Vice President Pence urged an audience of conservative youth activists earlier this week to “stay in the fight,” as they chanted “Four more years” and “Stop the steal” to trumpet their embrace of the groundless notion that President Trump was the true victor of the recent election.Support our journalism. Subscribe today.
“I’ll make you a promise: We’re going to keep fighting until every legal vote is counted, we’re going to keep fighting until every illegal vote is thrown out,” Pence said at the event Tuesday. “So — for all we’ve done, for all we have yet to do — stay in the fight.”
But in less than two weeks, it will fall to Pence to declare that fight over — and lost. A joint session of Congress on Jan. 6 will take the last step in formalizing President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, and Pence, in his role as president of the Senate, will preside over the session after four years of ceaseless efforts to demonstrate his loyalty to Trump.
Some die-hard Trump supporters are declaring that Pence will be a traitor if he does not somehow derail the proceedings. There is no evident way for him to do that even if he wanted to, but such demands ratchet up the pressure on Pence, who is unlikely to escape their wrath — or Trump’s.
“Trump would probably tell Pence, ‘Just go declare us reelected,’ ” said Joel Goldstein, a professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law. “Part of his constitutional duty is to be responsible. Just because you’re vice president doesn’t mean you get to engage in behavior that is threatening the underpinning of democratic institutions of the country.”
Pence is hoping for a low-key Jan. 6 and is not planning any unnecessary drama, aides said, intending to stick to his perfunctory role. He is eyeing a trip overseas soon after.ADRepublicans start to acknowledge Biden’s win | The 2020 FixThe Fix’s Aaron Blake analyzes how the dynamic between President-elect Joe Biden and congressional Republicans could play out in 2021. (The Washington Post)
Trump realized only recently that Pence would play a notable role on that day and has been asking associates, including Pence, what can be done to block Biden’s win. The president became angry after a group called the Lincoln Project recently aired an ad suggesting Pence was abandoning the president, aides said.
The vice president has sought to avoid the appearance of breaking with the president, while trying to avoid echoing some of Trump’s most aggressive rhetoric, advisers said. His office is participating in the presidential transition, although Trump himself is not.
Yet for weeks, Pence has been near the center of the desperate, chaotic efforts to keep Trump in office. On Monday, he attended White House meetings with conservative House Republicans intent on challenging the results on Jan. 6; Pence told them his constitutional duty will be to open and count the results, not to determine their legitimacy, said a person familiar with the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about it publicly.AD
But rumors of Pence’s power at the joint session of Congress have been greatly exaggerated online. Some Trump supporters are insisting that he could use his role as presiding officer to invalidate the results from various states, causing the hashtag “Pence card” to trend on social media — meaning the pro-Trump forces should play that card.
But that is a misunderstanding of a provision in the U.S. Code saying that if a state does not submit its electoral votes by the fourth Wednesday of December, the vice president should prod the state to send them expeditiously. It does not give the vice president the power to reject any electoral votes.
Still, some Trump supporters are furious with Pence for letting that Dec. 23 deadline pass.AD
“Pence’s actions today and over this next 2 weeks will determine whether he’s a front-runner for 2024, or a traitor to the Patriot base. Simple as that,” Rogan O’Handley, a conservative activist, tweeted to his nearly 440,000 followers.
As Pence reads aloud the vote tallies at the joint session, several GOP lawmakers have said they will challenge the results of several Biden-won states. If a member of both the House and the Senate object, that would trigger a two-hour debate in each chamber and then a vote.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is eager to avoid forcing his members, especially those facing difficult reelections in 2022, to take that vote. Accepting the results could mean alienating the still-powerful Trump base, while opposing them could be seen as undermining democracy.AD
But Trump wants the drama of such a challenge. A senior administration official said Trump is “mad at everyone,” not just Pence, because he wants his whole team to fight more.
“At a meeting in Florida today, everyone was asking why aren’t the Republicans up in arms & fighting over the fact that the Democrats stole the rigged presidential election? Especially in the Senate, they said, where you helped 8 Senators win their races. How quickly they forget!” Trump tweeted Thursday from Mar-a-Lago, his estate in Palm Beach, Fla.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), a prominent Trump defender, said he had not spoken to Pence, but argued that it would be a mistake for McConnell or anyone else to stand in the way of a debate over the election results.AD
“If there is a member of the House and Senate who feels strongly enough, then there should be a strong, methodical review that will lead to a final vote,” Gingrich said in an interview. “If you’re part of the 74 million who voted for Trump, you don’t think you’re getting a fair hearing anywhere. I believe it will be a disaster if there is a move to cut off debate.”
Still, Gingrich predicted that Pence “will play it very straight.”
The danger for Pence, perhaps, is that footage of him declaring Biden the winner could potentially damage his political prospects within the Republican Party, especially if he seeks the presidency in 2024.
Edward Foley, a law professor at Ohio State University who also is a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, said Congress’s job is not to determine whether the election was fraudulent, but to certify that the results received are the ones that each governor signed off on.AD
Some Republicans have spoken of sending Pence alternate slates of electors. But such slates would have no standing, and in any case it is unclear if any Trump electors have taken that step.
Pence is not the first vice president to find himself in a difficult role as the Senate declares a new president. Several have been forced to oversee the congressional declaration of their own defeat.
After the bitterly contested 2000 election, Vice President Al Gore went to Capitol Hill to certify the victory of his rival, Republican George W. Bush, overruling the vocal protests of some Democrats who felt Florida’s vote had been miscounted.
That event was widely seen as an effort to bring the country together and reaffirm a peaceful transfer of power.
“I think what the vice president can do is really very limited,” Goldstein said. “But one of the things the vice president can do is use it as a way of helping to unify the country and underscore the fact that we’re committed to the rule of law in democracy — and if you lose, you accept it and you move on.”
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