Ride or die.
Support The Bulwark.
  Join Now

Mike Pence Can’t Walk Away from the Big Lie

Targeted on Jan. 6 for saying the election was valid, he now plays footsie with the conspiracy theorists. It’s in keeping with his character.
March 4, 2021
Featured Image
(Photo by Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images)

Does Mike Pence have a death wish? Not two months have passed since an armed, violent mob stormed the Capitol chanting “hang Mike Pence,” erected a gallows, and forced the Secret Service to rush the then-vice president to safety, all because he had refused to overturn the 2020 election. (Pence correctly observed at the time that he had no such power.)

And yet! In an opinion piece for the Daily Signal, his first public statement since leaving office, Pence implicitly endorsed the exact lies and conspiracy theories that motivated his would-be murderers, writing, “After an election marked by significant voting irregularities and numerous instances of officials setting aside state election law, I share the concerns of millions of Americans about the integrity of the 2020 election.”

It’s worth noting that Pence never actually states the clear implication of his opinion piece. He never alleges that there was widespread voter fraud or an organized campaign or scheme to steal the election, because he knows that’s not true. Instead, he wallows in the vagaries of “significant voting irregularities” and “integrity,” surely knowing that the people who believe the Big Lie about the election will assume he’s talking about how Hugo Chávez and Dominion conspired to overturn a landslide victory.

Trying to understand what Pence must be thinking is like cleaning out a septic tank by hand. And it has to be done in the same way: bit by noxious bit.

Let’s start by being charitable, and assuming that Pence actually believes both his January 6 statement declining to overturn the election and his recent opinion piece at the same time. The people who stormed the Capitol believed that the election had been stolen, and that all nonviolent remedies to express the true will of the people had been exhausted. Pence, in a moment of bravery, told Trump and the world that he didn’t have the power to overturn the election, which may have something to do with Trump’s tweet attacking Pence while the insurrection was going on, which the rioters shouted through bullhorns.

Pence made himself a target by making himself, in the eyes of the mob, just another corrupted gear in the rigged, deep-state machine of government. Now, by winking and nodding at possible “irregularities” and illegitimacy, he’s affirming that view. Does he have Stockholm syndrome? It’s pretty rare for the survivor of a crime to publicly declare that, akshually, their attacker was right all along?

It’s also worth noting that Pence is playing fast and loose with his logic. Were there “irregularities” in the election? Yeah, sure, some—as there are in every election. Were there enough to cast doubt on the outcomes? Not nearly, according to every state election administrator, former Attorney General Bill Barr, former director of the Cyber and Infrastructure Security Agency Chris Krebbs, and FBI Director Chris Wray.

Maybe Pence is implying that even a single suspicious vote could invalidate a whole election. (I remember last hearing this argument in a college dorm room.) But this would be a curious argument for a career politician to make—especially one whose 2016 election definitely included isolated cases of voter fraud.

Maybe Pence really does harbor doubts about the 2020 election. Maybe he actually thinks he rightfully should still be vice president. Maybe he, like the rioters who tried to kill him, also believes that the election was stolen and the will of the people has been usurped in contravention not only of the Constitution, but of the very spirit in which America was founded.

And his response is a lame opinion article?

I worked for Pence from May 2018 to August 2020. When the White House formed the Coronavirus Task Force, I was the vice president’s chief COVID-19 staffer. I interacted with him regularly, and I have a pretty good idea of his character. Pence isn’t evil. He’s weak.

Character, says the old saw, is what we do when no one is looking. Pence takes this a little too literally. He will do the right thing, but only if no one is looking and there’s no price to be paid, or if he has no other choice.

The press briefings that Pence held as head of the Coronavirus Task Force were overly optimistic, self-congratulatory, and unduly centered on Trump—but they were factual. In his private briefings, Pence was strict about what he wanted: “Just the facts.” Those of us on the task force staff worked hard to make sure that, whatever else the vice president might say, basic information about the pandemic would be included.

This didn’t sit well with other parts of the vice president’s office and the White House. In response to political pressure, Pence decided last June to write an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled “There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave.’” The column twisted statistics and trends to make the outlook for the course of the pandemic seem much less serious than we knew it to be. Some of Pence’s staff cautioned him against making such irresponsibly optimistic pronouncements that could be disproven by events, in which case he would have to walk them back. Some of us told him that putting out false information would contribute to more illnesses and deaths.

Pence ignored this counsel, but expressed deep regret the day after the Journal published the article.

He knew perfectly well that honesty was the best policy, which is why he asked for unadulterated information from his staff. And he knew during his briefings how important it was to give accurate information to the public.

But under just a little pressure, he crumbled like a blueberry muffin.


That’s the most disappointing thing about Pence: He’s well aware of the authoritarian direction of the Republican party, led by the administration which he served loyally for four years. As far as policies go, he, like most people, probably liked some of the Trump administration’s accomplishments and regretted others.

But unlike Trump, Pence doesn’t have authoritarian aspirations. He doesn’t share the former president’s lust for cruelty, hostility to law, and compulsive personal corruption.

In other words, he could be perfectly positioned to debunk the Big Lie, to breathe some fresh air into the MAGA base of the party, and to become a champion for freedom and democracy both in the United States and around the world. If he only had some bravery.

Olivia Troye

Olivia Troye is a former career intelligence professional who served as Vice President Mike Pence’s Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor, as well as his lead staffer on the White House Coronavirus Task Force. She is now director of the Republican Accountability Project and Republicans for Voting Rights.