Pence in the Wings

President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis in the final weeks of the 2020 election puts the vice president under a microscope.

Mike Pence in profile
Roslan Rahman / Getty

Updated on October 3, 2020, at 11:35 a.m. ET.

Above the fireplace in the vice-presidential residence hangs a plaque with a verse from the Bible: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord. “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

The passage is one of Mike Pence’s favorites, and the subtext is hard to ignore. His rise from beleaguered small-state governor to vice president of the United States has often seemed like one long, strange accident of fate—a political story so unlikely that it could be explained only by divine intervention. The president testing positive for a dangerous virus may be the most consequential turn in that story yet.

Although the likelihood that Donald Trump will become incapacitated, let alone die in office, is low, his diagnosis in the final weeks of the election has undoubtedly elevated Pence. Next week’s vice-presidential debate is now a high-stakes affair. Pence’s campaign schedule and public comments will be closely watched, and his own health intensely monitored. And while Pence is not formally assuming presidential powers, he’s already been called upon to fill in for Trump at the White House and on the 2020 trail. Having aspired to the presidency since he was a teenager, Pence is now closer to the Oval Office than he’s ever been before.

What most surprised me when I first began reporting on Pence three years ago was the scale of his ambition. His public persona to that point had been defined by a kind of theatrical subservience, earning him the reputation of a feckless Trump sycophant who was just happy to have a job. Pence, after all, was an unpopular governor on the verge of losing reelection when Trump plucked him from Indiana and put him on the 2016 ticket. (He reportedly endeared himself to Trump during a game of golf, after which he gushed to reporters that the then-candidate had beaten him “like a drum.”)

This dynamic solidified in the White House, where Trump would frequently ridicule Pence. He greeted guests who had recently met with the vice president by asking, “Did Mike make you pray?” He once joked that Pence, a religious conservative, wanted to “hang” all gay people. He even privately mocked the Pences for moving their family pets—including two cats, a snake, and a rabbit—into the Naval Observatory. “He thinks the Pences are yokels,” one longtime Trump adviser told me in 2017.

But Pence’s willingness to endure the president’s disdain has always belied a more calculating side. He understands his political value to Trump; he knows that he’s essential to keeping conservative Christians on board. And he’s leveraged that fact to help advance an array of religious-right priorities—from flooding the judiciary with anti-abortion-rights judges to relocating the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Some Trump loyalists have long suspected that Pence will eventually turn on the president—and they’re not without evidence. As I first reported in a profile of the vice president, Pence briefly contemplated a campaign coup late in the 2016 election, after the Access Hollywood tape was released. Though he quickly fell back in line, ever since, some in the president’s orbit have been convinced that Pence is simply biding his time as he waits for his shot at the Oval Office. He’s often named among the Republican officials likely to run for the White House in 2024.

What would a Pence presidency look like? It depends on the context. Compared with his boss, Pence is a fairly conventional politician, and it’s hard to imagine him attempting governance by rage-tweet. If his gubernatorial record is any indication, his policy agenda would constitute a throwback to pre-Trump Republican fusionism—mixing tax cuts and deregulation with the hard-line social conservatism that he sincerely believes in, and that Trump only pretends to. He’d also have a stronger working relationship with the congressional GOP, given his years in the House of Representatives.

But of course, if Trump were no longer able to perform his duties, Pence would be thrust into office under highly abnormal conditions. He’d be taking over a White House packed with Trump cronies and family members. If it’s hard to imagine a more dysfunctional version of the current administration, consider the prospect of Pence trying to steer an executive branch that’s been remade in the image of Donald Trump. Would Jared Kushner take orders from Pence? Would Stephen Miller write his speeches?

For now, at least, these questions are hypothetical—but they may already be weighing on Pence. This is a man who’s been dreaming of the White House since his fraternity days in college; a man who believes, according to friends, that divine forces have conspired to place him within a heartbeat of the presidency. Ralph Reed, an evangelical power broker who’s close with Pence, put it to me this way in 2017: “If you’re Mike Pence, and you believe what he believes, you know God had a plan.”