Opinion | There were no heroes in the Trump administration on Jan. 6

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When a sitting president tries to overturn an election he lost, many people inside the federal government wind up getting involved, whether they wanted to be or not. That’s one lesson from Thursday’s compelling hearing of the House select committee investigating Donald Trump’s coup attempt.

You could see the story told in that hearing as a tale of heroes: Not only Mike Pence, who resisted Trump’s pressure to help steal the election, but also a cadre of White House lawyers who pushed back against the appalling scheme designed by Trump lawyer John Eastman.

But let’s keep things in perspective. While some credit is due, let’s not build any statues to people whose career-defining achievement is that after years of working for perhaps the most corrupt president in history, in the end they declined to participate in the destruction of American democracy.

It starts with Pence. Say this for him: While his lickspittlery during the Trump presidency was unrivaled, in the end Pence withstood Trump’s abuse and refused to declare the election invalid so the coup could succeed. As Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chair of the House select committee, put it: “We are fortunate for Mr. Pence’s courage.”

What hasn’t gotten as much attention is that Pence gave some serious thought to helping Trump carry out the coup, which would have been nothing less than the worst catastrophe for the American system of government since the Civil War.

As Bob Woodward and Robert Costa reported in their book “Peril,” Pence called former vice president (and fellow Hoosier) Dan Quayle in December 2020 to kick around the idea of overturning the election. He pressed Quayle on whether the vice president’s ceremonial role counting the electoral votes could be used to invalidate electors and defy the will of the voters. Quayle replied: “Mike, you have no flexibility on this. None. Zero. Forget it. Put it away.”

The point is not that Pence should have known the ins and outs of the Electoral Count Act beforehand. The very fact that his response to the idea was anything other than “We lost, and I will not demolish the American system of government so we can stay in power” shows it took him far too long to remember his loyalty to the country.

So, yes, he should get credit for arriving at the right decision in the end. But a hero? No.

Then there are the aides who testified on Thursday, particularly White House lawyer Eric Herschmann, Pence chief of staff Marc Short and Pence counsel Greg Jacob. Their testimony illuminated the days leading up to the insurrection, including Eastman’s efforts to build support for his scheme and Trump’s pressure on Pence. Perhaps most important, their testimony established that Trump was well aware he was trying to persuade Pence to break the law.

But like Pence himself, they all went to work in Trump’s service when it was more than clear who Trump was. This isn’t just about ideology — plenty of conservative Republicans took a principled stand not to work for someone so abominable.

Until Trump’s final assault on the country, those advisers were, as far as we can tell, loyal underlings. Herschmann, for instance, who described in colorful terms his contempt for Eastman and his scheme, vigorously defended Trump at his first impeachment trial.

What they did after the 2020 election was straightforward: They told their bosses the truth about what the law says. Then they went back to their careers; they didn’t raise a public alarm at the time, nor afterward. When they were called to testify, they did so candidly.

Which is good for the rest of us, but it’s nothing more than the bare minimum we ought to expect from any patriotic citizen. They satisfied a standard of integrity, but it was a low one.

They stand out because of who surrounded them. Among many things Trump revealed was just how many Republican scoundrels were around to populate the federal government when he took over, from white nationalists and small-time grifters to deranged conspiracy theorists. In that group, a lawyer with even a modicum of ethics begins to look like a champion of justice.

We’ve gotten so used to GOP hypocrisy, dishonesty, contempt for rules and norms, authoritarianism, and pathetic Trump worship that we tend to lionize any Republican who displays any principle or commitment to the good of the country. So when a figure such as Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) or Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger takes a political risk to stand up to Trump in service of their ideals, they seem extraordinary.

But if we’re going to praise them, we shouldn’t characterize their actions as superhuman. It’s what we should expect of everyone. The fact that they’re so greatly outnumbered in their party by those who rallied behind Trump’s attack on the American system of government — and continue to do so to this day — is what’s most important, and most frightening.

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