Man on a Wire: Mike Pence’s Tightrope Act

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.

It is Pence whom Trump calls on first during almost every meeting. It is Pence whose opinion Trump solicits before every big decision. It is Pence who has emerged as the essential supporting actor in Trump’s presidency. And it is Pence who says the very least about it.

“Think about this,” a senior administration aide tells me. “The president likes people who don’t showboat, who don’t call attention to themselves. And the president loves killers—he loves people who get things done.” A long pause. “Mike Pence is the quiet killer in this White House. And Trump loves him for it.”

If doing that job for a boss like Trump is the equivalent of walking a tightrope, it could get narrower in a hurry. Nobody expects Pence, who just turned 58, to suddenly usurp the president in any way; that’s just not who he is. But people close to him understand that with each new layer of legal jeopardy Trump encounters, be it in relation to Russia, Comey, Flynn, any combination of the three or something else entirely, the murmurs of “President Pence” will only grow louder. (After weeks of deliberation, Pence in mid-June followed Trump’s lead in hiring an outside counsel to deal with the expanding Russia-related inquiries.) The president’s precarious situation, coupled with Pence’s recent burst of political activity—in May he formed a new PAC, the Great America Committee; his summer calendar is littered with campaign swings on behalf of prominent lawmakers; he has been hosting intimate dinners with key activists and donors; and there are discussions underway about reengaging with his old friends Charles and David Koch—might produce a perception that becomes unmanageable for the vice president’s team. Republicans on Capitol Hill already operate as though Pence sits atop the party, and some have recently begun gossiping with a surprising lack of discretion about their expectation that the 71-year-old Trump will decline to seek reelection in 2020. What little buzz about President Pence exists in the GOP has less to do with impeachment than it does with speculation that Trump might simply tire of the White House and hand the reins to his deputy.

The vice president, in a previous political life, made little secret of his aspirations for the top job. His aides now insist it’s the furthest thing from his mind, that his sole focus is promoting the president’s agenda. That is probably true. But with every new investigative drip that damages Trump, with every utterance of the I-word, with every self-immolating tweet and, at the very least, with every passing day of this presidency, the GOP will more and more look to Pence as next in line—a reality that his friends privately acknowledge they have begun to reckon with, and one that the vice president can’t afford to ignore.

“He doesn’t know when his time will be—it could be seven-and-a-half years, it could be seven-and-a-half months,” another West Wing official says of Pence. “But he had better be ready.”

***

Nobody seems to know how Pence discovered where the House Freedom Caucus was meeting. It was March 24, the day of the House GOP’s failed first attempt at repealing Obamacare, and as Speaker Paul Ryan met with Trump at the White House to explain that their bill didn’t have enough votes to pass, the Freedom Caucus’ roughly three dozen members filed into a private room at the Capitol Hill Club. They wanted to plot their next move in secret; to avoid leaks, no aides, other lawmakers or White House officials were told of their location. Not long after they had gathered, however, the door was flung open and in marched Pence. He was accompanied by Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and neither man was smiling.

With the American Health Care Act breathing its last—that is, until Pence resuscitated it over the ensuing weeks—the vice president pleaded with his fellow tea partiers to reconsider their opposition. When they held their ground, the vice president let loose an uncharacteristic flash of anger. “I was the Freedom Caucus before the Freedom Caucus existed,” Pence told them, his voice rising, according to multiple people who were in the room. “Don’t try to tell me this bill isn’t conservative enough.”

It was the most animated they had ever seen him. And it worked: After Pence abruptly exited the meeting, and several grown men had broken into tears because of the tension present in the room, a chorus of Freedom Caucus members informed Chairman Meadows that they would now support the legislation if a vote were held. It turned out to be too late—Ryan’s team had already hemorrhaged a huge number of moderates, and the AHCA never saw the floor that day—but Pence’s power play was not lost on a group of lawmakers who pride themselves on defying their party’s leadership. “There were a number of our people who would have voted with the vice president based on that meeting,” Meadows tells me. “There were House Freedom Caucus members willing to support the bill, despite great reservations, because of Vice President Pence.”

“Even when you disagree with him, you want to agree with him, because it’s Mike Pence,” says Jim Jordan, the founding chairman of the Freedom Caucus. He was a Pence pupil upon coming to Congress in 2007 and eventually joined him in the fraternity of lawmakers who chaired the Republican Study Committee, a group that housed the conservative rebellion before the Freedom Caucus spun off as a smaller coterie of hard-liners. Jordan wasn’t moved by Pence’s final plea, but he could tell other members were. “The fact that the vice president was encouraging us to support it made it that much harder to be against it,” he says. “And it made us want to work that much harder to get it done. That’s what happened: The waiver idea started with Mike.”

Indeed, the proposal to allow states to opt out of certain Obamacare requirements—a key modification after the first Republican bill flopped—originated not with MacArthur, who then chaired the moderate Tuesday Group caucus, but with Pence. The vice president had begun lobbying Trump immediately after the March 24 debacle to let him keep pursuing a health care deal. With the president’s blessing, Pence’s office drafted the language, and he shared it separately with the conservatives and centrists before calling a joint meeting to iron out details that were lost in translation (or, as some suspected, that were presented somewhat differently just to get the two factions talking).

This, to many Pence allies, has been the trickiest part of his new job: shedding his ideological bias as a deeply rooted movement conservative so that he can carry Trump’s message to, and build trust with, other elements of the GOP. “There was a lot of conservative angst with Pence during the first AHCA fight—we knew he wouldn’t have voted for it if he were still in Congress,” says one longtime friend on Capitol Hill. “And you could see the discomfort on his face when he was playing the mediator when in his heart he wanted to side with the conservatives.” At the same time, though, moderates appreciated how Pence gave them space, knowing their districts were different from the sort he used to represent. “He’s tried to help without going too far,” MacArthur told the Indianapolis Star shortly before the revised bill passed.

Of course, abject neutrality from the vice president would be of little use to this White House. With little margin for error in a polarized Congress, Pence enjoys singular leverage as a liaison between Trump World—which is heavily populated by social liberals and establishment Republicans—and the conservatives who can vote as a bloc to derail the president’s agenda. “Bannon tried to bark orders at us. Priebus is a nervous nelly who doesn’t want to lose proximity to the president because he thinks he’s going to lose his job. His family members have no street cred with conservatives. And none of us trusts Gary Cohn,” one Freedom Caucus member tells me. “So we look around for someone we can trust, and Mike is the go-to guy.”

This dynamic has occasionally made things uncomfortable for Pence, such as when conservative outside groups bludgeoned the first health care bill, prompting him to vent to allies about their motivations. Or when Trump, on the heels of that health care defeat, sent several tweets targeting individual Freedom Caucus members and calling for their defeat in 2018. Pence met with the group several days later, and lawmakers voiced their displeasure with the White House. They hoped the vice president would sympathize—having once been in their shoes, a conservative congressman voting against his party’s president—but were surprised when, after Meadows pressed him for an informal agreement to end the administration’s broadsides against the Freedom Caucus, a stone-faced Pence answered simply, “I’ll pass that along to the president.”

It was a no-win situation for Pence: Fox Business published an account of the meeting saying he had apologized to the Freedom Caucus for the president’s tweets, which he had not, and the vice president’s office sprang into damage-control mode to refute the suggestion—internally dangerous for Pence—that the vice president had undermined Trump by apologizing for his actions. At the same time, an apology was precisely what some members wanted, and they left upset that Pence hadn’t offered one.

***

Not coincidentally, Trump’s menacing tweets aimed at Capitol Hill ceased thereafter. Pence’s role in squashing the president’s feud with Freedom Caucus members—and then helping to pass the bill whose initial failure had sparked it—validates Trump’s choice of running mate. But in puzzling out their relationship, that was only one part of the equation: It explained why Pence was attractive to Trump, but not why Trump’s vice presidency was appealing to Pence. It wasn’t until months after our brush with disaster at LaGuardia that a senior campaign official told me what Trump’s job description of the vice presidency had been. “He told Pence he wanted ‘the most consequential vice president ever,’” the source recalled of their meeting. “Those were his words.”

Pence, of course, had other reasons to join the ticket: His governorship in Indiana was derailed by the mishandling of religious freedom legislation, and although he was more likely than not to win reelection in 2016, his approval rating was underwater statewide. His deputies were preparing for a nasty, negative slog of a campaign. The chance for a fresh start, on the national stage no less, would seem more than enough for someone in Pence’s position—even without Trump promising to make him chief operating officer and arguably the shadow president of his administration.

“I think it’s highly unusual,” David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth and a former Indiana congressman who has known Pence for decades, says of his working relationship with the president. “During the campaign, Trump put Pence in a unique position for any vice presidential candidate I’ve seen in my lifetime … and that continued when they were sworn in to office: Trump trusted Pence to be loyal [because] he was willing to give him a lot of authority.”

This is essential to understanding their relationship: Trump has given his vice president an astounding degree of autonomy to execute his vision and pursue the core goals of his presidency, asking only for dutiful subservience in return. Their understanding has created an intriguing dynamic in the White House, according to administration officials: Pence switches into alpha-dog mode when Trump leaves the room, commanding meetings with presidential verve. When Trump is in the room, he calls on Pence first to leave no doubt in the minds of Cabinet officials and senior White House staffers who has the keys to the president’s car when he’s not driving.

The arrangement might prove too tempting for any other ambitious politician. And make no mistake: Pence is ambitious. But he is also humble and self-controlled and devoutly religious, drawing from his faith—and the military tradition that runs in his family—a belief in submission. Notably, Pence emphasized “orientation to authority” as a key component of leadership when addressing the U.S. Naval Academy commencement in May, telling graduates, “Follow the chain of command without exception. Submit yourselves, as the saying goes, to the authorities that have been placed above you. Trust your superiors, trust your orders, and you’ll serve and lead well.” These sentiments shouldn’t surprise anyone who has followed Pence’s career—especially since July of last year. “If you watched him during the campaign, when all that craziness was going on, he was the loyal soldier. And he’s still the loyal soldier,” former House Speaker John Boehner tells me. “He and his team, they’ve got their eyes wide open. But he’s doing a very good job of playing that role.”

In fact, this isn’t unlike how Pence approached his position as conference chairman on Boehner’s leadership team. There were plenty of times Pence “didn’t necessarily see eye to eye” with the minority leader, Hensarling recalls, yet Pence maintained the affection of his superiors by keeping those disagreements private. (Boehner fondly remembers Pence for “always pissing inside the Republican tent, never outside the Republican tent.”) There was no leaking, no showing up the higher-ranking Republicans. Somehow, Pence emerged from his two years in the GOP leadership—President Barack Obama’s first two in the White House—equally popular with the party establishment and the insurgency knocking at its door.

But Donald Trump is not John Boehner. Pence has expertly navigated the first five months without any reprimands or visits to the president’s doghouse—which is more than can be said for just about anyone else in the West Wing. But it has been a trying five months, and there are 43 to go in Trump’s first term. Based on the jittery reactions and hushed tones of the Pence associates I spoke with for this story, they are often walking on eggshells, worrying that something might be perceived as a slight to his mercurial boss. It is unsustainable, they concede, and much of the situation is beyond their control. Ryan has already been asked once—by a respected Fox News reporter, at a televised news conference—whether Republicans would be better off with Pence as president. “Oh, good grief,” the speaker responded. “There’s not even a point in making a comment on that.” What happens if and when the question is posed to a larger number of GOP lawmakers? And what happens if and when they answer in the affirmative?

These fears were fermenting in the vice president’s inner circle even before he scheduled a summer series of campaign-style rallies in Iowa and other battleground states where talk of future presidential ambitions is never far from the lips of the political class. Before he formed the Great America Committee, which was on the advice of lawyers looking to make efficient use of cash but nonetheless reeked of political positioning. (Pence aides have emphasized that the PAC’s first donation was to Trump’s reelection campaign.) Before treacherous headlines appeared in the Washington Post (“‘President Pence’ is sounding better and better”), USA Today (“Poll: President Trump is his own worst spokesman, Pence does better job”), Axios (“Famed short-seller believes markets have priced in President Pence”). And certainly before one of the vice president’s allies attempted to distance him from the administration in CNN and NBC News.

Friends of Pence remind me that, before assuming the vice presidency, he looked to George H.W. Bush—not Dick Cheney or Dan Quayle, two men Pence knows personally—as the model for his approach to the job. They say the point he was making is about the man Bush 41 served, Ronald Reagan, and the parallels Pence sees with his own boss. But there’s another point worth considering: Neither Cheney nor Quayle ever became president. George H.W. Bush did.

In reality, Pence’s role is more like Cheney’s than any recent vice president, Republicans say, given the considerable influence he wielded under George W. Bush. “But remember,” Blackwell adds, “Cheney’s relationship with W. became fragile when people started to project Cheney as being in charge.”

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