Few members of the Trump administration have carried themselves with more unctuous sycophancy than Mike Pence. “Thank you, Mr. President, and just the greatest privilege of my life is to serve as vice president to a president who’s keeping his word to the American people,” the former Indiana governor said at that North Korean-style cabinet meeting back in June. At joint public appearances, Pence gazes at President Trump with a mixture of admiration, gratitude, and sheer astonishment at finding himself just a heartbeat away from the presidency.
But now Trump and Pence may be on the outs. The proximate cause is a New York Times story over the weekend reporting the not especially earthshattering news that Pence is keeping his powder dry in case Trump does not run for re-election in 2020. Much of the article, by Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, concerns the 2020 ambitions of Republicans such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton. But we also learn that Pence has been unusually active in boosting his political prospects, although he “has made no overt efforts to separate himself from the beleaguered president. He has kept up his relentless public praise and even in private is careful to bow to the president.”
This is all pretty unremarkable stuff. Pence himself, though, erupted as though he had been accused of mocking the size of Trump’s hands, calling the Times article “disgraceful and offensive to me, my family, and our entire team” as well as “categorically false.” As Chuck Todd of NBC News tweeted, “Sorta stunned that an obvious point from the NYT piece about a sitting VP's own ambitions appears to be causing Team Pence such heartburn.”
What makes the Times article so sensitive, needless to say, is the nontrivial chance that Pence will be running for president in 2020 as the incumbent. Although it seems unlikely that Trump will be impeached and removed from office, the inexorable progress of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation may well yield the sort of information that could persuade Trump to disappear. It’s a prospect that no doubt gladdens the hearts of congressional Republicans even more than Democrats, since they would be rid of their rage-tweeting ruler and his record low approval ratings. A Pence presidency would give them a chance to start over.
Yet Bill Kristol, a prominent anti-Trump conservative, seems unimpressed with the vice president. Kristol stirred the pot after the Times story was published by tweeting, “It’s bold of Team Pence to plant the front-page NYT story on plans for 2020, then object vociferously. Multi-dimensional chess!” And when Times reporter Maggie Haberman noted that Pence’s over-the-top response would “make one think Pence had committed theft stead of fluffing own brand,” Kristol retorted, “Pence committed the crimes of 1) theft of spotlight from @POTUS and 2) suspicion of less than total subservience to @POTUS even in private.”
Even before the Times story revealed the extent of Pence’s politicking, the vice president’s standing with Trump may have been more fragile than we outsiders imagine. There is, of course, Trump’s one-way definition of loyalty: he demands total fealty and gives back nothing in return. But Pence has also shown that he is not immune to the scent of blood in the water. As the columnist Richard North Patterson observed in The Boston Globe, Pence — whom Patterson described as “an incompetent ideologue, an obsequious toady, and a self-serving schemer” — made it clear to everyone last fall that he was available for the drafting when it looked like the “Access Hollywood” tape might sink Trump’s campaign.
Thus for all the deference Pence has shown, Trump may regard him as someone who is no better than former chief of staff Reince Priebus, who, as head of the Republican Party, reportedly urged Trump to drop out after the tape was exposed by The Washington Post. As an elected official in his own right, Pence, unlike Priebus, can’t be fired by Trump. But that doesn’t mean Pence’s position is entirely safe.
For anyone of moderate or liberal views, a Pence presidency might be even worse than what we’ve got now. Pence is well regarded on Capitol Hill, especially by House Speaker Paul Ryan. He knows how to handle himself in public. And he is an extreme right-wing ideologue who, you can be sure, would stand a far better chance than Trump of rolling back years of progress on issues such as LGBTQ rights and reproductive choice. The Affordable Care Act would once again be in danger. (On the other hand, Trump would no longer have access to the nuclear codes — no small thing given his unstable behavior.)
If there was any doubt, the Times article reminds us that Pence is ambitious. It remains to be seen whether he is ambitious in the way vice presidents normally are or if he is aggressively trying to take advantage of Trump’s weak position. In either case, he’s not going away. Even if Trump wants him to.