Pence Balances Multiple Roles for Trump, GOP


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After Rep. Tom MacArthur endured a long, often nasty town-hall meeting in May, he got a call from Mike Pence.

The vice president “said, ‘Can you come over for a meeting?’” MacArthur told RealClearPolitics. He declined to offer details of that conversation, which took place on Capitol Hill, but he recounted how helpful Pence was during the health care debate – calling from Air Force Two during his Europe trip, staying late at the Capitol to meet with doubtful Republicans, and having lawmakers to the vice president’s residence for dinner.

“He has been a bit of an unsung hero in this,” said the New Jersey Republican, who first met Pence during the health care negotiations and noted he was “more than approachable” during the process.

And when Eric Trump announced he was expecting his first child, the first call he received was from Mike Pence, as his brother recounted to an annual Indiana state Republican dinner.

Donald Trump Jr. told the crowd he had called his sibling to congratulate him when “he said, ‘Don, you know who the first call was?’ I go, ‘Dad?’ He goes, ‘Nope… It was Mike Pence,’” the Indianapolis Star reported.

These are just a sampling of the roles Mike Pence has played since he was sworn into office five months ago – Capitol Hill Sherpa, GOP campaign cheerleader and the warm voice on the other end of the phone.

But the fallout from the firing of former FBI Director James Comey and the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller have added another role for Pence – tight-rope walker. He has to be a good soldier to the president while trying to stay out of anything that could involve the special counsel; in other words, he can’t distance himself too far from the man who put him in his job, but at the same time he also can’t be tied too closely to a president whose tenure could erupt in scandal.

He has been balancing these considerations delicately. He has yet to speak on reports Trump divulged classified information to Russian officials or on reports the president asked Comey to back off an investigation of then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn – an assertion Trump denied in a press conference on Friday.

Pence was scheduled to appear on PBS’ “NewsHour” Wednesday, his 58th birthday. But that was the day the Senate Intelligence Committee released Comey’s written testimony. Pence cancelled.

“We were running behind,” Marc Lotter, the VP’s spokesman, offered as an explanation to reporters traveling with the vice president, who was in Houston to visit NASA’s mission control.

That interview is in the process of being rescheduled, Pence’s office told RCP.

Where the vice president has been seen the most is Capitol Hill, where he’s become “the de facto congressional relations guy for the administration,” as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell described him to Reuters.

A former six-term House member, Pence understands the rhythms of the Capitol along with its language and its culture. He has the traditional vice president’s office in the Senate but he also has space on the House side of the Capitol, down the hall from Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, which is unusual for a vice president.

“He has become the ‘Congress whisperer’ for the president. Mike helps translate the president to Congress and helps translate the Congress to the president,” said his longtime friend, Rep. Luke Messer of Indiana.

Pence is at the Capitol nearly every Tuesday, when Senate Republicans have their weekly lunch. He’s attended 12 since taking office, by an RCP count. At those gatherings, which take place behind closed doors and feature senators sitting together at various tables like cliques in a high school, the vice president works the room, never sitting at the same place every week. Plus, he stays late to talk to the lawmakers, which “annoys some of the staff because it messes with the schedule, but the senators appreciate it,” one senior Senate aide said.

And it’s not just about having lunch. He’ll stop by – unannounced — the offices of McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan, whom he often texts, according to a senior House leadership aide.

If all this sounds like the work of a politician, it’s because Mike Pence is a politician. But he’s also become the trusted face of the Trump administration to a group of lawmakers, some of whom expressed skepticism last year about their party’s nominee.

Or as Sen. Jeff Flake, who has known Pence since the 1990s — when each man ran a think tank in their respective home states – put it: “Good guy. Glad he’s there. Makes us all feel better.”

And that is his appeal in a nutshell. No matter what the concerns are about Donald Trump — his lack of government experience, his lack of discipline, his lack of knowledge on foreign affairs, his tweeting — Mike Pence has it covered.

He is well-versed in politics. In addition to his time in the lower chamber, he served a term as governor of Indiana. He is famously disciplined and on message (even if that message turns out to be wrong). He went to Europe in February in what was seen as a reassurance tour for U.S. allies, and was the steady presence abroad that he has been in the U.S. And none of his tweets have gone viral.

“He’s absolutely a no-drama guy,” Messer told RCP. “One of my favorite Mike Pence wisdoms is ‘vote right and then go home for dinner.’ I think he applies the same way of thinking to the office of the vice president.”

The two men first met in 2000 when they ran against each other in a primary for Indiana’s 2nd Congressional District (which later became the 6th District), and they’ve been friends ever since. Pence won that primary and later endorsed Messer for the state legislature.  And when Pence left the House to run for governor, Messer ran for the congressional seat again and won.

“I’ve always kidded him it’s easier to stay friends after you win than after you lose,” Messer said. “We’re really friends, not just political friends.”

Flake, who’s also had dinner with Pence at the vice president’s residence, praised his ability to be a spokesperson for the administration.

“He is a very effective marketer of the president’s positions because he’s … articulate, he’s unfailingly on message. He really is good that way,” the Arizona Republican said.

It’s an admirable and necessary quality in a vice president but it has backfired on Pence, most famously on the Comey firing.

When Trump ordered the dismissal, Pence stuck to the original White House line, telling reporters on Capitol Hill that Comey was fired on a recommendation from the deputy attorney general.

Trump contradicted him the next day and Pence has been quiet on the issue since.

But it’s another role the vice president has taken on that has people watching: campaigner for the GOP. It raised questions about Pence’s spot on the 2020 ticket – is he eying the top spot or being a team player who’s laying the groundwork for Trump’s re-election?

RCP asked Flake, who is in a tough 2018 re-election bid, if he’d like the vice president to campaign for him. “I think anybody in the country would love to have him campaign for him – any Republican,” the senator said.

And Pence is hitting the trail hard. He was in Montana to campaign for Republican Greg Gianforte (who won last month’s special election to fill the state’s at-large House seat), he held a rally in Louisiana in mid-May and he recently spoke at a dinner for the NRCC.

On Friday he was in Georgia to campaign for Karen Handel, who’s running in a special election to replace former Rep. Tom Price following his confirmation as secretary of Health and Human Services. Both sides are watching this race as an indicator of how the House may go in 2018. Handel’s Democratic opponent, Jon Ossoff, is up by 4.8 percentage points in the RCP average.

On Saturday Pence was in Wisconsin, a state that helped make Trump president, to talk about the repeal of Obamacare – an issue that will require the vice president to play a key role in getting it through the Senate.

He’s also formed a PAC, the Great America Committee, so he can directly fundraise for candidates next year, which is unusual for vice presidents, who usually work with the party.

When reports surfaced that Comey wrote memos about his one-on-one meetings with Trump that indicated the president had asked him to stop investigating Flynn, the word “impeachment” began being batted around Washington even as Ryan quickly and publicly slapped it down.

But it didn’t stop whispers that there was someone qualified waiting in the wings — the voice on the other end of the phone.

“It’s kind of hard to dislike him,” MacArthur said of Pence. “He’s very genuine, he’s very experienced and he knows what needs to be done. He’s in a powerful position. I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about him.”

Emily Goodin is the managing editor of RealClearPolitics.