Whenever extreme danger in President Donald Trump’s orbit rears its head, observers often notice one person conspicuously missing: Vice President Mike Pence.
But Pence hasn’t actually vanished.
Trump’s No. 2 is just doing his job under the radar the way he’s perfected it during his boss’ tumultuous time in the White House — by speaking with specific voter constituencies that Republicans hope will go a long way toward the president’s reelection in November and ultimately could pave the way for Pence to follow in 2024.
It’s a strategy familiar to any keen Pence observer. On Thursday, the vice president met in his ceremonial office next to the executive mansion with black conservatives and then tweeted out a picture of the exchange to prove it. Earlier this week, Pence gave a spateof interviewsto local TVstations broadcasting in critical swing states.
Still, Trump’s very public response to nationwide protests against police violence in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis hasn’t included Pence — and that’s enough to drive the chattering class to wonder if the vice president is indeed in trouble.
“They’re keeping Pence away,” a Republican close to the White House said. This person added that the vice president, while working in recent months as Trump’s point person coordinating the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, has also ended up in the president’s doghouse because of the publicity.
“Trump kept reading stories where Pence said all the governors and him” understood the pandemic, and the president “didn’t like Pence grabbing the spotlight,” the Republican added.
People close to the president have a different view on Pence. One senior administration official said that after four years in the president’s orbit, the former Indiana governor has proven he knows how to survive the Trump administration by playing it cool and focused while avoiding conflicts which have knocked out other top-ranking Trump advisers.
‘BTW, is Pence in a witness protection program?’
Whether Pence is isolated by Trump or laying low on purpose, the punditocracy has noticed.
Jennifer Rubinstein, a Washington Post columnist who previously urged Pence to run for president but became one of his sharpest critics after he joined with Trump, tweeted Thursday: “BTW, is Pence in a witness protection program?”
She’s not alone.
After Pence stayed behind in the White House while Trump and an entourage of staffers walked across Lafayette Park to St. John’s Church on Monday, the conservative magazine National Interest published a short essay asking if the president was closer to dumping Pence from the 2020 ticket for the likes of former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley or Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton.
The questions only continued when Pence, a longtime Catholic before leaving the church in the 1990s, was also conspicuously absent from Trump’s trip on Tuesday to a Washington, DC, shrine honoring St. John Paul II.
A senior White House official rejected the notion that Pence had disappeared amid the latest tumult to rock the Trump White House. To make their point, they cited several media interviews Pence had been doing this week in support of Trump.
Pence was not asked, and he did not say why he didn’t attend the photo opportunity at St. John’s Church. White House staffers on Thursday also declined to answer when pressed on why Pence skipped the controversial visit while several other top members of Trump’s administration walked to the church with the president.
Pence’s routine disappearances
Throughout Trump and Pence’s tumultuous four years together, Pence has periodically dropped off the national radar.
In October 2016, as Trump reeled from the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape showing him saying derogatory things about women, GOP donors delivered the message to Pence that the party was ready to shift to him as the presidential nominee. Pence hid from public view for three days.
As the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election nipped at his heels, Pence and his team made a decision to spend more of 2018 on the campaign trail and outside the White House.
It happened again last fall as details of the congressional clamor for impeachment took root and information surfaced of Pence’s involvement in Trump’s efforts to leverage an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his family.
The vice president’s friends and advisers counter that Pence’s penchant for dropping off the radar is less a story about a vanishing politician and more about someone who knows when to keep his head down and do the work asked of him.
That may have been the case Thursday when Pence met with a small group of black conservative leaders in his ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. News of the gathering leaked to Insider, and Pence’s Twitter account made it official a few hours later when it posted a picture of the vice president talking with Heritage Foundation President Kay Coles James, conservative columnist Star Parker, and Candace Owens, a former spokeswoman for Turning Point USA, a pro-Trump group that has blasted Floyd repeatedly on social media.
Pence has also been working to speak directly into swing states critical to Trump’s prospects in November. In the past week since the protests kicked into a higher gear, the vice president has done video-chat interviews with TV stations in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Orlando, Florida.
Staying low has its downsides
The vice president does have his reasons for keeping in the spotlight.
Prospective competitors for the 2024 Republican nomination are looking for any void to help propel their own headline-grabbing declarations that try to match the president’s high-octane Twitter feed. Cotton, the junior Arkansas senator, advocated in a controversial New York Times op-ed published Wednesday his support for potentially lethal military force against protesters. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz notched a valuable retweet from Trump on Wednesday for his digging into former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein over the Mueller investigation.
Pence’s favorite Bible verse is Jeremiah 29:11, which is often interpreted by Washington pundits as proof that Pence believes God has predestined him for the White House. It goes like this: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”