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This week, the House select committee held two more hearings to review its astonishing findings on the events of January 6, 2021, featuring testimony from onetime enablers of President Donald Trump: Bill Barr, the former Attorney General, and Bill Stepien, Trump’s former campaign manager. These hearings revealed the extraordinary drama that unfolded that day, not just on the Capitol lawn but also in the top ranks of the government, where Vice-President Mike Pence was being pressured to overturn the election. As Susan B. Glasser put it in her column for newyorker.com this week, “On Thursday, the House committee devoted its hearing to attempting to explain Trump’s scheme to pressure Pence—which unfolded in a series of inflammatory Presidential tweets, angry phone calls, and bizarre White House meetings that were a mix of constitutional-law seminars and live reënactments of ‘The Godfather.’ ”
In the second installment of a special series for the Politics and More podcast, three members of The New Yorker’s Washington bureau—Glasser, Evan Osnos, and Jane Mayer—discussed the big developments at the hearings this week. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Osnos: Jane, I’m curious—what have you been focussing on, of the various dimensions that we’ve seen?
Mayer: Well, I’ve been keeping an especially sharp eye on Ginny Thomas’s potential role and on the Supreme Court’s role in all of this.
Osnos: And Susan, what about you? Where does your focus go?
Glasser: Well, Evan, I’ve been closely covering the hearings each day, and I’m particularly interested in to what extent we are going to start to see the results of this extensive investigation into: what did Donald Trump know? When did he know it? And have they drawn a direct nexus—an established testimony—that links Trump to this multi-headed plot to overturn an American election?
Osnos: I have to say, it is great to be back with you again talking about this, because we are learning so much about this extraordinary period, this fraught and frankly very terrifying period in the final days of the Administration. And I think we need to start with the person who was at the center of this third hearing. He hasn’t testified yet, but, of course, that is Mike Pence. His name was all over the hearing yesterday, and he’s really central to it. Susan, what picture are we getting of Mike Pence from these hearings that we didn’t have before?
Glasser: Evan, yesterday, right there in the hearing room, you’ve got his adviser Greg Jacob, his chief counsel testifying, former Federal Judge Michael Luttig, who also advised Pence. You have on video Marc Short, people who are with him. I found myself really just compelled by and drawn to this photograph that the committee released of Pence after he’s been rushed to safety. First of all, the committee revealed that their analysis shows that he was only forty feet away from the rioters—rioters who, by the way, were not only chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” but there’s some evidence that some of the extremist groups have testified that they really were willing and ready and prepared to do actual violence to Mike Pence. So he’s forty feet away. They take him. Where does he go? He basically spent the entire riot in the loading dock in a parking garage with his limousine that he refused to get into. Though the Secret Service wanted him to get into the cars and take him away, he refused. So there’s this incredible picture of him. He’s standing there basically on a loading dock.
Osnos: Why didn’t he get into the limousine?
Glasser: Well, that remained, by the way, an investigative target and an unresolved question. All of his advisers did what the Secret Service told them. That was an interesting moment in the hearing—when Greg Jacob, the counsel, said, “Yeah, I got in the car.” So the official explanation, I think, is really that he wasn’t going to give the rioters, those marauders, the satisfaction of seeing the Vice-President flee in a big motorcade, that he wanted to stay and do his job. He knew that his job was to get done the constitutional obligation of counting the electoral votes. There are questions, however, about whether he felt secure with a Secret Service detail. There are interesting questions. People don’t know this, but Tony Ornato, who used to be the very pro-Trump head of Donald Trump’s Secret Service detail—Trump liked him so much that he took him out of the Service and he promoted him to be the deputy White House Chief of Staff, and that’s never happened before. He was in charge, in effect, of the security and overseeing the safety of Mike Pence at a time when the President of the United States, we know, was orchestrating the pressure campaign in the plot against Mike Pence. Mike Pence may not have felt secure with those who saw their loyalty to Donald Trump and not to the Constitution.
Osnos: Jane, if you absorb what it is that Susan was just saying, it’s sometimes hard to situate this in the normal commerce of American politics. Here we are talking about the physical safety of people at the very top of the U.S. government. You have followed Mike Pence over the years; you reported a long piece about him in the magazine. You described him last week as this figure who always struck you, on the trail, as having this kind of thin political identity. I’m curious how the details that we’re hearing now fit into that understanding that we have.
Mayer: Well, this was, I think, the first time that we’ve seen him finally say no to Donald Trump. While it is a glass half full, half empty, some critics, like Lawrence O’Donnell, have said that Pence waited too long. He should have said no immediately after the election. This is, to quote Bill Barr’s phrase, bullshit, which it absolutely was—this legal theory that there was a way for him to overturn a fair and free election in the United States of America. But he didn’t say that. He’d waited until one P.M. on the day when Congress was finally going to meet on this. So it was late when he did. He did the right thing, though, and, bottom line, that’s, I suppose, what matters most. Gosh, how chilling it must have been for him to be standing there, looking at his phone, reading a tweet from the President, talking about how he had done the wrong thing, and what a wimp he was, after having been chewed out by Trump on the phone earlier, and Trump having called him a wimp and a slur that begins with “P” (that’s what you usually say is a cute cat).
Glasser: Well, Evan, I’m curious what you think, because, to Jane’s point, I’ve thought a lot about this, and Pence said no privately over and over again, but only in a very Pence way, it appears, right?