Not since the release of the Access Hollywood tape, in which Donald Trump bragged about groping women by the genitals, have some conservatives thought so seriously, if a bit wistfully, about two words: President Pence.
The scandals clouding Trump’s presidency — including, most recently, his firing of FBI Director James Comey, his alleged leak of classified information to Russian officials, and reports that he urged Comey to drop an investigation into a top aide — have raised once more the possibility that Trump could be pushed aside and replaced by Vice President Mike Pence.
“If what the [New York Times] reported is true, Pence is probably rehearsing,” one House Republican who asked not to be named quipped Wednesday. “It’s just like Nixon. From the standpoint that it’s never the underlying issue, it is always the cover-up.”
The still-far-fetched proposition of removing Trump has increasing appeal to Republicans who are growing weary of defending Trump and are alarmed by his conduct in office. But such whispers are cringeworthy for Pence and his aides, who have made an art of not upstaging the mercurial president. Pence’s press secretary declined to comment for this article.
On the campaign trail, Pence would shut down any conversations about the possibility of his own future bid should Trump lose, telling donors who raised the prospect that he was entirely focused on the race at hand. Aides said that sentiment was sincere — even if they engaged in some thinking about what Pence’s future could entail after a likely loss.
Still, some conservatives are hinting that Pence looks like a particularly good alternative right now, especially as the Justice Department moves ahead with a special prosecutor for the FBI’s Russia probe.
Erick Erickson, a conservative pundit who was a strong Never Trumper but then pledged to give the president a chance, wrote on Wednesday that Republicans should abandon the president because they “have no need for him with Mike Pence in the wings.”
And conservative New York Times op-ed writer Ross Douthat, argued that abandoning Trump now should be easier because someone competent is waiting in the wings. “Hillary Clinton will not be retroactively elected if Trump is removed, nor will Neil Gorsuch be unseated,” Douthat wrote in Wednesday’s Times.
The pining for Pence is nothing new, however. From Capitol Hill to K Street, the notion that many Republicans prefer Pence to Trump in the Oval Office is perhaps the worst-kept secret in Washington.
Just ask Republican lobbyists who have watched the Trump administration struggle to move tax reform, health care and other top priorities.
“I find it unlikely that Trump is going anywhere,” one GOP lobbyist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, wrote in an email. “That being said, Pence is well-liked on the Hill, fairly predictable, and doesn’t stir up much unnecessary drama.”
A number of Republican lobbyists already view Pence as a source of stability in an otherwise tumultuous White House. Many of Pence’s top staffers — including his chief of staff, Josh Pitcock — worked for Pence during his years in the House and are deeply familiar with the legislative process. Other former Pence staffers from his House days are working elsewhere in the administration, including Marc Short, the legislative affairs director, and Russ Vought, the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.
While Pence may not be as commanding a figure in Trump’s White House as Dick Cheney was in George W. Bush’s, Trump has leaned on him heavily. Lobbyists who set up meetings between Pence and their clients must warn them that the vice president may be an hour and a half late or have to leave after 10 minutes because Trump is constantly calling him into the Oval Office to confer with him, according to one Republican lobbyist.
But that doesn’t mean a Pence transition would be smooth. In the unlikely event that Trump is removed from office, Pence would assume the presidency amid a constitutional crisis. He could also be considered tainted by his past devotion to Trump.
Only once in American history has a president been forced from office by scandal, when Richard Nixon resigned amid Watergate. Ford assumed the presidency, and sparked controversy by pardoning Nixon, a move that may have cost him the 1976 election but one that historians have since praised.
Ford, like Pence, had enjoyed a career in the House of Representatives and rose to a leadership position. There are other echoes, too.
“It’s almost an eerie comparison that a more mild-mannered, religious conservative Republican Gerald Ford came in,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “He’s much like Pence in temperament and personality. He doesn’t have that acerbic side that Nixon and Trump had.”
And, like Ford, Pence “has made so few enemies,” Brinkley said.
“Having Pence in reserve is one of the few things, I think, that is calming Republican nerves,” he added. “It would just be a more mild-mannered Pence who never says anything offensive, who doesn’t take to Twitter, who goes to Church every Sunday.”
But unlike Pence, Ford was appointed to the job after the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew. Ford did not have the baggage of having campaigned for and championed Nixon.
Almost like a reminder of Pence’s political ambitions, news broke on Wednesday that Pence had formed a new leadership political action committee called the “Great America Committee.” It is unusual for a vice president to form his own PAC, as the vice president would traditionally merge his political operation with the Republican National Committee’s.
A spokesman confirmed the existence of the new committee and said it is being overseen by Marty Obst and Nick Ayers, two former Pence campaign aides and close confidants of the vice president.
Rachael Bade and Kenneth P. Vogel contributed to this report.