NEW YORK — Mike Pence fought the Department of Justice in court to try to avoid testifying against his former boss. But the former vice president plays a central role in a new federal indictment unsealed Tuesday that outlines the first criminal charges against Donald Trump connected to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
The 45-page indictment is informed, in part, by contemporaneous notes that Pence kept of their conversations in the days leading up to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, as Trump tried to pressure Pence to go along with his desperate — and prosecutors say illegal — scheme to keep the two men in power.
Among the discussions: An episode in which Trump is alleged to have told Pence that he was “too honest” for rejecting Trump’s false claims that Pence had the power to overturn the vote. “Bottom line – won every state by 100,000s of votes,” Trump said in another conversation, according to the indictment.
Pence, who is among a crowded field of Republicans now challenging Trump for the 2024 presidential nomination, has spent much of his nascent campaign defending his decision to defy Trump. He launched his bid with a firm denunciation of his two-time running mate, saying Trump had “demanded I choose between him and our Constitution. Now voters will be faced with the same choice.”
Still, Pence said last month that he did not believe Trump had broken the law in connection with Jan. 6 and has repeatedly questioned the Department of Justice’s motivations for investigating him.
On Tuesday night, he hit anew on his belief that Trump was unfit to serve again.
“Today’s indictment serves as an important reminder: Anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be President of the United States,” he said in a statement. “Our country is more important than one man. Our Constitution is more important than any one man’s career.”
At a campaign stop Wednesday at the Indiana State Fair, Pence, who previously served as the state’s governor, said he had “hoped it wouldn’t come to this,” but believed that he had “done his duty” that day.
“Sadly the president was surrounded by a group of crackpot lawyers that kept telling him what his itching ears wanted to hear,” he said. “The president ultimately continued to demand that I choose him over the Constitution.”
Despite his once-prominent position as Trump’s No. 2, Pence has struggled to gain traction in his presidential campaign. Many of the former president’s most loyal supporters still blame him for Trump’s loss, believing Trump’s false claims that he could have used his ceremonial role overseeing the counting of the Electoral College votes on Jan. 6 to prevent Democrat Joe Biden from becoming president.
Trump critics, on the other hand, fault Pence as being complicit in Trump’s most controversial actions and standing by his side for so many years. Until the insurrection, Pence had been an extraordinarily loyal defender of his former boss.
With just three weeks until the first 2024 GOP presidential debate, it’s unclear if Pence will even qualify to make the stage. He has yet to meet the donor minimum, though he has reached the polling threshold.
In Washington, Pence had refused to testify before the House committee that investigated the Jan. 6 attack, dismissing the probe as politicized. And he fought a subpoena demanding he testify before a grand jury, arguing that, because he was serving on Jan. 6 as president of the Senate, he was protected under the Constitution’s “speech or debate” clause from being forced to testify. That provision is intended to protect members of Congress from questioning about official legislative acts.
Pence eventually complied when a judge refused to block his appearance, but said he wouldn’t be forced to answer questions related to his role as Senate president.
Trump’s lawyers had objected, too, citing executive privilege concerns.
Trump’s new indictment outlines his and his allies’ frantic efforts to remain in power. After first trying to persuade state lawmakers to reject certifying Biden’s win, it says, they focused on Jan. 6 and “sought to enlist the Vice President to use his ceremonial role at the certification to fraudulently alter the election results.”
They tried to persuade him to accept slates of fake electors or to reject states’ electoral votes and send them back to state legislatures for further review, the indictment says.
That effort included a series of phone calls in late December and early January, including on Christmas Day.
“You know I don’t think I have the authority to change the outcome,” Pence said during one call with Trump, the indictment says.
In another, on New Year’s Day, Trump berated Pence, telling him, “You’re too honest” — an episode also recounted in Pence’s book “So Help Me God.”
Some Trump claims were viewed as dangerous. During a private meeting on Jan. 5, he “grew frustrated” at Pence and told the then-vice president that he would have to publicly criticize him. Concerned for Pence’s safety, his chief of staff, Marc Short, alerted the head of Pence’s Secret Service detail.
The indictment also outlines how Trump worked to falsely convince his supporters that Pence had the power to overturn the results.
Immediately after their final conversation before the riot, on the morning of Jan. 6, the indictment alleges that Trump revised the speech he was set to give at the Ellipse, “reinserting language that he had personally drafted earlier that morning – falsely claiming that the Vice President had authority to send electoral votes to the states – but that advisors had previously successfully advocated be removed.”
Trump, in his speech, repeated his false claims of election fraud and again gave false hope to his supporters that Pence had the power to change the outcome.
Not long after, hundreds of Trump’s supporters were slamming through barricades, battling with police and breaking into the Capitol building — some chanting “Hang Mike Pence” as the former vice president and his family were rushed to safety.
Even after the rioters were cleared from the Capitol and Congress reconvened to certify the results, Trump’s allies were still pushing Pence, emailing his attorney to urge that he seek further delay by adjourning the session for 10 days.
Pence instead certified the election, finalizing his and Trump’s defeat.
Associated Press writer Rick Callahan contributed to this report from Indianapolis.
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