He might be the most consequential vice president ever. He could well be the next commander in chief. And the one person in America he can’t have thinking about that is his boss.
Right around the time Donald Trump was boarding Air Force One en route to Saudi Arabia, soon to escape a capital city obsessed with investigations into his campaign’s ties with Russia and the firing of FBI Director James Comey, his vice president was receiving a booming ovation inside a fifth-floor Ritz-Carlton ballroom in the nearby Virginia suburbs. It was the afternoon of May 19, and Mike Pence stood before several hundred members of the Council for National Policy—a secretive group of conservative movement activists, donors and intellectuals that meets under off-the-record rules—and downplayed the perception of a presidency in crisis. “The truth is, you elected a man who never quits. He never backs down. He’s a fighter. He’s a winner,” Pence said, according to an audio recording obtained by Politico Magazine. “And I’ll make you a promise: No matter what Washington, D.C., might be focused on at any given moment, President Donald Trump will never stop fighting for the American people and for advancing an agenda that will make America great again!”
His audience roared. For those who feared the GOP’s once-in-a-generation opportunity for a policy renaissance was being squandered by infighting and incompetence and the creeping scent of scandal, the vice president’s words, as they so often have during the early days of the Trump administration, provided temporary relief. The performance was vintage Pence. He was grandiose but grounded, hailing a host of early victories but cautioning that the biggest were yet to come; he was authoritative but deferential, speaking for the party and the government while carrying greetings from his boss. Above all, Pence was upbeat, befitting the “happy warrior” persona he has long labored to promote. “It’s hard to get through all these accomplishments—unless you’re watching cable news,” he said, chuckling. “They never come up, except on one network!” Had Pence not nodded twice to the Beltway media’s preoccupations, one would have had no inkling that Trump was enduring the most perilous stretch of his young presidency—or that Pence appeared at risk of becoming collateral damage.
The night before, on the eve of Trump’s first foreign trip—and Pence’s private speech—two news outlets published a pair of eyebrow-raising stories that reflected mounting anxiety within the vice president’s inner circle. The sourcing and strategy seemed clearly choreographed. First, both articles aimed to distance Pence from the chaos engulfing Trump’s White House; CNN quoted “a senior administration adviser” who said Pence “looks tired” and never expected such mayhem on the job, while NBC cited “a source close to the administration” who complained of a “pattern” of Pence being kept in the dark on matters relating to the scandal-plagued former national security adviser, Mike Flynn. Second, both stories were authored by former Pence “embeds,” reporters who had spent months traveling with him and are expertly sourced among the vice president’s tight-knit team. And third, the news accounts cast Pence in a sympathetic light at the very moment when the D.C. media was, for the first time, beginning to hammer him. The New York Times had reported the day earlier that Flynn informed the Pence-run transition team before Inauguration Day that he was under federal investigation; the implications for Pence were staggering, and the White House categorically denied the story. But Pence had also courted trouble the week earlier by insisting that Trump’s decision to fire Comey was based on the deputy attorney general’s recommendation—a claim Trump promptly contradicted in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, embarrassing the vice president and sending an awkward question echoing around Washington: Is Pence being kept out of the loop, or is he being deceitful?
The answer, in conversations with more than a dozen people familiar with the vice president’s role in the administration and his relationship with Trump, is actually neither. They concede he has on several occasions been the victim of an uncommunicative White House—and an unpredictable president—that regularly leaves top officials hanging out to dry. They also reject the suggestion that he looks “tired,” though several friends acknowledge that his patience with the West Wing’s dysfunction has worn thin. But whether that pro-Pence leaker told CNN and NBC News the truth is less relevant than the fact there was a pro-Pence leaker at all.
From the moment last July when Trump picked Pence as his running mate, through the first five months of this administration, the vice president has been all but invisible in the parade of palace intrigue stories detailing the rivalries, alliances, backstabbing, self-promoting and stock-watching inside Trump’s reality-TV style presidency. That is no accident: Pence made clear to everyone around him when he was picked, and again at the outset of the administration, that the spotlight belongs to Trump. Leaking, speaking out of turn or doing anything that could be perceived as upstaging the president would not be tolerated. “He laid down the law,” one Pence associate recalls. “This was going to be about Trump, not him.” Unsurprisingly, the vice president declined to comment for this story.
His inconspicuousness is engineered to keep all eyes on the president. But it’s also necessary to guard against whispers that he, not Trump, is running the show—a narrative fueled both by Pence’s standing in the party and by the fact that he has been empowered like no vice president before him to establish, sell and execute the administration’s agenda. Five months into the Trump era—and less than a year since he was plucked from a thorny situation in Indiana—Pence, once an endangered small-state governor, has become the most popular Republican in the country and accumulated an astonishing amount of power. He is deeply involved with nearly every major decision coming from the White House, whether it be the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord or the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. He is the administration’s most effective and reassuring messenger, often because of his license to clarify or even correct things said by his boss. And he is widely viewed by Republicans on Capitol Hill as the de facto leader of the GOP—not just the safety parachute for a free-falling presidency, but a polished, respected statesman from whom members can take their cues.
This outsized stature, however, also threatens the harmony between Pence and his famously fickle superior. Trump has come to trust his second in command above everyone else in the White House, people close to both men say, prizing Pence’s unwavering loyalty and discretion. And yet the vice president’s camp operates in a continual state of apprehension, having been handed massive responsibilities by a president known for his insecurities and acute sensitivity to being overshadowed. Ken Blackwell, the former Ohio secretary of state and longtime conservative activist who ran the domestic policy wing of Pence’s transition team, put it this way: “Mike Pence has a very full and complex portfolio in his briefcase. And he has to carry it like there’s a bottle of nitroglycerin inside.”
Riding on his campaign plane last October, shortly before a botched landing at La Guardia sent us skidding off the rain-slicked runway, Pence described his first conversation with Trump about joining the ticket. The Indiana governor said he “wanted to know what the job description was, because there’s only one person who writes it, and that’s the president.” Pence declined to share Trump’s answer—I would find out after Election Day—but he did tell me the Republican nominee liked the fact that he had been a governor. “I also think he was impressed with my 12 years in Congress, and [by] the relationships that I enjoy not only with members of the House,” Pence said, “but also with former members of the House who are now in the Senate.”
There is no trace of buyer’s remorse. Trump boasts often about his selection of Pence, administration officials say, and feels validated by his performance and the praise it has elicited. Trump has gotten more than just a veteran lawmaker with D.C. connections. In a White House governed by amateurism, if not anarchy, Pence has come to be seen as an island of efficacy and discipline. He has soothed nerves at home and abroad with private chats and public speeches; he has made an art form of normalizing Trump. But nothing has come easily—not for someone riding shotgun during the wildest presidency in modern American history. It’s unclear for now whether those CNN and NBC stories resulted from one overzealous ally freelancing on Pence’s behalf, or from a dam of pent-up frustration among many others beginning to burst. Whatever the case, one thing is obvious to the vice president’s friends: He is getting more than he bargained for. “The job has been even more challenging than I had thought it might be,” says Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee and one of Pence’s closest confidants. “I’m not sure I’ve seen a political figure in my lifetime take as many body blows as President Trump has. And admittedly, his tweets have probably brought a few upon himself.” (Pence often sees Trump’s tweets for the first time when reading them in the daily news summary put together by his staff.)
These are challenges for which Pence’s disposition, personal worldview and political experience make him uniquely well suited. He is a steady, unemotional influence on the president, friends say, having lost his cool only once—when Flynn lied to him about his contacts with the Russians—and taking care otherwise to always keep a poker face. He preaches and prides himself on loyalty, be it in politics, business or anything else. (Pence’s marriage has made an impression on his boss; people who have spent time with them say Trump has commented approvingly, if quizzically, on how the vice president and second lady are always holding hands.) And Pence has been unfaltering in his belief that Trump is meant to be a transformative character in American political history; even when things looked grim early on election night, Pence texted a “Dewey Defeats Truman” cover to some of his pessimistic allies.
Perhaps most important, Pence feels a sincere affection for Trump. He told me last fall that a turning point in their relationship was when the Republican nominee began asking him for periodic prayer sessions, and said he was especially moved when Trump called him the night of the vice presidential debate and left a voicemail saying he had just said a prayer for Pence. Today, White House aides say Trump’s increasingly frequent references to God are unquestionably the product of his spending so much time with his vice president. Their kinship might seem forced, or even phony, but the two men have become closer personally and professionally than anyone in either camp could have imagined a year ago. They speak multiple times a day by phone when physically apart and are often inseparable around the White House; some joke that Pence will become jealous now that Melania Trump has moved in. The bond between them, however unlikely it once seemed, keeps Pence content to forgo accolades even though he’s the one person in Trump’s close orbit whose performance merits them.
Unlike other West Wingers who nurture narratives of their own indispensability—Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Kellyanne Conway, among others—it is Pence, to many Republicans in town, who has unassumingly emerged as the most valuable player in Trump’s White House. If it’s easy to miss, that’s the point. The vice president’s persona—the wholesome, aw-shucks, milk-drinking Midwesterner—masks the skill set of a savvy political operator who grasps the nuances of government in a way that Trump’s team of outsiders cannot hope to, and who understands better than anyone how to survive and thrive in this White House: Get the job done, and avoid all acclaim in the process. In April, for example, when Pence brokered the compromise between conservatives and moderates that allowed the House to improbably pass the American Health Care Act, his office pleaded with lawmakers and outside groups to stop crediting the “Pence amendment,” preferring that Trump and Representatives Mark Meadows and Tom MacArthur get the accolades. (The idea for state-based waivers became known as the “MacArthur amendment.”) Pence worked to ensure that evangelical leaders were brought into the fold in the first days of the administration and then nudged Trump to deliver on their pet issues of abortion and religious liberty, all while privately touting the president to those audiences as an unrelenting champion for traditional values. And given tremendous latitude as head of the transition, Pence helped stock the administration with like-minded allies, including many of his own loyalists—giving the vice president eyes and ears and influence across the federal government—only to lavish praise on Trump as the visionary who assembled the most conservative Cabinet ever.
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