Politics

The Biggest Takeaway From the First Night of the Jan. 6 Hearings Was About Mike Pence

Pence shown on a big screen above a panel of committee members
The Jan. 6 hearing at the Capitol on Thursday. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On Thursday, the House select committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack held the first of a series of summer hearings to illuminate the findings of its yearlong investigation into the Donald Trump–inspired insurrection and attack on the Capitol.

Ranking member Liz Cheney of Wyoming led a compelling 30-minute introduction that featured new footage of interviews with key witnesses including former Attorney General William Barr, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, and Trump’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump. While many of the new details in these video snippets merely expanded on information already known, there were a series of crucial revelations about Vice President Mike Pence: Basically, it was confirmed that Pence was acting as president on Jan. 6, 2021, even as he was being hunted by a mob that Donald Trump had virtually sent after him.

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First, Cheney expanded on last month’s blockbuster reporting by Politico that “Trump had signaled a positive view of the prospect of hanging the vice president.” The critical new details stated by Cheney were this:

Aware of the rioters’ chants to hang Mike Pence, the president responded with this sentiment: “Maybe our supporters have the right idea.” Mike Pence “deserves it.”

This followed Trump’s rally at which he told his supporters he would be disappointed if Pence didn’t single-handedly overturn the election results during the Electoral College certification. It was also around the time that he tweeted “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution” as Trump supporters stormed the Capitol chanting for Pence’s head.

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During the riots, Pence was escorted to safety by Secret Service agents, even as the mob swarmed the inside of the Capitol rotunda. It was Trump’s duty as president to restore order to the nation’s government and call off the mob he had sent after Pence. But it was actually Pence who was issuing the orders for the military to send the National Guard. Those troops would eventually clear the Capitol.

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Cheney said that the monthlong hearings would lay out what had previously been assumed about Trump’s actions that day: that the president did nothing to stop the violence. It was not previously known that Pence was directing the response from his siege bunker.

“Not only did President Trump refuse to tell the mob to leave the Capitol, he placed no call to any element of the United States government to instruct that the Capitol be defended. He did not call his secretary of defense on Jan. 6. He did not talk to his attorney general. He did not talk to the Department of Homeland security. President Trump gave no order to deploy the National Guard that day. And he made no effort to work with the Department of Justice to coordinate and deploy law enforcement assets,” Cheney said. “Vice President Pence did each of those things.”

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Cheney then played video of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, describing how Pence responded in the crisis.

“There were two or three calls from Vice President Pence. He was very animated and he issued very explicit, very direct, unambiguous orders. There was no question about that,” Milley said in an audio-recorded sworn deposition. “But he was very animated, very direct, very firm, and to Secretary [of Defense Christopher] Miller: ‘Get the military down here, get the Guard down here. Put down this situation,’ etc.”

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By contrast, Milley testified that Trump gave no such orders. Rather, his communication with the White House involved chief of staff Mark Meadows asking the nation’s military leadership to pretend that Trump was still in command.

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“He said, ‘We have to kill the narrative that the vice president is making all the decisions,’ ” Milley testified. “ ‘We need to establish the narrative that the president is still in charge and that things steady or stable,’ or words to that effect. I immediately interpreted that as politics, politics, politics. Red flag for me personally, no action. But I remember it distinctly.”

The Pence revelations were the biggest of the hearing, but blunt video testimony from Barr and Ivanka Trump also proved momentous.

Barr testified that he told the former president that the Department of Justice had investigated his fraud allegations about the election, and that Barr told Trump they were “bullshit.”

“I saw absolutely zero basis for the allegations, but they were made in such a sensational way that they were obviously influencing a lot of people, members of the public,” Barr testified, referring to Trump’s claims that the election was stolen. “I told them that it was crazy stuff and that they were wasting their time on that and it was doing a grave, grave disservice to the country.”

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Ivanka Trump, in testimony, said she agreed. “I respect Attorney General Barr, so I accepted what he was saying,” Ivanka said in a prerecorded video.

Richard Donoghue, who took over as acting deputy attorney general after Barr left his job in December 2020, also testified that DOJ officials went so far as to tell the White House that Trump’s efforts to get the Department of Justice to parrot his fraud claims were an attempt to outright corrupt the election.

“I recall towards the end saying, ‘What you’re proposing is nothing less than the United States Justice Department meddling in the outcome of the presidential election,’ ” Donoghue testified.

In spite of the day’s dramatic revelations, it seems likely that House Republicans and the rest of the party will continue to rally around the former president, and even Democratic representatives seemed to acknowledge as much. “It’s a reminder that there was a period of time in the days and weeks after Jan. 6 when everybody who now defends the president, and embraces the lie, understood exactly what had happened and in some cases was apparently ashamed of their role,” Rep. Tom Malinowski said. “It was striking to hear—not surprising, but striking—to hear the former president’s attorney general say, finally, that it was all ‘bullshit.’ ”

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The day’s live witnesses included Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards, who testified about the moment that officer Brian Sicknick was attacked with chemical irritant. “I see movement to the left of me and I turned and it was officer Sicknick with his head in his hands and he was ghostly pale,” Edwards said. “He turned just about as pale as this sheet of paper.” Edwards was then herself sprayed in the eyes by chemical irritant, and Sicknick suffered two strokes and died one day later.

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After the hearing, Sicknick’s partner Sandra Garza exchanged a long hug with Edwards. Other officers were there in support of Edwards, including Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn, who testified at last summer’s opening Jan. 6 hearing and was wearing a T-shirt that offered the dictionary definition of the word insurrection next to another definition that read simply: “January 6, 2021.”

As Dunn told reporters of Trump’s failure to act that day: “I can’t say I’m surprised anymore. Disappointed. He’s got a job to protect not just us, but this country. He didn’t.”

Jim Newell contributed reporting to this article from inside the hearing.

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