“I’m not getting in the car.”
This is what former Vice President Mike Pence said on Jan. 6, 2021 to Tim Giebels, the lead special agent tasked to protect him.
Thousands of rioters, many of them armed with weapons makeshift and otherwise, were laying siege to the U.S. Capitol while clamoring to hang him, the next person in line for the presidency of the United States. This conversation reportedly happened just before 2:30 PM.
It had been a little more than 90 minutes since Pence—after weeks of silence—finally released an official statement acknowledging he was constrained “unilaterally” by the Constitution, so could not do anything other than count Electoral College votes when he presided over a joint session of Congress that afternoon.
Pressure had been mounting around him for weeks publicly and privately. In an interview with Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, this March, Short told Politico the vice president spent days crafting his statement. And agonizing over it.
“I do not believe that the Founders of our country intended to invest the Vice President with unilateral authority to decide which electoral votes should be counted during the Joint Session of Congress, and no Vice President in American history has ever asserted such authority,” Pence wrote on Jan. 6.
The whole statement was laden with historic contextual references and citations to clarify his reasoning. Line by line, Pence’s letter cut at the core of a strategy that those like attorney John Eastman had proposed to Trump to keep him in power: Use Pence as his puppet.
In another time or place, a statement from a vice president before Congress met to certify electoral votes would have been perfunctory.
But Pence understood, according to his chief of staff, he would have to do more. And he would have to be clear.
Trump, his aides, allies, and attorneys like Rudy Giuliani, Jenna Ellis, and Sidney Powell, among others, had for weeks broadcast a conspiracy theory about rampant fraud in the 2020 election and the need for “alternate electors” for Trump.
But those “alternate electors” were not properly sanctioned by the states they came from, and Pence knew long before he was headed to the Capitol that the bid was doomed. In the book Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Pence reportedly called on former Vice President Dan Quayle for guidance in late December 2020.
When Quayle told him there was “no flexibility” to avoid certifying the results and to “put it away,” Pence kept searching for a way through. The vice president was hopeful Trump’s many ongoing legal challenges to election results in battleground states would offer a remedy.
When it became clear there was nothing to be done legally, Pence put the wheels in motion for his role on Jan. 6, as he saw it.
“It was a transparent effort to get in front of any accusations that there was any other slate that could’ve been legally accepted,” Short said of the Jan. 6 letter last month.
So when Pence was in the Capitol at 2:26 PM on Jan. 6—a target newly painted on his back courtesy of a tweet from Trump two minutes before, saying his veep didn’t have the “courage to do what should have been done to protect our country and our Constitution”—Pence was insistent that he wasn’t leaving the building.
“I’m not getting in the car Tim. I trust you, Tim, but you’re not driving the car. If I get in that vehicle, you guys are taking off. I’m not getting in the car,” he said.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat and investigator serving the Jan. 6 committee, recently described that remark from Pence to Giebels as the “six most chilling words of this entire thing I’ve seen so far.”
Markos and Kerry talk Ukraine and speak with Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Ben Wikler on how hitting back at Republicans helps win elections
The exchange was reported by Carol Leonning and Philip Rucker in their book, I Alone Can Fix It, for the first time last year. They also reported that the then-vice president was distrustful that his security detail would do as he wished if he went with them on Jan. 6.
Anthony Ornato, who oversaw the Secret Service detail operations at the time for the White House, ran into Pence’s National Security Adviser Keith Kellogg in the West Wing on Jan. 6, according to Leonning and Rucker.
Kellogg said Ornato told him then they were preparing to move Pence to Joint Base Andrews in nearby Maryland.
According to an excerpt from I Alone Can Fix It, Kellogg also urged him not to take Pence anywhere.
“You can’t do that, Tony. Leave him where he’s at. He’s got a job to do. I know you guys too well. You’ll fly him to Alaska if you have a chance. Don’t do it,” Kellogg said.
Ornato, a former Secret Service agent, was appointed by Trump in 2019 to serve as deputy chief of staff for operations at the White House. The decision was controversial given that crossover between those two worlds is often frowned upon.
Leonning and Rucker are not sure whether Pence understood that what was transpiring was an attempted coup, but Leonning told MSNBC recently she was sure Pence was “super suspicious and insistent on staying” regardless.
For his part, Ornato has denied ever having the conversation with Kellogg about moving Pence.
Having returned to the Secret Service full time after Biden was inaugurated, the Jan. 6 committee has already interviewed Ornato. He appeared voluntarily.
According to recently released testimony provided to the committee by Cassidy Hutchinson, Trump’s special assistant for legislative affairs, it was also Ornato who warned Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows on Jan. 4 that violence was possible in D.C. on Jan. 6.
RELATED STORY: Former aide says Meadows warned about violence coming to D.C. on Jan. 6
As for Pence, Short has said his boss simply did not leave because he did not want to give America’s global adversaries the fodder if he was seen “fleeing the Capitol in a 15-car motorcade” as rioters scaled the walls with everything from loaded handguns to sharp sticks.
During his recent speech at Georgetown University, Raskin did not make a blanket suggestion that Ornato was part of a grand conspiracy on Jan. 6 to remove Pence from office or that the Secret Service was involved in a conspiracy.
“I can’t say because we haven’t discussed that yet and we’re not there yet,” he said.
Though Raskin did say that what happened on Jan. 6 was unequivocally a “marriage between an inside political coup at the highest levels of the administration, with street thugs and hooligans and neo-fascists.”
“No president has ever come close to doing what happened here in terms of trying to organize an inside coup and overthrow an election and bypass the constitutional order and then also use a violent insurrection made up of domestic extremist groups,” Raskin said.
What exactly prompted Pence to tell Giebels that he trusted him but wouldn’t go with him in a car because Giebels wasn’t driving is unknown for now.
The Secret Service is sworn to protect men like Pence, and whisking him away from the scene at the Capitol would not be beyond the normal bounds. He did eventually leave with his detail and was taken to a secure undisclosed location under the Capitol.
But the detail is notable, and the fact that Raskin finds it chilling is more so. He has been privy to information underlying more than 800 witness interviews by the committee, and has seen thousands upon thousands of pages of records.
When there’s an attempted overthrow, no details can be taken for granted.
“The hearings will tell a story that will really blow the roof of the House because it is a story of the most heinous and dastardly political offense ever organized by a president and his followers and his entourage in the history of the United States,” Raskin said during his remarks at Georgetown. “No president has ever come close to doing what happened here in terms of trying to organize an inside coup to overthrow an election and bypass the constitutional order.”
Raskin said for four years Pence demonstrated “nothing other than invertebrate sycophancy and obsequiousness to Donald Trump.”
But on Jan. 6, he was a “constitutional patriot” when he decided to stand against the push to stop the count.
“He knew exactly what this inside coup they had planned for was going to do,” Raskin said.
RELATED STORY: ‘Prepare to be mesmerized’: An interview with Jan. 6 investigator Jamie Raskin