There was a moment in the 2016 presidential campaign that sticks with me. GOP candidate Trump was being interviewed by a reporter from a non-Fox News network. The reporter set up a question meant to show similarities between Trump and his Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton, using positive descriptors that would apply to either candidate. After one or two of the descriptors, two things happened: Viewers at home saw where it was going, and Trump very clearly didn’t. He was asked whom the phrases described, and he chirped “Trump.” The interviewer, perhaps amazed that the obvious trap actually ensnared Trump, explained that the phrases were intended to refer to Clinton.
It didn’t matter. That Trump blundered into a bad position because he was excited to brag about himself was just another stumble on his march toward the presidency.
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On Monday, Trump gave his first speech in Iowa since announcing his 2024 bid for the Republican presidential nomination. On the way there, he spoke with reporters about his candidacy and his former presidency. As part of that conversation, he offered an obviously ridiculous claim: The violence that unfolded at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was really Vice President Mike Pence’s fault.
“Had he sent the votes back to the legislatures, they wouldn’t have had a problem with Jan. 6, so in many ways you can blame him for Jan. 6,” Trump said. “Had he sent them back to Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, the states, I believe, number one, you would have had a different outcome. But I also believe you wouldn’t have had ‘Jan. 6’ as we call it.”
You’ll recall that this was Trump’s demand as Jan. 6 approached. His efforts to retain power had crumpled repeatedly: First his efforts to block votes for Joe Biden failed; then his legal challenges were thrown out; then his attempts to block the results at the Supreme Court were ignored. There was a backup plan, though: Get Trump supporters to send invalid slates of electors to Washington so that Congress had the option of recognizing those slates when the election results were finalized during the electoral college vote count at the Capitol on Jan. 6. He got Republicans in the House and Senate to agree to challenge the valid results and then pressed Pence both publicly and privately to reject the real electors for the fake ones.
This idea was very much in keeping with Trump’s entire presidency to that point. With no background in politics and no appreciation for the often-informal guardrails constructed around the presidency, Trump tried to do what he wanted. And on Jan. 6, he wanted to be reelected president.
Since that day, Trump has asserted that the post-Jan. 6 push to formalize what the vice president is and isn’t allowed to do proves that Pence could have simply overturned the election at the Capitol that day. He said as much on the way to Iowa this week.
“They all said he didn’t have any rights at all, he was a human conveyor belt, he had no rights even if it was fraud,” Trump insisted. “And then the day after he did it, they said, ‘Now we’re going to change it so he doesn’t do it.’ Meaning, you understand that, meaning he had the right to do it.”
This is like saying that if there’s no explicit prohibition against pouring LSD into the punch at a senior center mixer, you have the right to do it. The entire play that day was to try it and see if the Supreme Court would go along. But, again, Trump is just using the pitch rationalizing his behavior that has proved effective in closing a lot of sales with his supporters.
With that in mind, let’s go back to that first quote, in which he says that Pence sending electoral slates back to states would have averted the riot by Trump supporters.
This is true. If Pence had done what Trump wanted, there would have been jubilation among Trump’s supporters who had been told over and over that Pence could and might do exactly that. They wanted to see Trump retain power, and had Pence done what Trump said he should do, Trump would have been closer to his attempted coup. Sure, there would have certainly been a lot of anti–Trump unrest, but that’s beside the immediate point.
So what is Trump saying? He’s admitting that the crowd at the Capitol that day was infuriated because they believed the election should have been overturned and that Pence had the power to overturn it. He’s saying that everything he, Trump, had done in the weeks before Jan. 6 — convince his supporters the election was stolen, lure them to Washington with the promise of a “wild” protest and point them at Pence as the last resort for retaining power — were the causes of the day’s violence.
He’s saying that the crowd rioted because Pence didn’t do the thing Trump said he could do, which the vice president couldn’t. He’s saying that the crowd was there to see the election results overturned and became enraged when they weren’t.
Trump is saying that Jan. 6 was his fault.
This is not a mystery, of course. It’s been obvious since the day of the riot that Trump bears primary responsibility for the day’s violence. There’s no serious argument against that, however fervently people like Fox News host Tucker Carlson try to spin one up.
What makes this different is that Trump isn’t doing what he’s often done before, which is to suggest that the crowd was simply a group of excited patriots who got a bit out of hand. Now he admits they were reacting to what Pence didn’t do, which necessarily depends on what Trump said Pence could do.
Trump stumbled into this because he’s mad that Pence called him out for his role in the riot. Again, Trump thinks zero steps ahead, so his reaction to Pence blaming him for the riot was to blame Pence for the riot, grasping at whatever sales pitch he had at hand.
It’s like another famous moment from the 2016 campaign when, during a debate with Clinton, she called him a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“No puppet,” Trump replied. “No puppet. You’re the puppet.”
No riot-causer, Pence. No riot-causer. You’re the riot-causer … because I misled the angry mob into thinking it all came down to what you could do and then you didn’t do it.
Revealing. But, once again, it won’t matter to Republican primary voters.
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