Pence rises to the occasion, to truly save America
“I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.” That is the assurance that executive branch officials give when they take the oath to support and defend the Constitution, and to faithfully discharge the offices they are about to assume.
I’ve been privileged to take the oath. In nearly 20 years as a prosecutor, I also came to admire deeply the judges who insisted that all activity in their courtrooms come to a halt, to the point where you could hear a pin drop, when the oath to testify truthfully was administered to a witness. There is a great deal you can learn about people in the way they express a solemn vow. Is it something they are internalizing, such that the commitment becomes solemn and breaking it would be as inconceivable as ceasing to breathe? Or is it just a rote incantation, no more profound than “pass the salt”?
In Washington, there is no shortage of salt-passing, to go along with all that buck-passing.
Fortunately, when the time came to rise to a tumultuous occasion, it turned out that Mike Pence had no reservation about defending the Constitution. He honored his commitment with courage and, as things shamefully developed, at no small risk to himself.
Contrary to how he now chooses to remember it, President Trump is the one who needed Vice President Pence, not the other way around. It was a statistical miracle that Trump won in 2016. He had no cachet with the Republican establishment, movement conservatives and evangelicals instinctively wary of a “transactional” New York limousine liberal. Pence injected credibility to the campaign. Without him, Trump never would have been elected.
Pence proceeded to serve the chief executive faithfully through four years of chaos and controversy. Much of this involved explaining Trump’s impulsive — and at times, frankly, indefensible — outbursts in a manner that conveyed calm. It also involved performing with solid competence when, as with the administration’s COVID-19 response, Trump seemed as baffled as he was baffling. Pence frequently has been accused, and not unfairly, of treacly obsequiousness, and thus of enabling rather than pushing back against the president’s unsavory traits. But he has been nothing if not loyal — indeed, to a fault.
Though frequently invoked, John Nance Garner’s description of the vice presidency as “not worth a warm bucket of spit” is less accurate than amusing. In modern times, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden all have been given weighty responsibilities in the administrations they served. But the derogatory image of the post lives on, largely because we do not expect vice presidents to do exceptional things — the job does not lend itself to that, such things being the province of the office where the buck stops.
Donald Trump’s presidency, however, has not been a normal time. In the last two months in particular, it has been a time when the Constitution has been put to an intense stress test.
This reached a head this week. Trump’s litigation crusade against the Nov. 3 election had collapsed and his entreaties to Republican officials to overturn their states’ results were rebuffed. Desperate, the president turned to his vice president as the last, best hope in his futile quest to remain in office. This trained the eyes of the nation, and especially of the zealous Trump base, on Pence.
What the president pressured him to do was blatantly lawless.
In our system, it is the states that choose the president, and the Constitution gives them sovereign authority over the disposition of their electoral votes. There is no federal check — not Congress, not the vice president — over how the states, pursuant to their own laws, certify the elections they conduct and the electors they appoint to cast their electoral votes.
Yet, Trump insisted that Pence had the power to invalidate the electoral votes of any state whose proceedings were suspect in the vice president’s unilateral judgment. Despite loss after loss in the state and federal courts of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada, Trump turned up the heat on Pence to discount the votes of some or all of those states — to rely on claims of election fraud and improprieties that Trump could not prove, but that he nonetheless continues to repeat as if they were established, undeniable fact. In the past week, Trump became disgracefully aggressive on this score, repeating in speeches and other public statements that he and his diehard followers needed Pence to come through.
On Wednesday on Capitol Hill, before tens of thousands of “Save America” rally demonstrators, this gambit hit its crescendo in Trump’s tirade — to call it a “speech” does not do his incitements justice. The president explicitly rejected the Constitution’s limitations on power, claiming, as authoritarians are wont to do, that the law always permits doing what the leader deems necessary to save the country. As the time drew near for the joint congressional session over which the vice president was to preside for the purpose of counting electoral votes, Trump exclaimed that it was up to Pence to stop the election from being stolen.
But Pence publicly and emphatically rejected the president’s high-pressure demands. Fully aware that he would incur the wrath of a mercurial president and the stoked Trump base, Pence insisted that he had no authority under the Constitution to reject unilaterally the votes of any state. This guaranteed that all of the votes would be counted, and therefore that Joe Biden would be declared the rightful winner. It further guaranteed that Pence would become the object of Trumpian scorn … and worse.
Even as a hyped-up mob descended on the Capitol, the president railed at the vice president who had served him with zeal though very hard times. “Mike Pence,” he perversely tweeted, “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.”
Predictably, when the mob stormed the building, rioters could be heard chanting, “Where is Pence?” Messages were exchanged on internet sites used by extremists to communicate indicating that a hunt for Pence was under way by some of the insurrectionists, who ripped through the building, violently attacking congressional chambers and offices. We now know that, with the vice president and lawmakers under siege, the president refused initial pleas to deploy the National Guard to reinforce the overwhelmed police. In the deadly melee, one woman was shot to death by security forces, and three other people died as a result of what’s been described as “separate medical emergencies.”
Pence defended the Constitution under fire. And he preserved it, along with congressional leadership and lawmakers in both chambers, by reassembling when the building was finally secured. Into the wee hours of the morning they worked to fulfill their vote-counting obligation and declare Biden as the nation’s next president.
It was a demonstration of valor and fidelity to his oath. If Vice President Pence’s political stock is rising, it is because he put politics aside and did his job.
Former federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at National Review Institute, a contributing editor at National Review, and a Fox News contributor. His latest book is “Ball of Collusion.” Follow him on Twitter @AndrewCMcCarthy.
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