WASHINGTON – For Vice President Mike Pence, the moment of truth had arrived. After three years and 11 months of navigating the treacherous waters of President Donald Trump's ego, after all the tongue-biting, pride-swallowing moments where he employed strategic silence or florid flattery to stay in his boss' good graces, there he was being cursed by the president.
Trump was enraged that Pence was refusing to try to overturn the election. In a series of meetings, the president had pressed relentlessly, alternately cajoling and browbeating him. Finally, just before Pence headed to the Capitol to oversee the electoral vote count last Wednesday, Trump called the vice president's residence to push one last time.
"You can either go down in history as a patriot," Trump told him, according to two people briefed on the conversation, "or you can go down in history as a pussy."
The blowup between the nation's two highest elected officials then played out in dramatic fashion as the president excoriated the vice president at an incendiary rally and sent agitated supporters to the Capitol, where they stormed the building — some of them chanting, "Hang Mike Pence."
Evacuated to the basement, Pence huddled for hours while Trump tweeted out an attack on him rather than call to check on his safety.
It was an extraordinary rupture of a partnership that had survived too many challenges to count.
The loyal lieutenant who had almost never diverged from the president, who had finessed every other possible fracture, finally came to a decision he could not avoid. He would uphold the election despite the president and despite the mob.
"Pence had a choice between his constitutional duty and his political future, and he did the right thing," said John Yoo, a legal scholar consulted by Pence's office. "I think he was the man of the hour in many ways — for both Democrats and Republicans. He did his duty even though he must have known, when he did it, that that probably meant he could never become president."
Not everyone gave Pence much credit, arguing that he should hardly be lionized for following the Constitution and maintaining that his deference to the president for nearly four years enabled Trump's assault on democracy in the first place.
"I'm glad he didn't break the law, but it's kind of hard to call somebody courageous for choosing not to help overthrow our democratic system of government," said Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J. "He's got to understand that the man he's been working for and defending loyally is almost single-handedly responsible for creating a movement in this country that wants to hang Mike Pence."
The rift between Trump and Pence has dominated their final days in office — not least because the vice president has the power under the 25th Amendment to remove the president from office with support of the Cabinet. The House voted largely along party lines Tuesday demanding that Pence take such action or else it would impeach Trump.
Pence sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi late Tuesday refusing to act. But Trump was nervous enough about it that he finally broke five days of the cold shoulder to invite his vice president to the Oval Office on Monday night to smooth over their split. The official description of the hourlong conversation was "good"; the unofficial description was "nonsubstantive" and "stilted."
Unlike Trump, Pence plans to attend President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration, then expects to divide time between Washington and Indiana. But no matter what comes next, he will always be remembered for one moment.
"We're very lucky that the vice president isn't a maniac," said Joe Grogan, Trump's domestic policy adviser until last year. "In many ways, I think it vindicates the decision of Mike Pence to hang in there this long."