Profiles in Cowardice in the Trump Era

Kenneth Foard McCallion


Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities  – Voltaire


Chapter 1: Vice President Mike Pence

After his near-death experience at the hands of a pro-Trump mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, and was seeking to hang him, Vice President Mike Pence would be the last person you would expect to take the lead in perpetuating the dangerously false myth that the 2020 election was stolen by President Joe Biden and his Democratic allies. And yet, on March 3, 2021, Pence broke his silence by writing an op-ed piece for the Daily Signal. The piece opposed HR 1, the voting rights bill backed by House Democrats, which proposed what Republicans believed was the radical and dangerous concept that American voters should be encouraged to vote and that the procedures should make it as easy as possible to do so.


Pence’s op-ed started out by stating: “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.” This remarkable (and totally false) reference to “significant voting irregularities” put Pence exactly where he decided he wanted to be if he expected to have any future in the Republican Party, which was now the 100 percent anti-democratic party seeking to cling to what remaining power it could through voter suppression efforts.


Simply stated, Pence and the entire Republican Party leadership realized that the only way their party could avoid becoming a permanent minority party of right-wing conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, and xenophobic populists was if the states sharply restricted voting rights. This meant requiring photo ID, signature verifications, restrictions on mail-in and absentee voting, and other Jim Crow-type laws that discouraged or prevented voters who aren’t white from exercising their voting franchise. In order to justify these restrictions, they first had to promulgate and perpetuate Trump’s Big Lie, which was that the 2020 election was rigged and stolen from Trump through massive election fraud.


Across the country, Republican state legislators proposed hundreds of bills to do things such as scale back voting by mail, despite no evidence of substantial fraud with regard to mail-in voting or any other form of voting, and these voter suppression efforts became the number-one priority for Republican-controlled legislatures in several key swing states.


If former Vice President Pence had just restrained himself from jumping on the election fraud and companion voter suppression Republican bandwagon after Trump lost the 2020 election, he would have gone down in history as one of the preeminent examples of profiles in courage during the Trump era. After all, he had resisted extreme pressure from Trump to invalidate enough state electoral slates to swing the election results away from Biden and to Trump on January 6, 2021. But Pence, to his credit, performed his constitutional responsibility on January 6 by correctly certifying the actual election result, not the fictitious one that Trump was angling for. Pence then paid the price for it by being vilified by Trump and being hunted down inside the Capitol on January 6 by a mob shouting, “Hang Mike Pence!”


Before the fleeting courage he displayed during the counting of the electoral votes in Congress on January 6, there had been nothing particularly extraordinary about Mike Pence’s tenure as vice president. He displayed a seemingly limitless ability to quietly sit on the sidelines as President Trump wildly careened from one crisis to another, usually of his own making. Pence remained silent even as his boss insisted on picking fights with our country’s friends in NATO and elsewhere around the globe while, at the same time, cozying up to President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un of North Korea, and other despots that he clearly admired and wished to emulate. Pence’s dedication to the president seemed limitless, and no controversy—not the Access Hollywood tape, the Ukraine scandal, nor the St. John’s church photo op with an upside-down Bible—ever caused Pence to break with Trump or even try to put a little daylight between them.



For four long years, Pence watched this disastrous combination of White House soap opera and reality TV show with perfect equanimity. No matter how outrageous the president’s words or actions, he stood by his man with a smile permanently affixed to his face and never a single hair on his perfectly coiffed head out of place. His legendary equanimity was forever memorialized when a large fly landed on his head for a full two minutes during a televised debate with now Vice President Kamala Harris. Pence never flinched, causing the fly to eventually give up from boredom, flying off in search of a more interesting venue.


Pence came direct from central casting for his role as vice president, displaying all of the qualities that we would expect of someone playing the part of second fiddle to the leader of the free world. He was disciplined, always on message, and loyal to a fault. But then, through no fault of his own, all of the goodwill that he built up with the president and his supporters over a long and stressful four years was put into jeopardy on one fateful day: January 6, 2021. The vice president, as we all know by now, does not generally have any real responsibilities other than to stay alive and be available to step up in the event that the president dies or is disabled. Thus, the vice president is literally “only one heartbeat away from the presidency.” However, the office has been less generously described by John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s running mate in 1932, as “not worth a bucket of warm spit.”


While Garner’s description is memorable, it is not entirely accurate. The vice president also serves as president of the Senate, which requires him or her to do two things. First of all, he or she has to break any tie vote in the Senate with the deciding vote. Secondly, every four years, on the sixth day of January of the year following a presidential election, the vice president must preside over a pro forma certification of the Electoral College vote and formally announce who will be the next president to be sworn in on January 20.


As you may guess, this is a job any sixth-grader could handle, since it only requires the ability to add up the number of state electors for one of the candidates (in this case, President Trump), add up the number of electors for the opposing candidate (in this case, Joe Biden), and then declare the one with 270 or more electoral votes to be the winner of the presidential election. Sounds simple, right? The answer is “yes”—usually. But the 2020 election in the Trump era was anything but usual. After losing to Biden, Trump clung to the fantasy that he could retain power and continue to occupy the White House by alleging, without any basis in fact, that there had been widespread voter fraud and that the election had been stolen from him.


Trump’s scheme to overturn the 2020 election results failed to win the support of Republican state election officials and governors in key states. Even the Republican-controlled legislatures would not help him in dumping the Biden electoral slates and replacing them with Trump electors. Trump was quickly running out of time and options. The 60 or so election challenges brought by Rudy Giuliani and the rest of his legal gang-that-couldn’t- shoot-straight failed miserably in one after another state and federal court.


These election challenges failed even in courts where Republican elected or appointed judges presided. These state and federal judges almost uniformly refused to reverse the election results in states where Biden had won narrow victories. This was not especially surprising, since judges are sworn to make decisions based upon the facts presented and the applicable law, and the Trump campaign and pro-Trump lawyers failed miserably in presenting any evidence of widespread fraud in support of their specious claims of voting irregularities. As long as they were not biased and uninfluenced by political consideration, even these Republican appointed or elected judges could not rule in favor of the Trump team while, at the same time, upholding the rule of law and their oaths to act impartially.



This left Trump with only one last line of defense before he had to suffer the shame and ignominy of vacating the White House. The label that Trump always liked to pin on any adversary or critic was “Loser,” and he could not bear the thought that such a label would finally, at long last, be applied to him as well. Only Vice President Mike Pence and the Republican members of Congress who were willing to usurp the Constitution and overturn the election results could snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. All Pence had to do was violate his oath of office and do something that the Constitution did not permit him to do, which was to discard the Biden slates of electors submitted to Congress by Arizona and Pennsylvania and perhaps other states. Then Pence, as the president of the Senate, would recognize Trump’s bogus slates of electors for those states and declare Donald J. Trump as the once and future president of the United States. That, anyway, was the plan.


This was Vice President Pence’s ultimate loyalty test: Either back Trump and overturn the election results or incur the wrath of Trump and his increasingly agitated supporters by ratifying the victory of Joe Biden as required by the Constitution and federal law. Trump felt he could count on Pence this one last time and with good reason: Pence had done his bidding up to that point, so why would he dare cross Trump this time?


The first signs of trouble for Trump from his erstwhile loyal factotum and vice president came when a federal lawsuit was filed against Pence in late December 2020 by Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert and 11 other Arizona Republicans who would have become presidential electors had Trump actually won that state. The plaintiffs sought to give the vice president the power to reject state-certified presidential electors in favor of “competing slates of electors” so that Biden’s victory over Trump could be overturned. The U.S. Department of Justice represented Pence in this case, and in arguing for its dismissal stated that the lawsuit was a “walking legal contradiction” because it sought to grant powers to the vice president not found in the Constitution while, at the same time, suing the vice president. Within a week, the lawsuit was dismissed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, and the appeal was rejected by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit panel. Both courts held that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue Pence. Gohmert then appealed to the Supreme Court, which on January 7 summarily denied his petition.


In the days preceding the Joint Session of Congress that the vice president would be presiding over on January 6, Trump ratcheted up the pressure on Pence to go along with the plot to overturn the election results and prevent the Biden-Harris team from being certified. Trump publicly stated that he expected Pence to use his position to overturn the election results in swing states and declare Trump-Pence the winners of the election. Pence told Trump that the relevant portions of the Constitution and federal law did not give him that power. Trump ignored him, publicly insisting: “The Vice President and I are in total agreement that the Vice President has the power to act.”


Before the start of the Joint Session, however, Pence stated in a letter to Congress that the Constitution prevented him from deciding which electoral votes should be counted and which should not, writing that “vesting the Vice President with unilateral authority to decide presidential contests would be entirely antithetical to” the system of checks and balances between branches of the government designed by the framers of the Constitution. He concluded:

“The Presidency belongs to the American people, and to them alone.” Trump must have thought he was bluffing, and that when push came to shove, Pence would fold like a rusty lawn chair and go along with the program carefully orchestrated by Trump loyalists in the Senate and in the House. After all, Pence had gone along with Trump on everything up until then. Trump would tell his vice president to jump, and Pence would ask, “How high?” This was just one more bridge for them to cross together. Much to Trump’s dismay, however, this one was a bridge too far for Pence.


On the morning of January 6, the day on which a joint session of Congress met to count and certify the results of the electoral college for the 2020 presidential election, Trump held a rally near the White House at which he urged his assembled army of supporters to march on the Capitol, repeatedly expressing the expectation that Pence would “do the right thing.”  His MAGA troops then marched to the Capitol at the president’s direction and stormed it. Some rioters were overheard saying they wanted to seize Pence and lynch him, with many others loudly shouting that he should be executed.



The bloodthirsty mob of rioters searching the U.S. Capitol for Pence missed him by only a matter of seconds. The Washington Post reported on January 15 that Pence came “dangerously close” to the rioters during their occupation of the Capitol. He was not evacuated from the Senate chambers until 14 minutes after the initial breach of the Capitol was reported. He and his family were eventually ushered from the Senate chambers into a second-floor hideaway, but only in the nick of time. One minute later, the mob rushed onto a stair landing only 100 feet away, from which they could have seen him enter the room if they had arrived a minute earlier. Pence later approved the deployment of the National Guard after Trump delayed taking that action and after frantic calls to the White House informing Trump’s staff that many of the members of Congress were trapped in various rooms and could not leave until relief forces arrived.


This January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, and the plot to prevent the certification of the election results that day, were without precedent in American history. The closest equivalent was the 1860 presidential election, after which seven Southern states seceded because they objected to the election of President Abraham Lincoln. After Lincoln’s inauguration, four more states joined the newly formed Confederate States of America, and two others partially seceded. And yet none of the seceding states or their elected representative in Congress claimed that Lincoln’s victory was illegitimate or stolen. Nor did anyone ever argue that Lincoln’s predecessor, the pro-slavery James Buchanan, should remain in office after the election. Until Trump, there had never been a sitting president who encouraged his supporters to forcibly stop the certification of a presidential election so he could stay in office.


Fortuitously, neither the vice president nor any of the members of Congress were seized by the mob, and none were physically injured. While still holed up in a secure room in the Capitol, Pence defiantly tweeted that “The violence and destruction taking place at the US Capitol Must Stop and it Must Stop Now. Anyone involved must respect Law Enforcement officers and immediately leave the building.” Trump was in his radio silence mode at that point, waiting to see which way the pendulum would swing. If the insurrection succeeded, he would be the beneficiary of it. If it failed, he would deny responsibility.


While his vice president was still in peril of being captured and killed by the pro-Trump mob ransacking the Capitol, Trump unleashed a torrent of invective, attacking Pence for not doing his utmost to illegally overturn the results of the election. “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!” Trump tweeted. L. Lin Wood, a Georgia lawyer associated with Trump, was more explicit as to what should happen to the vice president, calling for Pence to be “executed” by “firing squad.” A gallows and a noose was actually erected just outside the Capitol.


In spite of the mortal danger that Pence was in, Trump never contacted him during the siege of the Capitol to inquire as to his well-being or that of his family members who were with him. It appeared to knowledgeable observers that Pence was being set up as a scapegoat for Trump’s failure to overturn the results of the election. Pence was understandably angry with Trump, but still held his tongue.  What he did do was more important than what he said, anyway. After the Capitol was cleared and Congress reconvened on the evening of January 6, Pence declared Biden and Harris the winners after Republican objections were voted down.” He also bluntly told the rioters: “You did not win.” Trump probably wishes in retrospect that he had chosen a vice president even more compliant than Mike Pence. It is likely that he will forever blame Pence for letting him down. Just when the Trump-incited insurrection was on the brink of success and needed him the most, Pence hesitated to jump on board, using the excuse that what Trump was asking for was not permitted by the Constitution.


For the rest of us, however, Pence’s decision to do his constitutional duty on January 6, 2021, was a historic moment of truth for the country. When Vice President Pence certified the actual 2020 election results (rather than the phony ones that Trump was looking for), all Americans grounded in reality and in favor of the continuation of our noble democratic experiment breathed a collective sigh of relief.



Vice President Pence and Second Lady Karen Pence then stood by at the inaugural ceremony for President-elect Joe Biden on January 20, from which outgoing President Trump was noticeably absent. Although these were courageous acts, Pence incurred the wrath of both Trump and his diehard base. As Trump re-emerged as the odds-on favorite to be the 2024 Republican presidential nominee, there was talk circulating that Trump would dump Pence as his vice-presidential candidate, since Pence had shown himself to be disloyal to Trump by refusing to violate his oath of office and constitutional responsibilities.


Pence squandered his opportunity to be remembered for all time as a great American hero, however, by cravenly falling back into lockstep with the other Republican Trumpists who felt it was necessary for their own political survival to reaffirm their allegiance to the Big Lie that there was rampant election fraud in the country and that sharply restrictive voting laws needed to be urgently enacted to combat this fictitious scourge upon our nation.


Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Bryant Park Press, from Profiles in Cowardice and Profiles in Courage by Kenneth Foard McCallion.  (Copyright 2021 by Kenneth Foard McCallion.  Bryant Park Press is an imprint of HHI Media Inc.)


Author Bio:

KENNETH FOARD MCCALLION is author of the new books, Profiles in Courage in the Trump Era and Profiles in Cowardice in the Trump Era.  He is also the author of the forthcoming Saving The World One Case At a Time. He has appeared on “The Rachel Maddow Show,” “Cuomo Prime Time,” and Netflix, and his expertise has been published by dozens of major news outlets including The New York Times, MarketWatch, Salon, and USA Today. He previously worked as a prosecutor at the U.S. Department of Justice, the New York State Attorney General’s Office, and the New York State Special Prosecutor for Nursing Homes (now Medicaid Fraud Control Unit). His legal practice involves environmental health, hospitals, nursing homes, and other medically related issues, and he previously worked for the New York City Department of Health. He is a graduate of Yale University and Fordham Law School and is the author of COVID-19: The Virus That Changed America and The World (2020), Treason & Betrayal: The Rise and Fall of Individual-1 (2019), The Essential Guide to Donald Trump (2016), and Shoreham and the Rise and Fall of the Nuclear Power Industry (1995). Ken is also an Adjunct Professor at Cardozo Law School in Manhattan and has lectured at Fairfield University in Connecticut. 


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Image Sources:

--Gage Skidmore (Flickr, Creative Commons)

--Gage Skidmore (Flickr, Creative Commons)

--Noclip (Wikipedia, Creative Commons)

--Lawrence Jackson (, Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

--Gage Skidmore (Wikipedia, Creative Commons)


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