Mike Pence and His Talent for Being Absent

In the swirl of headlines around President Trump and the White House, Vice President Mike Pence hardly merits a mention.

Chris Wattie / Reuters

If the children’s book Where’s Waldo? were to be retooled as an adult tome about contemporary Washington, Mike Pence could play the starring role. Nobody else in town can match his talent for conspicuous absence. If John McCain’s family had not announced that Pence would be surfacing to speak at the late senator’s Washington memorial service, Americans may well have assumed that he was dwelling, Dick Cheney style, in a secure, undisclosed location.

Amidst all the latest melodramas—the Paul Manafort conviction, the Michael Cohen flip—Pence has rarely been seen or heard, and his name has rarely pierced the news cycle. An exhaustive Thursday report by The Washington Post, charting the legal storm that threatens to consume the White House if or when Robert Mueller releases a report and Democrats capture the House, devotes nary a word to the unctuous understudy who would rise if Donald Trump fell.

The official word—from the Pence spokeswoman Alyssa Farah, informing CNN—is that “Vice President Pence is focused on advancing the President’s agenda for a growing economy, a safer America and reelecting Republican majorities in the House and Senate.” The unofficial word, from a longtime Pence aide, is that “he likes to be out.” In translation, he likes to be as far away from the White House chaos as he can physically manage, and when he is confronted with uncomfortable questions about the mounting scandals—as he was last week during a trip to Texas and Louisiana, with Air Force Two’s engine roar intruding on the questioners—he stays mute.

Pence continues to take heat for his dogged fealty to Trump. Michael D’Antonio and Peter Eisner, the authors of the new book The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence, call him a “toady.” George Will, the conservative columnist who’s openly rooting for a Democratic midterm sweep, calls Pence “America’s most repulsive public figure.” When Pence stands behind Trump, rotely nodding at the latest pearls of Trumpian wisdom, he sometimes conjures images of a bobblehead doll, the kind kids get for free at ballparks.

But there is a calculated method to his muteness. The era of vice-presidential irrelevance is long gone, John Nance Garner’s description of the job as “a bucket of warm spit” is veritably antique, and Pence is certainly a far more potent character than the first of Indiana’s five veeps, Schuyler Colfax, who was dumped by Ulysses S. Grant and ultimately dropped dead at a railroad station. Nobody knew who it was until someone searched the body for identification.

Pence is carefully positioning himself for power, even as he suffers indignities—perhaps most infamously in May 2017, when he publicly insisted, on four separate occasions, that Trump had fired FBI director James Comey only because Justice Department leaders had supposedly urged Trump to do so, and because it was “based solely on the commitment to the best interests of the American people.” Pence made that quoted remark on May 10. On May 11, Trump yanked the rug from beneath Pence’s feet. He told NBC News that he’d fired Comey to reduce heat from the Russia probe: “Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.”

But while Pence endures embarrassment and plays the loyal soldier, he is slowly building his own political organization—including the Great America Committee, the first time a veep early in his first term has formed a PAC—and collecting IOUs from campaigning Republicans, all in preparation for the potential day of ascent. It’s ironic—some would call it darkly comedic—that a conservative Christian moralist was rescued from an imperiled Indiana governorship by a man of manifestly shaky morals, and that he now stands ready to benefit from their odd coupling (his allies say, “Mike will be ready”), but that’s politics. Or perhaps it is God’s will.

The biographers D’Antonio and Eisener say that Pence believes the latter. They cite his favorite Bible verse: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” They cite Pence’s oft-quoted description of himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” Indeed, they write: “Some may laugh, but many conservative Christians believe that God is merely using Trump to prepare the way for a so-called true man of faith.”

And it’s precisely his evangelical certitude that animates the ongoing argument, among Trump’s vociferous critics, over whether America would be better served with Pence in the White House. It’s a bit of a parlor game, since Trump has signaled that he does not intend to leave earlier than January 2025, but it becomes more fervent whenever Mueller issues indictments or New York prosecutors coax Trump insiders to cooperate.

The bottom line, at least for Pence boosters who confess they’re grading on a curve, is that he would reduce the drama and refrain from tweeting America into World War III. He has the soothing voice and mien of an airline pilot telling folks not to worry about the squall outside the window. But Democrats in particular continue to fret about his track record as a former governor and congressman. He railed against Planned Parenthood long before it became cool on the Republican right. He has called climate change a “myth,” and has said that greenhouse gases “are mostly the result of volcanoes, hurricanes, and underwater geologic displacements.” He’s hostile to legal abortion and the legal protection for gay Americans. He has even railed against anti-smoking laws, which he blames on “the hysteria of the political class and the media,” and he has warned that “a government big enough to go after smokers is big enough to go after you.” A former talk-show host, he once called himself “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.” It’s the Rush Limbaugh part that worries a lot of the people who want Trump gone.

But while this debate over Pence’s suitability rages on, it’s still unclear whether, or to what extent, Pence is entwined with the Trump regime’s Russia woes. It’s the old Howard Baker question, rebooted from the 1973 Senate Watergate hearings: What did Pence know, and when did he know it? There are lingering questions about Pence’s knowledge of Michael Flynn’s preinaugural back-channel dealings with Russia while President Barack Obama was meting out sanctions. There are lingering questions about Pence’s knowledge of the true reasons for the Comey firing. Pence might still be a target, or a suspect—or a potential witness. And by dint of his job, he is the one aide that Trump can’t fire.

Pence is mostly mute these days, except at private Republican fund-raisers, but events beyond his control may propel him to the foreground. And perhaps the biggest question is whether he will be irrevocably tainted by association.