What is Mike Pence thinking, I often ask myself.
That bespeaks a dull life, for sure. Still the more broken the Trump presidency, the more intriguing the question. The vice president is usually as loyal as a St. Bernard, sticking with a version of the platitude he uttered right after the Comey firing suitable for any scandal: “Whatever Washington, D.C., may be focused on at any given time, rest assured, President Donald Trump will never stop fighting for the issues that matter most to the American people.”
And so on. But last week, the vice-presidential veneer cracked at an event a few miles from the White House when “whatever Washington, D.C., was focused on” was Trump’s eldest son emailing “I love it” about a meeting promising damaging information about Hillary Clinton delivered as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
What’s not to love?
A day earlier Pence had already washed his hands of the latest debacle. Through his spokesman, Pence said, “He was not aware of the meeting,” or stories about it, “especially those pertaining to the time before he joined the campaign.”
He continued the distancing in the form of Pep Talk to Self before student leaders at American University the next morning as Time magazine was rolling off the presses with the headline “Red Handed” placed over Don Jr.’s face. He described good leaders as those in their “physical lives” and “organizations” who “practice self-control and practice discipline,” and have “humility”—starkly at odds with you-know-who. Alluding to his own position, he described the attributes of “servant leadership” as requiring “respect for authority,” and listening and deferring to those “who have been placed above you.”
The good servant then asked the question, “What’s it like to be the 48th vice president of the United States?” And answered himself: “You need to keep your arms and legs in the ride at all times. Pull the roll bar down, because you just got to hang on.”
This is how it happens: One day you’re spouting nostrums about the “privilege” of “working every day to advance the president’s agenda,” the next you’re talking to portraits on the walls of the West Wing or comparing the job to the Banshee roller coaster at Kings Island in Ohio where you hang from the track with your body swinging wildly. You hire yourself a high-powered personal attorney and replace your chief of staff with a political whiz. And you prepare for the worst. While vice presidents usually focus on raising money for the top of the ticket, in an unusual move Pence formed his very own PAC. A token of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan’s preference for Pence over his boss is that they are hosting a $5,000 a head event to fill his coffers later this month.
If the leader to whom he has to show respect weren’t such a disaster, Pence wouldn’t be that different from other veeps. The job comes with a chunk of indignity written in to it: that the vice president will eat a lot of crow, nod in approval like Nancy Reagan, and visit the rust belt while the president wings off for another handshake competition (and first lady ogling) with French President Emanuel Macron. Like others, Pence’s future is dependent on that of the principal but in his case there’s a twist: Trump needed to balance the ticket character-wise. He needed a rock-ribbed, church going, once-married TV Dad with the hair God gave him.
The failing governor from Indiana filled the bill perfectly. Pence’s salvation now lies in Trump failing. Two terms of Trump and some of the muck is bound to trickle down so that Pence would most certainly not be measuring the drapes in 2024.
Right now, Republicans long for Pence. He not only knows how a bill becomes a law, he would end their torment of having to answer for the man-child in the White House. Democrats quietly say they want the pursuit of Trump to slow down so that they can defeat him in 2020, not face Pence whom the nation might elect in a spasm of gratitude. They also don’t want a far more conservative replacement. Pence risked his governorship on a bill to ensure a bakery wouldn’t be obligated to put a bride and a bride atop a wedding cake.
So far, Pence may be complicit but he’s no co-conspirator. He used to call the Russia hacking “a bizarre rumor” because he was out of that loop. He luckily was asked to leave the Oval Office when Trump pulled Comey aside to ask him to go easy on former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Although as transition-head Pence failed to vet Flynn adequately, he’s protected by Trump’s ardent desire to have a Friend of Putin in that position no matter what. When Trump had a choice to keep his national security adviser or banish him immediately for lying to Pence, Trump chose the liar over his veep.
Now Pence isn’t just being sullied by the father but by Don Jr. and who knows what family members to come. Last week just before Trump took off for Bastille Day, Pence joined him in the Oval Office at a gathering of evangelists. Pence stayed on the periphery and did not participate in the laying of hands on the president.
As Trump was about to leave for Bastille Day in Paris, Pence bowed his head in prayer, in gratitude perhaps, that he would have the place to himself for a few days to ask himself the question: What is Mike Pence thinking?