The most chilling revelation from the first public hearing of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol was the reaction of President Donald Trump to news reports that the insurrectionist mob he had incited was proposing to execute his vice president.

Rep. Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who effectively co-chairs the committee, recounted how, “aware of the rioters’ chants to ‘hang Mike Pence,’ the president responded with this sentiment: ‘Maybe our supporters have the right idea.’ Mike Pence ‘deserves it.’”

Trump’s record of violent disdain for associates who displease him is well documented. But the news that the president of the United States was so comfortable with the prospect of having a crowd he incited murder his vice president had a very “Night of the Long Knives” feel to it.

So it was vital for the select committee to focus last Thursday on the details of how Trump pressured Pence to join his coup attempt by rejecting the Electoral College votes that made Democrat Joe Biden the nation’s 46th president. Like the other hearings so far, the Pence session was compelling. But it lacked for one element.

The star witness was nowhere to be found.

While the former vice president has made several self-serving statements about his own actions on Jan. 6, 2021, and while his aides and several members of Congress did their best to portray their former boss as a hero last Thursday, Pence couldn’t be bothered to cooperate with the committee. Indeed, while the committee was deliberating, Pence was busy appearing before a gathering of the House Republican Study Committee. The chair of the study committee, Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, is a Trump apologist who dismisses the investigation of Trump’s coup attempt as “a political witch-hunt.”

Why did Pence choose to keep company with this particular congressman, rather than testifying before the committee? Why didn’t the former vice president testify — along with his former aides — about Trump’s lawless disregard for the Constitution and the will of the American people.

The answer to that question is all too obvious.

Pence is a craven political careerist who is always looking out for what is best for Pence. He did the right thing on Jan. 6, 2021, and for that he deserves credit. But his appropriate action on that day — when even House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, rebuked Trump — was less a matter of political heroism than political calculation. Remember that Pence was so desperately afraid of crossing Trump that he turned to former Vice President Dan Quayle for advice on whether he might do Trump’s bidding.

According to the book "Peril," by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Pence asked Quayle if there was anything he could do. “Mike, you have no flexibility on this. None. Zero. Forget it. Put it away,” said Quayle. But Pence kept pushing:

“You don’t know the position I’m in,” Pence said. Quayle replied, “I do know the position you’re in. I also know what the law is. You listen to the parliamentarian. That’s all you do. You have no power.”

Ultimately, that’s what Pence did.

But the backstory does not read like a chapter from "Profiles in Courage."

“Think about it,” observed Kurt Bardella, a former senior adviser for Republicans on the House Oversight Committee who has since become a Democrat. “The vice president of the United States was calling around looking for someone who would give him permission to preside over the complete collapse of our democratic process.”

The fact is that Pence was, is, and will always be a political hack. He’s a perennial candidate, constantly on the watch for a way to pursue his ambition for higher office. He’s already campaigning for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination — visiting key early caucus and primary states, campaigning for fellow Republicans and begging for money. It’s a failed mission. The dominant figure in the Republican Party, Donald Trump, actively despises Pence, as do Trump’s backers, who make up the defining faction in most state parties.

But Pence can’t help himself. The career politician, who has rarely let an election cycle pass without positioning for a bid for another high office, will keep trying to have it both ways. He wants to be seen by Trump critics as the patriot who stood up to the former president, and he wants to be seen by Trump allies as a loyal vice president who did almost everything the boss asked.

Testifying before the Jan. 6 committee would have forced Pence to take a side. He would, undoubtedly, have been asked to accept the argument made by Cheney: “What President Trump demanded that Mike Pence do wasn’t just wrong, it was illegal and it was unconstitutional.”

Pence is not going to call Trump a crook. He is not going to describe Trump’s Jan. 6 project as “an attempted coup.” Doing so would doom Pence’s presidential prospects. Yes, those prospects are dismal. But Pence is not prepared to face the truth that his political career finished.

The former vice president chose not to testify because, when all is said and done, Mike Pence lacks the courage to sacrifice his own ambition for the cause of assuring that there is never another insurrection like the one that occurred on Jan. 6, 2021. He doesn’t even have the guts to demand accountability for the thug who suggested that hanging Mike Pence might be “the right idea.”

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@captimes.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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