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Pence prevented a fall into chaos, and 3 other takeaways from Jan. 6 hearing

A committee exhibit shows former Vice President Mike Pence talking on the phone from his secure location during the riot, as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol holds a hearing on Thursday.
Susan Walsh
A committee exhibit shows former Vice President Mike Pence talking on the phone from his secure location during the riot, as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol holds a hearing on Thursday.

The moment was dramatic.

Rioters had overrun law enforcement in the U.S. Capitol. Just 40 feet from the vice president of the United States and his team – and hearing the din of the rioters – the Secret Service was hurrying to evacuate the group, into a car and out of there.

But Vice President Mike Pence refused.

He was determined to finish the business of the government, to count the votes that would affirm the results of the presidential victory of Joe Biden as president and Kamala Harris as vice president, the very people Pence ran against.

And he did so as he was facing unprecedented pressure from President Trump. Even as the insurrectionists had breached the Capitol, Trump sent a tweet tightening the squeeze on Pence.

"Pence didn't have the courage to do what should have been done," Trump tweeted, aware the rioters had breached the Capitol.

It was a tweet a White House aide described, in taped testimony, as "pouring gasoline on the fire." Aides were advising him to do the opposite, to send something to tamp down the violence. Instead, Trump escalated.

That wasn't a scene out of a Hollywood movie, it's what the Jan. 6 committee revealed in vivid detail in its third hearing Thursday.

Here are four takeaways of what we learned during the hearing:

1. Had Pence not rebuffed the pressure, the country would have been thrown into chaos.

Pence faced an enormous amount of pressure to do something he had no constitutional authority to do – reject the electors' votes for president or throw it back to the states.

The 12th Amendment and the Electoral Count Act lay out a ceremonial role for the vice president to preside in this process, not one that gives him power to essentially overturn the results of an election.

Had Pence ceded to the pressure, witnesses said Thursday, American democracy would have been significantly weakened.

Greg Jacob, a lawyer for Pence, said there would have been short-term and long-term consequences – political chaos with lawsuits and unrest in the streets and would have set a precedent establishing a situation where one person had authority to determine the outcome of an election.

Pence was determined to avoid that – despite the very real threats he faced.

Retired Judge J. Michael Luttig, who advised Pence on the vice-presidential role on Jan. 6, told the panel that because of Trump, his allies' and his supporters' continued rhetoric, they continue to represent "a clear and present danger to democracy."

Still, it was a little odd to have the story told without two of the principal characters – Trump and Pence.

"He obviously did the right thing on Jan. 6," Neal Katyal, former acting solicitor general in the Obama administration, said on MSNBC after the hearing. "Great. But the idea that he can sit on the sidelines during this hearing and not tell the American people ... not tell the Justice Department what actually happened in his words, to me, I find unforgivable. So, it's great to lionize him for what he did last year, but I want to know, and I want to hear from him what actually happened in his own words."

2. The pressure came from the top.

Trump pressured Pence publicly and privately. In addition to that 2:24 p.m. tweet on Jan. 6, Trump referred to Pence 11 times during his speech on Jan. 6 before the insurrection.

Trump tweeted multiple times in the days leading up to Jan. 6 targeting Pence, lied in a statement about Pence agreeing with him about the power the vice president had and multiple witnesses, including Trump's daughter Ivanka, testified to a "heated" phone call on Jan. 6 between Trump and Pence.

Trump was trying to browbeat Pence into going along with what he wanted. Witnesses described Trump as using the word "wimp," saying that Pence didn't have the "courage" to overturn the election and that Trump used the "p-word."

The committee did a strong job relaying just how much Trump's words resonated with his mob of supporters who stormed the Capitol.

"If Pence caved, we're going to drag m************ through the streets," one rioter is heard saying on video. "You politicians are going to be dragged through the streets."

The committee also revealed a chilling quote, noting that a Proud Boys informant told the FBI that the Proud Boys "would have killed Mike Pence if given the chance."

3. The pressure on Pence continued even after the riot.

Not only did Trump send that tweet, but Pence lawyer Jacob testified that lawyer John Eastman, who had concocted this plan and convinced Trump of it, urged Jacob to get Pence to delay certification and send it back to the states.

"That's rubber room stuff," Pence replied when Jacob showed him the email.

Earlier, Jacob told Eastman "because of your b******* we are in this situation," referring to the mob storming the Capitol

Eastman responded by blaming the siege on Pence for not doing what he and Trump were asking.

4. The committee began to lay out potential criminal liability for Eastman – and possibly Trump.

There was lots of evidence that Eastman believed Pence didn't have the authority to do the very thing he was asking him to do.

Jacob testified that Eastman admitted on Jan. 5 that he wouldn't want a Democratic vice president to do the same thing – and didn't believe they, or Pence, legally could.

Trump White House lawyer Eric Herschmann testified that when he told Eastmann that there would be riots if his memo was enacted, Eastman responded, "There's been violence in the history of our country to protect our republic."

After the riot, Eastman emailed Rudy Giuliani, asking to be put on the pardon list. He wasn't. When he was brought before the Jan. 6 committee, Eastman pleaded the Fifth at least 100 times.

Eastman indicated to Jacob that he understood that he and Trump were asking Pence to do something he really had no authority to do, according to Jacob. Jacob asked if Eastman had told Trump this, and Eastman responded that, yes, he did, but "once he [Trump] gets something in his head, it's hard to get it out."

A federal judge earlier this year, in a non-binding opinion, said it was "more likely than not" that Trump and Eastman conspired and "corruptly attempted to obstruct" Congress, given their actions before and on Jan. 6.

Dozens have already been convicted of obstruction of Congress and obstructing an official proceeding. The question now, though, is what happens next, and how real is the possibility that prosecutors at the Justice Department do, in fact, go after Trump.

But, so far, there's been a lack of cooperation between the committee and the Justice Department. The department complained in a letter to the committee that it hasn't turned over needed transcripts. That, it said, "complicates the Department's ability to investigate and prosecute those who engaged in criminal conduct in relation to the January 6 attack on the Capitol."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.