With President Donald Trump having himself another very bad week, the media has turned a little bit of attention to Vice President Mike Pence, imagining how his place in the firmament might shift should Trump either be forced to beat a path out of town by extenuating circumstances, or if Trump finally realizes that “president of the United States” is not a fun, easy job that one can do on a lark, and quits. (For my money, the likelier option at this point.)
In recent days, Pence seems to have taken recent current events under advisement, working to widen the distance between himself and his boss. This raises an interesting question: Should he be allowed to do this?
Here are some data points worth noting! Donald Trump was well known to have been a vindictive campaigner, a virulent fearmonger, and a reputed con artist and liar well before Mike Pence decided to sign on as his vice president. The revelation that Trump was an avowed fan of sexual assault as a lifestyle choice preceded the election, and the formation of the presidential transition team that Pence headed up.
We should also, perhaps, remember what some of Pence’s esteemed Republican colleagues had to say about Donald Trump in the weeks before Pence hitched his wagon to the cartoon mogul. I seem to remember that during the Republican primary, Trump was referred to as “the chaos candidate,” a “con artist” with “no ideas of any substance,” and a “pathological liar.” He insulted Carly Fiorina’s appearance. He accused Ted Cruz’s father of being a part of the Kennedy assassination.
And of course, Trump was facing a regular barrage of criticism from the Republican intelligentsia on philosophical grounds, accusing him of not being sufficiently conservative. All of which created an interesting opportunity for say, a down-and-out Republican governor with a rock-ribbed Reagany reputation, to lend a dose of True Conservative shine to a campaign that needed to cross over with mainstream Republicans.
There are two possibilities, it seems. Either the performatively pious Pence, after fully assaying Trump’s character, determined that he could be fully on board as one of the reality-television mogul’s enablers, or he was too intellectually dense to understand the obviously fraught situation in which he’d be participating. Dupe or opportunist: Those are your two choices.
Well, there are signs that indicate that Pence is more of a deliberative operator than he is a naive chump. This week, NBC News’ Vaughn Hillyard reported that Pence had filed paperwork to launch his own political action committee (its nom de guerre: “Great America Committee”), marking the “first time a sitting vice president has formed such a separate political arm,” rather than make use of “party or campaign funds” to defray the cost of campaign travels. But it’s possible to read more into this event than is actually there. For what it’s worth, the PAC’s stated mission is to “provide resources for the vice president to actually support candidates who are supportive of the president’s agenda.”
But there are other news stories, dovetailing with the launch of this committee, that strongly suggest that Pence would suddenly like to claim a little separation from Trump ― without being too obvious about it.
It’s understandable why he’d do so ― Pence is near the center of the controversy caused by former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, whose travails seem likely to lead to the next chapter in the Trump White House’s Russia investigation story.
As you might recall, Pence claimed not to have been in the loop when Flynn disclosed, during the presidential transition, that he was under investigation for having improper contacts with Russian officials ― despite the fact that Pence was the nominal head of that transition. It’s since come to light that Flynn was on the payroll of Turkish interests when vetoed a Pentagon plan to “retake the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa with Syrian Kurdish forces” ― a decision that “conformed to the wishes” of his Turkish paymasters.
A day after he broke the news about Pence’s new PAC, Hillyard reported a story headlined, “VP Mike Pence Was Never Informed About Flynn: Source.” That “close to the administration source” has a lot of familiarity with Pence. At times, it’s as if the source is so familiar with Pence that he (or she, but …) could even provide up-to-the-minute news of neurotransmissions across Pence’s synapses. Very intimate familiarity, is what I’m saying.
According to this source ― this very, very au courant source ― Pence has been “kept in the dark about” Flynn’s alleged wrongdoing and, “Pence and his team were not made aware of any investigation relating to Flynn’s work as a foreign agent for Turkey.” Furthermore, the source says that Pence “was not consulted about the decision to bring on Flynn as the National Security Advisor,” never had a “personal relationship,” never had a “personal meeting during the transition,” and Pence never “promoted” Flynn in any way during that time.
Per Hillyard: “The source said there is concern about what the source called “a pattern” of keeping the vice president distant from information about possible Flynn wrongdoings.”
Of course, there is this very sticky matter of a letter that Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) sent to Pence on Nov. 18, warning that Flynn’s consultancy had been hired to lobby on behalf of Turkish interests.
Hillyard pens a cagey kicker to his report:
Asked about a letter from Rep. Elijah Cummings to Pence on November 18 that warned the transition team about Flynn’s work for Turkey, the source asserted: “I’m not sure we saw the letter.”
Well, how about that.
Like I said, Pence’s attempts to put some distance between himself and Trump aren’t being made to look particularly obvious. For example, he’s very pointedly letting it be known that he does not hold Trump responsible for not keeping him up to speed on L’Affaire Flynn. And CNN’s Elizabeth Landers follows this week’s earlier news with a report on Friday in which more sources with familiarity of Pence’s thinking paint a different picture ― one in which Pence is a steadfast member of the team, it’s just that all this drama is just wearing him out, man.
After a fast and furious news cycle at the White House this week, the last few days may have worn on Vice President Mike Pence.
Though Pence will continue to be a “loyal soldier” because he is a “relentlessly positive guy, he “looks tired,” a senior administration adviser observed on Thursday, outlining the vice president’s schedule and trying to explain his relative absence from the public eye.
Well, maybe this is just a situation where a “relentlessly positive guy” had no idea what he was getting himself into when he joined the Trump ticket and team almost a year ago. Oh, wait, what’s that, Elizabeth Landers?
The Pence team knew what they were getting themselves into when they joined the Trump ticket and team almost a year ago
“We certainly knew we needed to be prepared for the unconventional,” but, the source adds, “not to this extent.”
Oh, well then. How could Pence have known the “extent” to which Trump was going to be “unconventional?” Let’s see what Slate’s Jeremy Stahl has to say about it, from this dispatch back on July 14, 2016:
Multiple media outlets reported on Thursday that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence would be Donald Trump’s pick for his running mate in the fall. Even as the Trump campaign denied that a decision had been made, the potential selection made sense as a safe, conventional pick: A solid conservative with an impressive legislative resume.
There’s one big way that it doesn’t make sense, though. Specifically—being a safe, conventional conservative—Pence absolutely lambasted Trump’s call to ban all Muslim immigrants from entering the country, one of his key policy proposals.
Sounds to me like Pence had some inkling that Trump could be trouble. In any event, it’s really hard to feel bad for Vice President Mike Pence, fearless church-goin’ man, who is now so, so “tired.”
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.
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