Vice President Mike Pence has been expressing a great deal of outrage about the suggestion that he might be gearing up for a run for president in 2020, or at least creating conditions to preserve a political future untethered from Donald Trump. “My entire team will continue to focus all our efforts to advance the President’s agenda and see him re-elected in 2020,” Pence recently said. “Any suggestion otherwise is both laughable and absurd.”
But as much as Pence may deny it, the evidence is mounting that he is indeed laying the groundwork for rescuing his own political career from the ashes of Trump’s. As Politico’s Eliana Johnson reports, Pence’s recent hire of top campaign hand Nick Ayers as his chief of staff is “less about a secret campaign to challenge Trump in 2020” and more about ensuring that Pence can “preserve his future political options, whatever they may be.”
Perhaps the best way to see Pence’s latest maneuverings is this: He is trying to have it both ways, by being loyal to Trump while ensuring he retains a separate political operation. Whether Pence is gearing up for a 2020 presidential run or positioning himself for an unspecified political future, the takeaway from a spate of recent reporting is unmistakable: He is simultaneously trying to portray himself as Trump’s most steadfast deputy, while ensuring that his own future prospects aren’t tarnished by having served him with such unquestioning devotion.
Washington’s speculation about Pence’s maneuvers – and Pence’s adamant denial of any motive rooted in self-preservation – has been percolating for several months now. It started in May, when he formed his own political action committee, an unprecedented move for a vice president in the first year of his first term. Then, a July story in the New York Times about Pence’s cultivation of big donors generated pushback from Pence allies, rejecting any suggestion that the vice president had met a fork in the road at which he would choose a path independent of the president.
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Much of the additional reporting into Pence’s behind-the-scenes moves has come as the Russia investigation has intensified. A recent story in the Times shed light on the “shadow campaigns” of multiple Republicans gearing up for 2020, should Trump’s presidency end, or should his reelection bid become untenable, owing to the ongoing Russia probe and the White House’s serial failures to move beyond its bumbling and divisive first six months.
The Times piece reported that “multiple advisers” to Pence “have already intimated to party donors that he would plan to run if Mr. Trump did not” and that Pence has been “creating an independent power base, cementing his status as Mr. Trump’s heir apparent and promoting himself as the main conduit between the Republican donor class and the administration.” This portrayal of Pence’s stature, of course, is certain to irk Trump, who, we learned this week, insists on receiving a folder with clippings of positive press coverage of himself twice a day.
Ever the loyal lieutenant, Pence appeared to be enraged by the Times’ report. But his furious response had more than a whiff of protesting too much – and a generous dose of bending the knee to Trump, whom Pence insisted is “making America great again.” In his statement questioning the Times’ reporting, Pence called the “allegations” in the article “categorically false” and claimed they “represent just the latest attempt by the media to divide this administration.” Nothing like a gratuitous dig at the media to ingratiate oneself to the president.
Meanwhile, all signs point to the Russia investigation becoming increasingly problematic for Trump, his campaign associates and his family. The Post is now reporting that in late July, FBI agents executed a search warrant at the home of his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort. This means special counsel Robert Mueller’s team established, to a judge, that they had probable cause to search Manafort’s home for documents related to the probe. Separately, the Trump campaign, Manafort and Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., have turned over documents relating to any possible campaign collusion with Russia to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
All of this points to an intensifying investigation both by Mueller and by congressional investigators. But crucially, this also creates a quandary for Pence.
Recall that after Donald Trump Jr. released the email chain showing how meeting with the Russian lawyer and others was set up, Pence was quick to distance himself from it, pointing out that it took place before he joined the campaign. This highlights a tension that is likely to get worse. Pence will have to balance his efforts to distance himself from certain things that took place during the campaign with the claim that he is in for the long haul as a supporter of Trump.
Worse for team Trump – and, perhaps, for Pence’s long-term ambitions, as well – his approval is at historic lows, and his popularity has been taking a hit with his own base. That includes Republicans, non-college educated white voters, and people making between $30,000 and $50,000 a year. Which could raise additional problems for Pence: If he stays loyal to Trump, who, exactly, is he pleasing if his goal is to preserve his own political future?
If evidence of serious wrongdoing by Trump begins to emerge, that will only increase questions about what Pence knew, and when – and why, given what he knew, he remained loyal to Trump. No amount of maneuvering to salvage his political career by belatedly distancing himself from Trump’s scandals may be enough to shield his political future from that stain. And right now, his pledges of loyalty to Trump, combined with his obvious efforts to chart an unscathed path forward for himself, make him look like he’s trying to have it both ways – a stance that will likely become increasingly untenable as the Russia probes gain momentum.
The Washington Post