The January 6th Select Committee recently all but exonerated former Vice President Mike Pence of responsibility for the events of that day by praising him as a profile in courage because he certified the November 2020 elections. Not so fast. Pence was and remains among the voices perpetuating the “big lie,” questioning the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s victory.
The committee is also in danger of undermining the principle of broader political accountability for Jan. 6. Pence was not alone in prevaricating. On the basis of former Mark Meadows’ aide Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony on June 28, and other publicly available information, key White House aides who knew something was amiss and Cabinet officials who considered invoking the 25th amendment to remove then-President Donald Trump for incapacity did nothing to publicly alert Americans to the danger their democracy faced.
Most of these individuals are not being asked to appear before the committee, and they remain largely silent. It was only on June 29, in the wake of Hutchinson’s testimony, that former White House counsel Pat Cipollone was subpoenaed to testify – off-camera. He reportedly threatened to resign numerous times in the weeks before the insurrection but has not explained why. Cipollone can testify to any criminal activity he may have seen without breaking executive privilege. It remains to be seen if he did during his closed door testimony on July 8.
These senior officials with a public trust should not be treated as heroes or concerned citizens because they had reservations at the time about the efforts to overturn the election results and to select new state electors. They did not act – not on Jan. 6, not in the weeks before the insurrection, and not in the aftermath as the enormity of what had occurred sank in. Some, like former Attorney General William Barr, who authorized the Department of Justice to look into “vote tabulation irregularities” – over the objections of the head of the Election Crimes Branch who resigned instead – cooperated in the early stages of the attempt to discredit election results. They are being given an accountability pass.
Their actions may or may not be prosecutable, but political accountability should be about more than building court cases and establishing criminal liability. Not all situations lend themselves to such an outcome. The evidence trail in the Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandals did allow for convictions of political figures; the path forward has been less clear for the events of Jan. 6 but evidence is emerging that points in the same direction, and as the Department of Justice prosecutes hundreds of individuals involved in the assault on the Capitol.
An important study by the non-partisan Protect Democracy Project lays out what broader political accountability can look like for Jan. 6. It includes constructing “a full record of wrongdoing; pursu[ing] deterrence through consequences for wrongdoing; rebuild[ing] prescriptive norms of acceptable political behavior; and generat[ing] shared narratives.” The corollary is that doing so “can combat disinformation and . . . lay the political groundwork for institutional reforms.”
This cannot happen if accountability and responsibility are relativized – which is what is happening across the American political spectrum. Politicized justices on the Supreme Court camouflage an ideological power play as a constitutional debate over the legality of abortion – normalized and enabled by far too many critical commentators willing to argue the finer points of the Roe v. Wade decision. Despite the recommendations by legal experts and the Accountability 2021 project on the need for reforms after the Trump years, the Biden administration acts as if federal institutions have been restored by an election. Decapitation videos and “hunting RINOs” campaign ads by congressional representatives and candidates are mainstreamed as part of the political landscape despite concerns about the increasing use of violent rhetoric in political discourse. Congress and the White House play the gun safety bill compromise as a breakthrough and are duly applauded as they sidestep the Supreme Court undermining their efforts by overturning New York’s ban on carrying concealed weapons. Since the murder of George Floyd two years ago, the white supremacy replacement theory only seems to gain in force, without the national headlines, and questionable law enforcement shootings of unarmed Blacks continue – and continue to be justified by police.
Pence’s rehabilitation is particularly jarring. This is a politician who in March 2021, two months after January 6th, perpetuated the falsehoods of doubt over the outcome of the November 2020 election in an op-ed: “After an election marked by significant voting irregularities and numerous instances of officials setting aside state election law, I share the concerns of millions of Americans about the integrity of the 2020 election.” He showed no “courage” on Jan. 6, only the expediency of a politician who consulted with numerous advisers before making the obvious decision that he could not disrupt the election certification process without serious consequences for him as well as the nation.
Indeed, to paint Pence as an unwilling participant dragged into Trump’s scheme ignores the fact that Pence himself can lay claim to being present at the creation of disinformation efforts regarding election results. As early as 2016 he was touting extensive voter registration fraud potentially involving thousands of people in his home state of Indiana, although no evidence was found to back the claims. In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, which Donald Trump won, Pence was named the chairman of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity which, among other things, was meant to look into unsubstantiated allegations that millions of undocumented citizens voted in the 2016 election – an allegation that Pence backed. In December 2020, as vice-president, Pence openly supported the effort by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to overturn election results in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
As late as Jan. 2, 2021, four days before the insurrection of Jan. 6, Pence through a spokesperson supported the efforts by Senator Ted Cruz and ten other Republican senators to oppose certification of the November 2020 elections until a ten-day audit of results in the disputed states was completed. It is hard not to draw the conclusion that Pence was playing both sides until the very eve of Jan. 6. His tactical silence since his afore-mentioned op-ed last year appears to be just that as he supports efforts in states like Texas to restrict voting rights.
Accountability is about the future as much as the past. As things stand now, Pence will escape accountability for standing on the sidelines after the November 2020 election and for his silence after January 6th. In the meantime, he helped create the environment for the Texas Republican Party platform, which rejected the legitimacy of Biden’s election in June 2022. Across the country, Republicans who opposed Trump’s efforts to overturn the elections, like Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, refuse to rule out voting for the former president again in 2024. They in effect give Trump and state legislatures and House members license to subvert the process again. The debate in some circles over the wisdom of charging Trump should the evidence warrant it also relativizes accountability; there are no such qualms about charging the foot soldiers of Jan. 6. The aforementioned “prescriptive norms of acceptable political behavior” are being undermined
The January 6th committee may not be quite “blowing it,” to paraphrase David Brooks, but absolving Mike Pence from accountability also plays into the counter-narrative of a flawed election, and points towards a blurring of the objective laid out by Representative Bennie Thompson, Chairman of the January 6th Select Committee, of “a true accounting of what happened, and what led to the attack on our Constitution and our democracy.”
Washington, D.C., is a town with short memories, or no memories. Most of the time it does not seem to matter in the sweep of history. This time, American democracy, its institutions, and its people will pay unless its collective inclination to amnesia about historical events can be reversed, and meaningful accountability returns to the political firmament.