Mike Pence finally takes the witness stand: How afraid should Donald Trump be?

Mike Pence might have done the right thing and testified truthfully and thoroughly to the grand jury

By Heather Digby Parton


Published April 28, 2023 9:01AM (EDT)

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

On Wednesday night, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that Donald Trump could not claim executive privilege to prevent his former vice president Mike Pence from testifying before the grand jury that's hearing evidence for special counsel Jack Smith's investigation into the former president's activities leading up to January 6. Immediately on Thursday morning Pence testified for more than five hours. I guess they didn't want to waste any more time.

Pence and his team had negotiated with the special counsel for months to avoid having to do a voluntary interview and ended up filing a lawsuit to prevent testifying under subpoena. He claimed that as president of the Senate, he could not be compelled to testify under the speech and debate clause of the Constitution which protects members of Congress. A judge partially bought the argument. Pence was told he must testify — but he can avoid answering questions about his legislative role on Jan. 6.

In theory, Pence could have a boatload of first-hand information to share with the special counsel, backing up other testimony and possibly offering new details to which only he was privy. He can't invoke his 5th Amendment right to refuse testimony because he isn't implicated in anything illegal and he's not someone who flipped for special consideration. He would be a great witness before a jury.

The assumption seems to be that Pence will tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But I have to wonder, why? Is it beyond the realm of possibility that Mike Pence would lie? I know he is a very pious, prayerful man but he worked shoulder to shoulder with the greatest liar in history for four long years and lavishly praised him to such an extent he was known as the sycophant in chief. His adoring, puppy dog gaze toward the president spawned hundreds of memes. In one cabinet meeting, he praised Trump once every 12 seconds for three minutes straight. If Pence is really as honest as the day is long, how did he last for four years with a man who lies as easily as he breathes?

Pence could have a boatload of first-hand information to share with the special counsel, backing up other testimony and possibly offering new details to which only he was privy.

On the other hand, while he hasn't officially announced, he appears to be running for president — against Donald Trump. A ruthlessly ambitious politician in his position wouldn't hesitate to air every bit of dirty laundry to the grand jury, and since it's secret, he could do that even as he presents himself to the MAGA crowd as a more or less loyal soldier. Unfortunately, they hate him anyway because Trump told them it's his fault that Trump isn't still in the White House so I don't think any Machiavellian maneuvers would make a difference. MAGA will never forgive Pence for what he did. He can help to destroy Trump but it won't redound to his benefit.

So maybe Pence is actually looking at his political legacy. He was right in the middle of one of the most famous political events in American history and he showed himself to be quite brave that day. The mob was coming for him after Trump held him to blame for the fact that his coup plot didn't work and he stayed at the Capitol in order to certify the vote later that night. It was the only time Pence ever publicly stood up to Trump and it happened to be at a very crucial moment.

But let's remind ourselves of what else Pence did.

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From the day after the election, Pence joined with Trump in casting doubt on the election results. On November 9 he tweeted, "It ain't over til it's over. And it AIN"T over!" On January 5, at a big rally in Georgia for the runoff for the two Senate seats, he told the crowd, "We all got our doubts about the last election I want to assure you that I share the concerns of the millions of Americans about voting irregularities. I promise you come this Wednesday we'll have our day in Congress." Even after the horrifying events of January 6, a couple of months later, Pence wrote an op-ed calling the election results into question and railing against the Democratic initiatives to shore up the voting laws. He led with this:

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.

Pence spread the Big Lie right along with Trump all the way to the end and beyond.

So maybe Pence is actually looking at his political legacy.

More significantly, Pence gets tremendous credit for refusing Trump's entreaties to either refuse to count the electoral votes or call for a "pause" as his hack legal advisers were advising. According to Bob Woodward and Robert Costa in their book "Peril," he consulted with several lawyers and experts to see if it really was possible and even called upon his fellow Indianan, former vice president Dan Quayle, who told him, "Mike you have no flexibility on this. None, Zero. Forget it, Put it away."

But he didn't need to seek advice from any lawyer or former vice president. Anyone with the tiniest bit of integrity would have said, "Absolutely not" the minute it was brought up and that would be the end of that. Pence knew Biden won the election, they all did. And he knew that Trump was trying to steal it by first lying about the so-called "irregularities" which had been litigated in more than 60 lawsuits, and then concocting a scheme to obstruct the peaceful transfer of power.

Keep in mind that others in the White House did the right thing. Even Trump's accomplice, Bill Barr, a man who believes in almost limitless executive power, finally called it a day at the end of December. But Pence kept questioning what he should do even though he certainly knew that what they were asking him to do was unconstitutional and wrong. He was looking for reasons to do it anyway and he just couldn't find anyone but Trump's looney legal freakshow to tell him he should. It was only then that he decided, once and for all, that he couldn't do it.

If his memory holds up, Pence could certainly shed light on some of the conversations he had with Trump leading up to January 6. What we know of those conversations could be very damning for Trump, particularly if he let on that he knew he didn't really win. And as far as the insurrection goes, according to Woodward and Costa, on the night of January 5, when Pence told him finally that he did not have the power to do what Trump was asking him to do, Trump, looking out on the noisy crowd that had gathered in front of White House, said to him, "well, what if these people say you do? If these people say you have the power wouldn't you want to?" It certainly would be interesting to know what Pence thought he meant by that. The very next day Trump was telling those people he was going to lead a march to the capitol to let Congress know exactly what they wanted.

Mike Pence might do the right thing and testify truthfully and thoroughly to this grand jury. He did finally do the right thing on January 6. But he tried every way he could think of to find a way to do what his boss and mentor wanted him to do and he just couldn't figure out how to get it done. He's no profile in courage.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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