In the first 99 days of Donald Trump’s drama-filled presidency, one prominent administration official seems to have done the impossible.
Vice President Mike Pence has delicately sidestepped the infighting, scandals and staff shakeups that have dragged down many of Trump’s aides, instead taking his cues from the president as he shapes one of the most consequential jobs in the world.
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While many vice presidents angle for power inside the West Wing, Pence has defined his role narrowly. His thinking, according to those close to him, is that the vice president has only two constitutional duties — to serve as president of the Senate and to be prepared in case of the worst. The rest is up to Trump.
“I think that Mike has said many times that he serves at the pleasure of the president and that he looks to support the president and help the president get the job accomplished,” said Marc Short, a former Pence aide who now serves as White House director of legislative affairs.
Pence’s approach has allowed him to artfully navigate the warring fiefdoms that have emerged in the West Wing and stay in Trump’s good graces — even if it means he hasn’t amassed the influence, as many had hoped, to pull the president in a more conservative direction.
The former Indiana governor speaks with Trump multiple times a day and is a regular presence in the Oval Office, senior administration officials say. He has cultivated good relationships with Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, remains close with chief of staff Reince Priebus and senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, has developed a bond with economic adviser Gary Cohn, and even has a good rapport with Steve Bannon, the combative chief strategist who has alienated many in Trump’s inner circle.
“He’s so calm and low key he doesn’t become one of the soap opera stars,” said former House speaker and Trump confidant Newt Gingrich. “He hasn’t gotten any scars in the first 100 days. … In a place this controversial, I’d say that’s pretty good.”
Or, as one person close to Pence put it: “He hasn’t stepped in it.”
But staying above the fray has come at a cost. Interviews with more than half a dozen current and former senior Pence aides as well as several administration officials and friends of Pence who spoke on the condition of anonymity offer a portrait of a vice president who has earned the president’s trust but hasn’t yet capitalized on it inside the West Wing — and who has thus far racked up few tangible accomplishments.
Indeed, some close to him say he has hung back intentionally, modeling himself more like a loyal staffer than a first among equals in the Trump Cabinet. By contrast, Vice President Dick Cheney — on whose tenure Pence has said he wanted to model his own — angled to be the last person to speak to the president before he made a consequential decision, never shielding him from uncomfortable facts.
Pence is cutting a different figure than his stated role model, sidestepping confrontations with the president where other Cabinet members have not. In December and January, he and his staff interviewed Elliott Abrams, the former Bush administration national security aide who was critical of Trump during the campaign, to be his national security adviser. Pence instead tapped a little-known Army colonel for the post, and it was Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who ultimately pushed to bring on Abrams as his deputy, though Trump overruled him at the last minute.
“Pence didn’t even want to have the fight” with the president, said one senior Republican operative, who cited it as an instance of the vice president pre-emptively avoiding a confrontation with Trump — and of taking on a less experienced aide instead.
Pence has also been quick to table his own preferences once the president has made up his mind. At times, that has meant swallowing hard: He did not love every aspect of the health care bill but pushed hard for its passage, holding late-night meetings and hitting the road to rally support.
That sort of loyalty, however, hasn’t translated into clout within the administration or a position within Trump’s inner circle, occupied by Priebus, Kushner and Bannon, plus ambitious and influential aides like Cohn, deputy national security adviser Dina Powell and national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
Nor is it clear Pence has tried to place himself there. “If he isn’t ineffectual, he sure is invisible,” said one prominent Republican. Another — a longtime friend of the vice president — said that it’s “not clear that he has any more influence than any other senior staffer.”
Others pushed back on the notion that Pence has been edged out by bigger personalities in Trump’s orbit.
“He’s afforded the chance to have a weekly lunch with the president and that gives them the chance to have a more private discussion,” said Short. “I don’t think that he lacks an opportunity to share his views with the president. They often start the day together with a call. I think they’ve developed an incredibly close relationship.”
“In these first 100 days they’ve been together quite a lot during office hours,” Short added.
“He is legitimately the president’s peer in the West Wing,” said Conway, counselor to the president.
Pence’s office declined to make him available for an interview and has generally declined to cooperate with any profile requests, out of a desire not to upstage Trump. Chris Ruddy, a friend of the president’s and CEO of the conservative media company Newsmax, called him “the perfect vice president for Donald Trump” in part because he “lets the president glow without distraction.”
And while he may not be Trump’s go-to adviser during tough deliberations, the president has still handed him a sizeable portfolio, ranging from repealing and replacing Obamacare to representing America abroad while the president remains in the comfort of Washington and his resort in Florida.
Pence has been globetrotting to reassure allies and represent Trump’s muscular foreign policy, telling NATO allies that the U.S. will continue to stand as a check on Russia, and touring the Asia-Pacific region signaling that the Obama-era focus on the region will not disappear under Trump.
And, of course, the one Trump loyalist to put Pence in a tenuous spot — former national security adviser Michael Flynn — was quickly shown the door, though he was kept in the White House for weeks after senior administration officials learned he had misled the vice president about his meetings with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. In fact, Pence only found out about Flynn’s misdirection through media reports.
Many lawmakers, particularly on the Republican side, were hopeful that Pence, who served as a congressman from Indiana for more than a decade, would bring his experience to bear on Capitol Hill, serving as an indispensable liaison between Republicans in Congress and White House aides with less policy experience.
“If you look at the last administration, Biden played a very critical role because Barack Obama had absolutely no idea how a bill became a law. So Biden played a very constructive role in trying to communicate to the Hill when they were trying to get something done,” said Josh Holmes, former chief of staff to McConnell. Pence, he said, has an opportunity to fill the same void, given that the administration is otherwise filled with “an awful lot of New York people.”
“That just doesn’t work,” Holmes said.
Yet several White House aides expressed frustration that the bulk of the work for selling a flawed Obamacare repeal bill fell to Pence, rather than to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his leadership team. Pence’s initial foray on Capitol Hill left him frustrated, associates say, and though he was in frequent contact with Ryan in the early days of the administration, often dropping in on him announced, their communications have dropped off.
Pence has been particularly frustrated with the House Freedom Caucus, a group that he says he would be a member of were he still in Congress.
“He’s been disappointed. He’s been disappointed in their lack of fortitude, in their lack of solutions,” said one person close to Pence. “He doesn’t think it should be this difficult to do the right thing and the obvious thing. He knows he’s bent over backwards and the president’s bent over backwards and he’s been shocked.”
He’s even told associates that he’s gained some empathy for the George W. Bush administration officials who tried to wrangle his vote years ago. (Bush strategist Karl Rove in particular was a frequent adversary.) Indeed, Pence spent the bulk of his time as a legislator casting protest votes against the Bush administration’s major initiatives, from No Child Left Behind to the Medicare Part D prescription drug plan. But, as one former Hill staffer said, Pence “knew when to take ‘yes’ for an answer.”
If Pence was a successful oppositionist, he’s finding it more difficult to cobble together a governing coalition. At times, he has also wondered why it is he — and not Ryan or Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, with whom he enjoys strong relationships — who is trying to corral a splintered conference and to twist arms on votes.
“Many of us have advised him against that,” a Pence confidant said. “He’s not the conference chairman anymore. He’s the vice president of the United States. They have asked him to frequently do what many around Mike knew was their job.”
But as the face of the administration’s second act on Obamacare repeal, Pence’s first major victory may now be on the horizon. The vice president was crucial in restarting negotiations with the House Freedom Caucus and the moderate Tuesday group for a renewed health care that the administration hopes will end in redemption.
He has taken a gentler approach than the president, who singled out Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows in a closed-door meeting and threatened lawmakers by telling them that a vote against the bill would imperil their reelection chances in 2018. And he has gotten results: The House Freedom Caucus on Wednesday announced its support for a new version of a repeal bill that includes an amendment from New Jersey Rep. Tom MacArthur, a co-chair of the moderate Tuesday group, moving Pence a step closer to his first significant win, though the House vote was delayed this week and the bill’s prospects in the Senate remain uncertain.
And as the administration closes in on its first 100 days, Pence enjoys a higher favorability rating than Trump — he was most recently clocked at 49 percent by Morning Consult, while Trump hovers in the low 40s — and has stayed in good standing with the president. That’s in part because he possesses in equal measure two of the traits Trump values most in those around him: loyalty and deference.
While he initially said he would vote for Ted Cruz in the Indiana primary, that endorsement was halfhearted, and he endorsed Trump a week later. He also stood steadfastly by the Manhattan businessman through the campaign’s darkest moments. Pence, an evangelical Christian, preached forgiveness in the wake of revelations that Trump bragged on tape about groping women’s genitals, while others nudged Trump to drop out of the race.
Sold as a conservative stalwart who could bridge the gap between Trump’s populist base and rank-and-file Republicans, Pence was a success on the campaign trail, standing by Trump when other Republicans prepared to jump ship and telling conservatives it was “time to come home” down the final stretch.
“The vice president has been steady, consistent, high energy, high impact and involved in every major decision and major conversation that the president has made,” Conway said. “He’s a trusted co-pilot.”
Known for his humility — Pence’s longtime aides still call him “Mike” — he goes out of his way to give Trump credit whenever possible. After his vice presidential debate with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Pence repeatedly stated that his debate’s real winner was Trump. Since being sworn in, Pence has made it clear that he views his job as whatever the president wants it to be — whether it involves foreign trips and Capitol Hill deal-making or, if their relationship were to go south, attending funerals and keeping quiet.
His decision to define the job narrowly also has some wondering whether he is working to avoid controversy in an attempt to lay the groundwork for a future presidential bid of his own.
“He would obviously be a favorite for a future presidential campaign after Trump has been president, and that’s unusual for somebody who didn’t run himself in what was a very crowded and talented field this year,” Conway told National Review during the campaign.
But the posture of vice president as staffer has some wondering why Pence isn’t doing more to capitalize on his goodwill. One senior administration official said Pence’s affability allows some top aides to treat him like one of their own, but that doing so is a “huge mistake.” Unlike Bannon, Priebus and even Kushner, after all, Pence cannot be fired.
“He should be the most powerful vice president in recent history,” said one person close to him, noting that when it comes to dealing with Congress, “He’s got credibility up there that nobody else in the White House has.”
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