vice-president “fleeing the United States Capitol”.
Yet Trump never called to check on his safety. Asked how Pence and his wife Karen reacted to that, Jacob replied simply: “With frustration.”
The implication was that Pence bravely alone stood between America and catastrophe. But the praise singing was jarring to critics who wondered why he was far away in Ohio and not here to speak for himself.
Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, tweeted: “Why won’t Pence testify before the January 6 House Committee and tell all of us what really happened?”
Pence did, after all, act as Trump’s enabler for the previous four years. As vice-president he gave speech after speech lauding his boss and his policies, betraying no hint of dissent. In one strange example of sycophancy, he even seemed to imitate Trump’s actions in placing a water bottle on the floor.
Asha Rangappa, a lawyer, CNN analyst and former FBI special agent, wrote on Twitter: “Pence is not a hero. Pence is a coward. It just so happens that on Jan 6, his fear of displeasing Trump was (fortunately) outweighed by a fear of something else – either being implicated in a failed coup and/or aiding and abetting criminal activity – but he’s still a coward.”
Even now, while stating that Trump was “wrong” to seek to overturn the election, Pence also regularly trumpets the achievements of the Trump-Pence administration, pushes rightwing talking points and savages Biden and the “woke” left.
A presidential run would presumably try to square the circle by offering a resumption of the “America first” agenda but within recognised constitutional and democratic boundaries. “Look, I’m Donald Trump but without the violence,” as Michael D’Antonio, a Pence biographer, has put it.
But Thursday’s hearing might just as easily be the breaking, not the making, of a Pence bid for the White House. His defiance of Trump has now been luminously displayed for a national audience and recorded for posterity. He will not be speaking at this week’s Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Nashville after being booed last year; Trump is the star turn on Friday.
If the Republican party was still “team normal”, Pence would now be strongly placed to make the case that he was a loyal vice-president who showed his independence when it mattered. This week’s primary election results, however, suggest that the party remains “team Maga” and some still believe that Pence should hang.