“Donald Trump was wrong.” With those four words last week, the former U.S. vice president Mike Pence made an unusually forceful break with Trump, who’s insisted that Pence could have “overturned” America’s 2020 presidential election as it was being certified in the U.S. Congress on January 6, 2021. “I had no right to overturn the election,” Pence said. “Frankly, there is almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president.” While his statements were met with affirmation and praise from some prominent conservative voices in America—a number of Republican officials, along with editorial writers at National Review and The Wall Street Journal—Trump and many of his allies quickly pushed back. Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, called Pence a “stone-cold coward.” American political commentators concluded that he’d probably doomed his chances to run for the White House in 2024. Yet a clearer picture is continuing to emerge of Trump’s role in the events of January 6—the storming of the Capitol and the effort to undo the will of the voters—as a special congressional committee continues to investigate the attack. How is this turn of events affecting Republican politics?

Amanda Carpenter is a political columnist at The Bulwark—a center-right publication based in Washington, D.C.—and a former speechwriter and communications director to Republican senators. Carpenter says individual Republican leaders may be divided over Pence’s role in certifying the 2020 election—or their own rhetoric about January 6—but Trump remains dominant in their party, which will effectively hand him the 2024 presidential nomination “on a silver platter” if he runs, which he probably will. Meanwhile, Carpenter sees at least three reasons to doubt that the fallout from January 6 will have a substantial effect on Republican politics in this year’s U.S. midterm elections and beyond: Republican voters who believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump don’t accept that he was trying to overturn the results; the ongoing congressional investigation into January 6 is confusing and hard to follow; and Democrats will struggle to make these issues more resonant with voters than the pandemic and economic concerns.


Graham Vyse: How is the still-emerging evidence about Trump’s role in what happened on January 6 affecting Republican politics?

Amanda Carpenter: The best case that proves that the January 6th committee is already having an effect is the way Pence has shifted his rhetoric and positioning toward Trump over the past year. At first, Pence tried to argue that January 6th was a bad day, and he didn’t know if he and Trump would “ever see eye to eye on that day,” but that he, Pence, had done his duty. He was very somber, but he would still say it was the greatest honor of his life to serve under Trump—and go on to ingratiate himself with Trump’s political base.

Over the past year, he’s shifted. He gave this speech last week to the Federalist Society [an influential U.S. conservative legal group] and said Trump was wrong. I don’t think Pence would have done that without the continued pressure and focus of the January 6th committee. Marc Short, Pence’s former chief of staff, appeared on television over the weekend, essentially also to say Pence’s team did its duty. Would they be in a position to do this without the committee investigating so thoroughly? The New York Times reported that the committee has interviewed more than 475 people and issued more than a hundred subpoenas. Three people who haven’t complied are Mark Meadows, Steve Bannon, and Jeffrey Clark. [Meadows and Bannon were top Trump aides; Clark was an official in the U.S. Justice Department.]

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Pence’s team wants to argue they were the good guys in the Trump administration, trying to keep things together. They look at this committee and say, You know what? We can now push our version of events. I don’t agree with their version of events whatsoever, because Pence was there for everything [in the Trump administration] up until the very last minute when he issued a public statement on the morning of January 6th, saying he wouldn’t overturn the election.

Vyse: The evidence about Trump and January 6 is evolving because of the committee’s work, as you say, and also because of new reporting from journalists. Meanwhile, Trump has been public and explicit about what he wanted Pence to do: He issued a statement late last month saying Pence “could have overturned the Election!”—his exact words. What effects are you seeing this have on the broader Republican Party, beyond Pence and his allies?

Carpenter: One of the most stunning effects of these revelations over the past year is how they’ve made party officials cleave even tighter to Trump and say they’d support him as the next Republican nominee for president. A reasonable person would expect—after so many, including in the Republican leadership, publicly stated that Trump was morally responsible for inciting a riot—that they would have distanced themselves from him. It’s not that these people want to be in this position, but they don’t have a better idea for the future of the party. They can’t win without Trump’s coalition, because they can’t create a coalition of their own. That’s what they’re implicitly conceding. They lack not only the creativity to imagine a new party but the confidence in themselves—and their conservative ideas—to attempt it.

It’s difficult to connect the ideals of democracy to kitchen-table issues for Americans. I wish that wasn’t the case, but when people are worried about jobs, gas prices, and the country recovering from Covid, these things tend to take precedence over everything else.

Vyse: Is the increasingly clear picture of Trump’s involvement and intentions on January 6 making him any more of a political liability for Republicans in this year’s U.S. midterm elections?

Carpenter: It may have an effect, but Republicans have become very comfortable apologizing, rationalizing, and looking away from the embarrassing, unfortunate, and terrible things Trump has said and done for more than five years. They’re conditioned to do that. It’s a survival mechanism for them. It’s not going to be uncomfortable for them unless other people make it uncomfortable for them.

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