Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Is Mike Pence loyal to Donald Trump?

It’s a question that’s apparently been on the president’s mind of late. Last week, The New York Times reported that Trump has been privately asking aides whether they think the vice president’s loyalty can be counted on—repeating the question so many times that “he has alarmed some of his advisers.”

What’s behind this line of inquiry? Speculation abounds, both inside the White House and outside. Is Trump thinking of dropping Pence from the 2020 ticket? Is he worried about Pence’s role in the Mueller investigation? Or is he just asking because, as the Times notes, he’s been thinking about replacing his own chief of staff with Pence’s, and wants to make sure they’re all on the same page?

A casual observer could be forgiven, of course, for finding this all a tad ludicrous. More than any other figure in the administration, Pence has mastered the art of performing his fealty. He speaks of the president in reverent tones, gazes at him with an almost doglike devotion. Even some of the president’s allies, speaking on the condition of anonymity, have marveled to me at how zealously—and frequently—Pence plays the part of Trump apologist in public.

Predictably, Trump tried to dismiss the Times report over the weekend as just another “phony story” from “the enemy of the people.” But the doubts about Pence’s loyalty to the president aren’t entirely paranoid—nor are they new.

Last year, while working on a profile of the vice president, I spoke with several Republicans who told me about a moment during the 2016 election when Pence appeared ready to turn on Trump. The infamous Access Hollywood tape had just been published by The Washington Post, and Trump was facing calls from all corners of the Republican Party to drop out of the race. Rather than rally to his running mate’s defense, Pence initially retreated from the campaign fray and issued a disapproving statement. According to the Times, Trump “has never completely forgotten” this act of disloyalty.

But behind the scenes, Pence went even further that weekend in 2016. From my profile:

Within hours of The Post’s bombshell, Pence made it clear to the Republican National Committee that he was ready to take Trump’s place as the party’s nominee. Such a move would have been unprecedented—but the situation seemed dire enough to call for radical action … Republican donors and party leaders began buzzing about making Pence the nominee and drafting Condoleezza Rice as his running mate.

Amid the chaos, Trump convened a meeting of his top advisers in his Manhattan penthouse. He went around the room and asked each person for his damage assessment. [Reince] Priebus bluntly told Trump he could either drop out immediately or lose in a historic landslide. According to someone who was present, Priebus added that Pence and Rice were “ready to step in.”

A spokesman for Pence denied this account, as did Priebus. (The essential details of the Trump Tower meeting also appeared later in Bob Woodward’s book Fear: Trump in the White House.)

But among the president’s loyalists, the weekend following the release of the Access Hollywood tape is remembered as a key test of fidelity—one that separates the true believers who stuck by Trump’s side from the opportunists and cowards who were ready to abandon him. Pence’s behavior in those crucial 48 hours left some with the impression that he wouldn’t hesitate to prioritize his own political self-interest in a moment of crisis. “I don’t think he goes down with the ship,” one former Trump adviser told me last year.

For now, at least, Pence’s political future is tethered to Trump’s—and he clearly knows that flattery is essential to keeping this president happy. After one particularly gratuitous display of fawning at a televised Cabinet meeting last year, the Post’s Aaron Blake noted that there was a three-minute stretch in which Pence praised Trump about every 12 seconds.

A devout evangelical who likes to say he’s a “Christian, a conservative, and a Republican—in that order,” Pence also sees a biblical rationale for submitting to Trump. According to Marc Short, a longtime Pence adviser who left the White House earlier this year, the vice president believes in a scriptural concept called “servant leadership,” which Jesus modeled in the Gospels when he humbly washed his disciples’ feet. “That’s at the heart of it for Mike,” Short told me, “and it comes across in his relationship with the president.”

But Pence’s public obsequiousness belies the enormity of his personal ambition—something that’s also long been tangled up in his religious beliefs, according to people who know him. This is a man who (according to a former fraternity brother I talked with) has dreamed of becoming president since he was in college, a man who looks at his ascent to the vice presidency and sees divine intervention.

“If you’re Mike Pence, and you believe what he believes, you know God had a plan,” Ralph Reed, an evangelical power broker and friend of the vice president’s, told me last year.

Whether the next stage of that plan will include perfect loyalty to the president is unknowable at this point. But at least some of Trump’s allies believe Pence has given him reason to worry.

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