In private moments, Donald Trump has told aides that he rescued Mike Pence from a potentially embarrassing defeat by pulling him out of a tough reelection bid in the 2016 Indiana governor’s race and putting him on the ticket, a former White House official told me. Now it’s Vice President Pence’s turn to see what, if anything, he can do to rescue Trump from a more momentous loss—and keep alive a long-held ambition to win the presidency in his own right.
Their fates, at this point, are wholly entwined. Pence would have trouble winning in 2024 if voters repudiate Trump in November. Yet even if he runs after a second Trump term, he’d surely be tarnished by the rolling tragedies of 2020. For three years, Pence largely sidestepped Trump’s unending dramas. Not so with the pandemic. Trump pulled Pence from the bubble wrap and plunked him into a crisis, making him the head of the coronavirus task force overwhelmed by COVID-19’s relentless spread. Now Pence is forever tied to the government’s botched response. And that’s something he’ll need to defend and explain as the current campaign ramps up, and if he ever runs for the higher office he’s long prized.
“You get the Trump stink on you, it’s hard to get it off,” said the former official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely.
For the moment, Pence needs to help salvage a campaign whose prospects look bleak. Trump has made the race a referendum on him. Part of Pence’s role is convincing voters that there’s something in it for them. In the coming months, he will spend several days a week visiting crucial swing states, a campaign adviser told me. Pence will approach each state as if he’s running to be its governor, zeroing in on local issues important to voters’ daily lives, the adviser said, and he’ll try to showcase the federal grants and other benefits the Trump administration has dished out. He’ll also talk about the stakes in broader terms, if past speeches are a guide. At the president’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last month, Pence predicted that Joe Biden would appoint “activist” judges, weaken border security, and harm the economy through expanded government regulation.
Staff may try to recruit some surprise guests along the way, perhaps inviting former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan to join Pence on a Wisconsin bus tour, where the pair could “tool around from Appleton to La Crosse at some point,” the adviser told me. (Ryan, who hasn’t joined Pence for past campaign stops, has feuded with Trump for years, though he’s stayed on good terms with his onetime colleague Pence, a former congressman from Indiana.)
If there’s an organizing theme to Pence’s vice presidency, it’s that he must never offend a man whose emotional antennae quiver at any slight. That means he’s perennially validating a president who insists the pandemic is under control when reality screams that it’s not. Privately, he is under no illusions about the crisis, people who work with him have told me. “He never shoots the messenger,” one member of the task force said. “If you tell him something that the administration won’t like or the president won’t like, you never get the impression that he’s saying, ‘Enough of that, let’s move on to the next topic.’ He hears you out.” (Trump, meanwhile, has turned on the government’s top infectious-disease expert, Anthony Fauci, telling an interviewer this week that he disagrees with Fauci’s warnings about the virus and believes “we are in a good place.”)
Pence knows it’s important to wear masks; he grasps that the virus is a serious public-health threat; and he appreciates the governors who have played a prominent role in combatting the disease, the people who’ve worked with him told me. One governor’s office sent me notes of a private conference call last month with Pence and governors from both parties. Pence delivered a more supportive message than Americans typically hear from Trump, who has scolded some Democratic governors for failing to “liberate” their states. The notes show Pence saying, “We’re with you,” while commending states that have “taken prudent steps to pause reopening” because of the spike in new infections.
In public, Pence takes pains to ensure that he and the president are aligned. On June 26, at the task force’s first public briefing in two months, he delivered the Trumpian message that “truly remarkable progress” had been made fighting the coronavirus, despite a worrisome rise in cases in dozens of states.
I asked the task-force member why, at times, Pence hasn’t worn a mask in public to model responsible behavior. Is it because he doesn’t want Trump to see and take umbrage? “That’s the only reason,” this person said. “He’ll wear it in a microsecond. He doesn’t want to egregiously look like he’s opposing the president.” (Asked about Pence’s mask-wearing message, John Fea, a historian and the author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, referenced Pence’s Christian identity: “You can’t apply these scriptural ideas about loving your neighbor until you first understand that actually wearing a mask is to protect your neighbor.”)
Even if he’s mirrored the president in his public comments about the virus, Pence will campaign in his own style. Normally, vice-presidential nominees are the ones who level the most pointed attacks, while presidents try to be the statesmen. Here, the roles are reversed. Trump is only too happy to stick nicknames on Biden and question his mental capacity, while Pence—avoiding visceral attacks—talks policy and draws more substantive contrasts with Biden’s record.
Whether anyone’s listening to what Pence has to say is another matter. The bottom half of the ticket seldom decides presidential races. And, in any case, Pence is defending a record that looks more damaged by the day. The pandemic is getting worse, not better. Millions of people have lost their jobs. Three-quarters of voters believe that the country is on the wrong track.
By some measures, Pence’s undimmed loyalty to Trump has paid off. He’s one of the few senior officials whom Trump hasn’t marginalized and, partly as a consequence, his presidential aspirations are still within reach. He considered jumping into the 2012 presidential race when he was in the House, but instead chose a different office. “I counseled him: Don’t run for president now, run for governor,” says former Vice President Dan Quayle, who viewed the Indiana governor’s office as a more viable springboard to the presidency. Quayle, Pence’s friend for more than 30 years, thinks he’ll run for president four years from now, though he says they haven’t spoken about it. “He’s been an effective and loyal vice president to Donald Trump,” Quayle says. “I would think he’d get a lot of credit for that. But it’s not automatic.” (One White House official told me that Pence is “entirely focused on helping this ticket win in November 2020.”)
If he runs in 2024, Pence will need to stay in Trump’s favor. And that’s no easy thing. His allegiance hasn’t stopped Trump from questioning his value. Inside the White House, Trump has mused about whether Pence pulls in enough voters beyond Christian conservatives, the ex–White House official told me. In reply, aides would tell Trump: “Be careful, he brought an awful lot of votes your way and if you’re seen to be turning your back on the evangelicals, you may be in trouble,” this person said. (The White House spokesman Judd Deere told me in a statement that “any suggestion that President Trump does not appreciate and value Vice President Pence’s advice, experience, and skill is simply false and complete fabrication.”)
How exactly Pence stays on Trump’s right side is something of a mystery. Obsequiousness is surely part of it. Last year, Pence gave a speech at the Munich Security Conference and in the course of the half-hour address he mentioned the president’s name 30 times—once per minute. (In his own half-hour speech at the same conference in 2015, then–Vice President Biden mentioned his boss, Barack Obama, just one time.) A European official who attended Pence’s speech told me that he was approached later by a Chinese diplomat who confided that the performance had reminded him of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, “where you had to mention the name of the ‘Great Leader’ every third sentence.”
“There’s no more loyal person who truly believes in President Donald Trump and all his accomplishments than Mike Pence,” said one senior Trump-administration aide, when I asked about Pence’s unstinting praise.
Even some senior White House officials have seemed unsure of what goes on between the pair when they talk alone. Pence tends to be reticent in larger staff meetings, former aides have told me. John Bolton, the president’s former national security adviser, writes in his new book, The Room Where It Happened, that he suspected Pence “did much of his best work in private conversations with Trump.”
On the campaign trail this summer and fall, Pence could face pressure to speak more openly about the administration’s pandemic response and his own role leading the task force. That pressure will be inescapable if he runs for president. “Trump’s legacy, which doesn’t look particularly good at this point, will certainly splash hard onto Pence,” Charlie Dent, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, told me.
At least one of his former associates has echoed that warning. After Pence won an Indiana congressional race in 2000, he would meet with Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister, and pray and read scripture together. Schenck sees two warring and unresolved dimensions of Pence’s personality, ambition and altruism, and says that one seems to be crowding out the other. “If he were to seek pastoral counseling from me, I would say to him, ‘Brother Mike, Jesus commands you to love your neighbor, not love your boss,’” says Schenck, who plans to vote for Biden, the first Democrat he’s supported in a presidential race since Jimmy Carter in 1976. “That’s not God’s command.”
A couple of years ago, Schenck sent a letter to Pence after seeing him at a swearing-in ceremony for Sam Brownback, the administration’s ambassador for international religious freedom. In the letter, Schenck cited the commandment that warns against bearing false witness. “I conveyed in the letter that that was one of the greatest failures of this administration: truth-telling,” Schenck told me. “I was trying to say to him, ‘You need to be a truth-teller.’” He never got a reply.