WASHINGTON – For the Republican Party – and for the nation – the fleeting crumbs of courage were four years too late.
On Wednesday, as the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory looked increasingly inevitable, Vice President Pence and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., did something that has eluded them for much of President Trump’s tenure – they clearly and decisively bucked the president.
Speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday, McConnell, his voice breaking at moments, warned that “our democracy would enter a death spiral” if the losing side in an election were able to overturn a fair outcome with baseless allegations.
“Voters, the courts and the states have all spoken – they’ve all spoken,” McConnell said. “If we overrule them, it would damage our republic forever.”
And Pence, who has turned his studied subservience to Trump into a full-time public persona, made clear in a 21/2-page letter sent to lawmakers Wednesday afternoon that he planned to fulfill his constitutional duties and – over the vehement entreaties of his boss – certify the election of Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris.
Yet as the two Republican leaders, who in different ways have enabled and abetted some of Trump’s angriest instincts for much of his presidency, took their stands, the chaos and mayhem unfolding around them underscored the consequences of trying to proclaim democratic norms after Trump has spent his presidency incinerating them.
McConnell and Pence’s fealty to the Constitution came on a day when a mob of angry Trump supporters breached the sanctum of the Capitol; when the vice president was whisked out of the Senate chamber for his own safety; and when members of Congress were given gas masks and urged to shelter in place.
And it came on a day when the rioters replaced an American flag on a Capitol balcony with a Trump banner; when a woman was shot inside the Capitol and later died; and when the president’s former top administration officials took to Twitter to beseech him to quell the violence.
“Peaceful protests are one thing,” wrote former Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. “Illegally storming the Capitol is another thing entirely. The President needs to discourage any violence immediately.”
Trump, he added, “can stop this now and needs to do exactly that. Tell these folks to go home.”
The Republican Party’s bargain with Trump, writ large, has involved indulging the president’s whims and anti-democratic passions in return for the promise of political gain and the hope of avoiding his ire. Both McConnell and Pence benefited from the arrangement.
The majority leader did split with Trump on some key issues. He vigorously condemned the 2017 violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, in a way Trump did not, declaring that “there are no good neo-Nazis.” And after Trump failed to forcefully denounce the extremist right-wing Proud Boys, McConnell said it was “unacceptable not to condemn white supremacists,” though did not mention Trump by name.
But McConnell also used the president, who took office without a clear legislative agenda, to pursue his own passions, including seeding the nation with conservative judges. Working with Trump, McConnell pushed through more than 220 conservative federal jurists, including three appointments to the Supreme Court.
In an interview with journalist Bob Woodward, Trump boasted that he and McConnell “have broken every record” on judges, explaining, “You know what Mitch’s biggest thing is in the whole world? His judges.”
For Pence, the implicit deal with Trump was even clearer. The then-presidential candidate plucked Pence out of an Indiana governor’s race that he was in danger of losing to be his running mate, and Pence repaid the kindness with unwavering subservience, inextricably binding himself to a man known for demanding absolute loyalty while rarely repaying in kind.
For four years, Pence has praised the president’s “broad-shouldered leadership,” often contorting himself to avoid having to disagree with or contradict the president, especially in public.
And so, on Wednesday, McConnell’s speech and Pence’s letter were notable mostly for their noteworthiness, for the fact that Trump has so bent the standards of political behavior that their pro forma actions – their fulfillment of their constitutional responsibilities – seemed somehow defiant.
“I am not here for the tweets about McConnell rising to meet this historic moment while complete unlawful chaos unfolds outside the Senate chamber,” tweeted Amanda Carpenter, a conservative and outspoken Trump critic.
Brendan Buck, a former Republican leadership aide who is also a Trump critic, said McConnell and Pence had few options Wednesday other than carrying out their duty to ratify the election results.
“I don’t think it speaks to any particular moment of clarity for them; it’s more an issue of what their job is and how they read it,” Buck said. “Everybody is aware that this presidency is over in two weeks and there are certain steps you have to take to get there, and they’re just dutifully executing them.”
Nonetheless, Pence and his team steeled themselves for what they expected would be a backlash from the president, and indeed, the retribution was swift. Addressing supporters on the Mall on Wednesday, Trump repeatedly pressured his No. 2 to use his perch to overturn the election results, even though Pence lacked the authority to do so.
“Mike Pence, I hope you’re going to stand up for the good of our Constitution and for the good of our country,” Trump said to applause. “And if you’re not, I’m going to be very disappointed in you.”
Later, using the derogatory acronym RINO – for “Republican In Name Only” – Trump added, “So I hope Mike has the courage to do what he has to do, and I hope he doesn’t listen to the RINOs and the stupid people that he’s listening to.”
After returning to the White House, once it became clear Pence was not going to do his bidding, Trump took his anger to Twitter. “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify,” Trump wrote. “USA demands the truth!”
By then, however, Pence had already been ushered out of the Senate chamber to a secure location as his boss’s supporters – at least one of them waving a Confederate flag – swarmed past Capitol police and flooded into Congress’s ornate meeting place.
In his letter explaining his rare break with Trump, Pence urged his fellow politicians to set “politics and personal interests aside, and do our part to faithfully discharge our duties under the Constitution.”
Speaking to the nation from the Senate floor, McConnell, too, sought to strike a tone of conscience and duty.
“We cannot keep drifting apart into two separate tribes with a separate set of facts and separate reality, with nothing in common except our hostility towards each other and mistrust for the few national institutions that we all still share,” he said.
It was the sort of message for which McConnell might hope to be remembered, and he laid it out before what he said would be “the most important vote I’ve ever cast” in his nearly four decades in the Senate. And for Pence, it was the sort of calm and competent execution of duties and deference to the Constitution for which he might also hope to be remembered, as he tries to cobble together a political future in a post-Trump world.
But as the sun gave way to darkness and flash-bangs and skirmishes erupted on the steps of the Capitol, their deliberate actions and words were engulfed and then overtaken by the day’s violence and chaos and Trump flags, all encouraged by the president they had served faithfully for four years.