VAIL, Colo. — Impeachment politics and the possibility of presidential prosecution surprisingly keep cropping up here in Vail, where new Jan. 6 revelations are about as unexpected as an affordable place to live, a free parking space, untrammeled powder on a Saturday or a decent burger for under $20.
The latest Vail stunner comes courtesy of the Washington Post, which last week reported on a late-night phone call retired federal judge Michael Luttig received at his home here on Jan. 4, 2021, just two days before the insurrection by supporters of President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol aimed at stopping Vice President Mike Pence from certifying Joe Biden as president.
Luttig, an influential, conservative former federal judge, fielded the call from an attorney for the former vice president, who also spent the holidays skiing in Vail that year. The gist of it was that President Donald Trump was listening to attorney John Eastman — a former clerk for Luttig and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — who felt Pence could legally block electoral votes.
“… Luttig was eating dinner with his wife at their home in Vail when the phone rang. It was Richard Cullen, a longtime friend and former U.S. attorney in Virginia who was then serving as an outside attorney for Pence,” the Post reports. “Cullen was desperate for intel. An attorney he’d never heard of but who had represented Trump in lawsuits challenging the presidential election results was going around saying Pence had the authority to block certification of the 2020 election results. Cullen learned that it was a man named John Eastman and that in a previous life he had clerked for Luttig. Luttig, puzzled, told Cullen that Eastman is ‘brilliant.’”
Now facing a federal investigation, Eastman is notorious in Colorado as the author of the “coup memo” and an alleged “insurrectionist attorney” who hatched his plot while on the payroll of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization. He, too, is very familiar with the Vail Valley, having spoken at a conservative conference in Beaver Creek just a few months prior to the Jan. 6 insurrection, where he also helped fire up the Trump mob.
According to last week’s reporting in the Post, Luttig told Pence’s attorney to advise the vice president he could not do what Eastman was calling for – a stance that gave Pence legal justification and political cover in conservative circles. But Cullen called Luttig back on Jan. 5 and urged him to make a public statement, which resulted in this Twitter thread. Luttig went on to testify last summer before the U.S. House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection.
The Vail connection apparently runs much deeper than Luttig simply owning a house here.
The Post reports that “as a young, lowly staffer in the Ford White House, [Luttig] worked on a book meant to bolster the president’s ill-fated 1976 campaign.” The late President Gerald R. Ford, of course, famously put Vail on the map when he started visiting as a Michigan congressman and then made it his western White House when he became both vice president and president during a tumultuous eight-month period in 1973 and ’74.
“What Nixon did was just an ordinary crime,” Luttig said of President Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation in the wake of the Watergate break-in. “What Trump has done is quite arguably the worst crime against the United States that a president could commit.”
‘Call Pence off the f—ing ski slopes’
Pence was in Vail on a family ski vacation in the lead-up to the Jan. 6 insurrection, and there’s been some astounding reporting on what was happening at that time: “‘You’ve got to call Pence off the f—ing ski slopes and get him back here today. This is a crisis,’” [Donald Trump political advisor Steve] Bannon said, referring to the vice president, who was vacationing in Vail, Colo.”
That’s an excerpt from an article in last summer’s Washington Post that also appears as a new foreword to the 50th-anniversary edition of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s takedown of the Nixon administration, “All the President’s Men.” The article is entitled “Woodward and Bernstein thought Nixon defined corruption. Then came Trump”.
RealVail.com broke the story of Pence and his family vacationing in Vail during the 2020-21 Christmas and New Year’s holiday, a spendy retreat for taxpayers that came at a particularly fraught time politically – adding some historical context later in 2021 after the release of Woodward’s book “Peril”, which included juicy new details about what Pence may have been doing here besides skiing.
“At the end of December, Mr. Pence traveled to Vail, Colo., for a family vacation. While he was there, his aides received a request for him to meet with Sidney Powell, a lawyer who promoted some of the more far-fetched conspiracy theories about flaws in voting machines, and whom Mr. Trump wanted to bring into the White House, ostensibly to investigate his false claims of widespread voter fraud.”
That’s an excerpt from a June 3 New York Times article by Maggie Haberman on Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, telling the vice president’s lead Secret Service agent the day before the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection by Trump supporters that “the president was going to turn publicly against the vice president, and there could be a security risk to Mr. Pence because of it.”
That seems like a massive understatement in hindsight, as the Trump mob erected gallows and a hangman’s noose and chanted “Hang Mike Pence” outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and then stormed the building, forcing Pence to flee underground.
At that point, Pence probably wished he had never left Vail, putting down lasting local roots the way Ford did after Nixon’s Watergate scandal.
All of these new details came out as the bipartisan House Select Committee on the Jan. 6 Attack geared up for its first primetime hearing last spring and summer. More context from The New York Times in late May:
“Shortly after hundreds of rioters at the Capitol started chanting ‘Hang Mike Pence!’ on Jan. 6, 2021, the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, left the dining room off the Oval Office, walked into his own office and told colleagues that President Donald J. Trump was complaining that the vice president was being whisked to safety. Mr. Meadows, according to an account provided to the House committee investigating Jan. 6, then told the colleagues that Mr. Trump had said something to the effect of, maybe Mr. Pence should be hanged.”
Keep skiing Vail and Beaver Creek or risk being hanged by a violent mob whipped up by your boss? Tough choice. But then there was the pesky matter of Pence needing to fulfill his largely symbolic but constitutionally mandated duty to open the envelopes containing the Electoral College votes in order to officially certify Biden’s decisive 306-232 win over Trump.
Second Amendment aimed at ‘tyrannical government’
U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO), a gun enthusiast who up until 2020 redistricting represented the majority of the Vail Valley, said she’s “proud” of her vote to block Biden’s presidency on Jan. 6 and voiced support for the alleged domestic terrorists that day, calling them her constituents and tweeting “Today is 1776” – an echo of the Proud Boys indicted for seditious conspiracy.
In 2020, Boebert told RealVail.com the Second Amendment was for “protection against a tyrannical government” and later that year refused to comment when Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand by” during a debate with Biden. Boebert’s anti-government agenda dovetailed with Eastman writing the memo for the Jan. 6 coup plot while on the dime for the University of Colorado and touting his widely rejected ideas here in Eagle County in 2020 in Ford’s former home of Beaver Creek.
Last summer’s Woodward and Bernstein article gives us some more context on that critical time:
“‘JANUARY SIXTH, SEE YOU IN DC!’” [Trump] tweeted on Dec. 30, 2020, from Mar-a-Lago, where he was spending the holidays. Longtime chief strategist Steve Bannon, who had been in and out of Trump’s favor, picked up the thread in a phone conversation with Trump that same day.’
“‘You’ve got to return to Washington and make a dramatic return today,’” Bannon told [Trump], according to reporting in Woodward and Robert Costa’s book, ‘Peril’. ‘You’ve got to call Pence off the f—ing ski slopes and get him back here today. This is a crisis. We’re going to bury Biden on January 6th. We are going to kill … the Biden presidency in the crib.’”
Bannon, convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to testify to the Jan. 6 committee, is widely credited with the birth of Trumpism, bringing together the anti-globalist, white nationalist, far-right, Christian coalition that put Trump in the White House for four tumultuous years and could return him to power in 2024.
He was also the classmate of my mom’s boss at a small-town newspaper in Granby, Colo., who was nearly crushed by an anti-government domestic terrorist in a heavily armored and armed bulldozer. My mom was thankfully on vacation that day, but her boss, Granby Sky-Hi News editor and publisher Patrick Brower, just got away before their office was demolished. In 2018, Brower talked with me about that terrible day in 2004, Bannon, and the connection to today’s seditionist Trump movement.
Ten years earlier, I had been at the Vail Daily a few years when I decided to try to land the first interview with President Ford – a Beaver Creek resident at the time – after the death of former President Nixon, whom Ford pardoned in 1974.
“I was right when I made the decision in September of 1974, and I’m more convinced today that it was the right decision for the country as a whole,” Ford told me in May of 1994. “It would have been a long tortuous process – the indictment, the trial, probably a conviction on some counts, an appeal. That would have taken two, three, maybe four years. That would only have exacerbated the unrest and the domestic trouble here in the United States, and the only way to get that whole problem off my desk in the Oval Office, the only way for me to concentrate 100 percent of my time on the problems of 240 million Americans, was to grant the pardon.”
Ah, tamping down political unrest, wouldn’t that be nice? Too bad it doesn’t seem to be an option for most Republicans in 2023.
The big difference between Nixon and Trump, of course, is that Nixon resigned (still the only president to do so) and Trump continues to spread the “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen from him — a falsehood rejected by more than 60 judges, the U.S. Supreme Court and his own attorney general. And Trump still leads his party and is running for president again, while few fellow Republicans will repudiate his possibly criminal behavior.
So in the wake of the House Select Committee investigation and subsequent criminal referral on the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and as the U.S. Justice Department continues its investigation of what many feel was a failed coup attempt, it remains to be seen if Trump will ever be charged.
Meanwhile, Ford, an avid Vail skier dating back to his days as a Michigan congressman who became both vice president and president due to the Nixon administration scandals and whose name is on everything from parks to post offices to ski trails (38) in Vail and Beaver Creek, remained confident to the end that pardoning Nixon for his likely Watergate crimes was the right thing to do, even if 37 never confessed.
More from last summer’s Woodward and Bernstein article:
“Nixon accepted the full Watergate pardon from President Gerald Ford 30 days after his resignation. Whenever anyone asked Ford why he had not insisted on an explicit admission from Nixon that he had committed crimes, Ford confidently said he had the answer.
“‘I’ve got it in my wallet here,’” he would reply, pulling out a folded, dog-eared piece of paper summarizing the Supreme Court decision Burdick v. United States in 1915. The justices had ruled that a pardon ‘carries an imputation of guilt; acceptance a confession of it.’”
“‘Nixon confessed by accepting the pardon,’ Ford said. ‘That was always very reassuring to me.’”
Trump has yet to be charged with crimes that could range from “obstructing an official proceeding of Congress to conspiracy to defraud the American people,” according to The Times.
And don’t hold your breath for a pardon or a confession if Trump ever is charged. One last excerpt from the Post: “After the 2020 election Trump would embrace, with shattering consequences, one of Nixon’s adages: ‘A man is not finished when he is defeated. He is finished when he quits.’”
Following Nixon’s resignation and Ford’s subsequent pardon in 1974, Democrats (shades of 2020) wound up winning the White House with President Jimmy Carter in 1976, even if the former Georgia peanut farmer turned global diplomat and housing advocate lasted just one term. Carter maintained a lasting friendship with Ford until the Beaver Creek resident’s death in 2006.
“The pardon had no impact on how I conducted my responsibilities as president,” Ford told me after Nixon’s death in 1994. “It undoubtedly was one of several major factors in my defeat [to Carter] in 1976. I only lost by a handful of votes, figuratively speaking, so there were people then and maybe some today who never forgave me for pardoning President Nixon, but a president has to do what he believes to be right and not what is politically expedient. And by doing what I thought was right … it was a way to handle a very tough problem so I could concentrate on the major challenges that I faced in the Oval Office at home and abroad.”
A statement made in a bygone, bipartisan era that seems unlikely to manifest again in these bitterly divided times. Vail is far more likely to become less crowded and far cheaper to ski, with affordable housing for all its workers instead of more trophy homes for the wealthy and connected. But don’t hold your breath for that to happen either.