Pence on January 6th: There's more at stake than just party or one election

And with that, Mike Pence surgically detached himself from MAGA World, if not Donald Trump himself. Appearing at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library with Reagan’s famous words “A Time for Choosing” hovering behind him pregnant with meaning, Pence spoke out for the first time about the January 6 debacle at the Capitol. Without naming Trump, Pence rebuked “those in our party” who wanted him to violate the Constitution and block the counting of electoral votes from states the Republican ticket lost.

“There is no idea more un-American,” Pence declared, “than the notion that any one person could choose the American president.” After a small joke about his own disappointment at losing, Pence rebuked Republicans for “losing faith in the Constitution” in their last-minute attempt to install Trump and himself over Joe Biden and Kamala Harris:

“The Constitution affords the vice president no authority to reject or return electoral votes submitted to the Congress by the states,” said Pence, contradicting Trump’s claim at his January 6 rally that his vice president could “do the right thing” and reject the vote count.

Without mentioning Trump by name, Pence said there are “those in our party” who believe that “any one person” could select the president.

“Truth is, there is almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president,” he said.

Trump continues to insist the election was stolen, and just this week told an interviewer that he “never admitted defeat” and was “very disappointed that (Pence) didn’t send it back to the legislatures.”

By contrast, Pence acknowledged the “disappointment” of defeat in 2020.

“Now, I understand the disappointment many feel about the last election,” he said. “I can relate. I was on the ballot. But you know, there’s more at stake than our party and our political fortunes in this moment. If we lose faith in the Constitution, we won’t just lose elections — we’ll lose our country.”

It’s a time for choosing, indeed. It’s also the closest that Pence has come to explicit criticism of the man he served faithfully for four years. Rumors had it that Trump and Pence had maintained a friendly relationship after the January 6 riot, even though the rioters threatened Pence specifically and Trump’s response to the riot was at best slow.

This is as good of an indication as we’ll get that Pence isn’t prioritizing a 2024 presidential run. He might be attempting to push the “stop the steal” nonsense far enough to the sidelines for a better, fresher candidate to emerge. At the very least, Pence’s remarks make it a little easier for candidates to avoid having to pander to the fever swamp.

One has to wonder, though, whether Pence aimed this more at Trump or at the Republicans in Congress that tried to fulfill Trump’s wishes. The Constitution and the law are clear on this point, and Pence is entirely correct. The role of Congress in counting Electoral College votes is entirely ceremonial, as is Pence’s role in presiding over the session, when states send one certified slate of electors to the Electoral College. The states elect the president and Congress has no constitutional role in approving or rejecting those votes unless states send competing slates of electors — and then Congress’ only role is determining which slate to accept. Every state sent one properly certified slate of electors in 2020, though, so Congress’ only role on January 6th was to count the ballots and announce the results.

Pence’s rebuke in the plural — “those in our party” — shows he has something broader in mind when opposing Republicans who put their party above the Constitution for political power. That’s clearly not just Trump, and it might not even be primarily Trump. But it certainly includes Trump, and Pence and everyone else knows it … including Trump. If this is a time for choosing, Pence’s choice just became clear.