Like many who served in Congress alongside the late John Lewis, then-Rep. Mike Pence made a pilgrimage to Selma, Ala., in 2010 to commemorate the 45th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.” He marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge just a few feet from Lewis as they retraced the historic route, and posed for a photo at the foot of the span — the Indiana Republican in crisp gray and the Georgia Democrat in somber black, their shoulders touching.
But when Lewis died last month of pancreatic cancer at 80, Pence, now vice president, held off on issuing a public comment on the civil rights hero’s passing. President Trump was no fan of the late congressman and openly complained about Lewis’s refusal to attend his inauguration. Only after the White House distributed a perfunctory proclamation on the death in Trump’s name did Pence feel comfortable releasing a statement of his own, memorializing Lewis as not just an “icon” but also “a colleague and a friend.”
That hesitation — deferring to Trump for cues, and then following his lead — was classic Pence. It exemplified the well-honed subservience of a man who once governed his home state of Indiana but who as vice president has transformed himself into a loyal student and servant of Trump — binding his political ambitions to a mercurial and capricious boss now at risk of losing in November.
On Wednesday night, Pence will formally accept his party’s nomination for a second term as vice president in an address to the Republican National Convention from Fort McHenry in Baltimore, where he will praise Trump’s leadership. The keynote serves as a bookend of sorts for one of the few high-ranking officials to survive Trump’s first term. He is being repaid for his loyalty with a reward — remaining in the No. 2 slot — that in most other administrations would never have been in doubt.
To his allies, such staying power demonstrates the extent of Pence’s influence with Trump — no small accomplishment in such a tumultuous White House.
“Pence has built the rarest of commodities in this administration, and that is a durable, close relationship with the president,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity and a longtime Pence ally. “And the operative word is ‘durable.’ ”
This portrait of Pence’s time as Trump’s vice president is the product of interviews with 25 current and former senior administration officials, Republican operatives, and confidants of the two men, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to share candid insights. Pence’s office declined to make him available for an interview.
Earlier this year, Pence was thrust into his most high-profile role yet when Trump abruptly appointed him to chair the administration’s coronavirus task force. While Pence brought some discipline and organization to the group, the administration’s effort was on the whole disastrous — marred by bureaucratic dysfunction and infighting; skepticism of science and experts; and a bungled strategy that has left the United States leading the world with 5.6 million Americans confirmed to be infected with the novel coronavirus and more than 172,000 dead of covid-19, the illness caused by the virus.
Administration and task force officials privately complain that Pence has been overly tentative and reluctant to make decisions without Trump’s buy-in. And they say the vice president and his staff have been overly preoccupied with the public relations aspect of the virus — catering to a president obsessed with how he and the administration are covered by the media.
That Trump turned to Pence to manage the pandemic was no surprise. Over nearly four years, Pence has firmly established himself as a trusty sidekick. The president has dubbed him “On Message Mike” for his ability to deliver Trump’s views without complaint; critics mock Pence as a “bobblehead” for his obsequious deference to his boss.
But people who know him say Pence’s subservience masks a thrumming ambition. Losing two congressional campaigns propelled him finally into the House, then to the Indiana governor’s mansion, and on to his current home at the U.S. Naval Observatory. In his four years at Trump’s side, Pence has never given the president cause to seriously doubt his devotion.
“I admire his stick-to-it-iveness,” Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said with a laugh.
On his weekly video conference meetings with the nation’s governors, Pence is a man in control. He leads the calls — which typically stretch for more than an hour and include updates from himself as well as other task force members — from the White House Situation Room, and offers updates on issues including the latest virus data, federal guidelines and supply-chain issues.
Though Pence peppers his public remarks with praise for Trump and goes out of his way to personally credit the president with actions the government has taken, the vice president’s private comments to the governors contain little if any direct mention of Trump, according to a review of audio recordings of several recent video conferences.
On the calls, Pence has demonstrated command of his brief, delving into the details of how the virus is spreading regionally as well as detailed instructions for governors about how they can request federal resources and assistance.
Pence has gone out of his way to compliment the governors, and they have responded in kind, among them some who have publicly been critical of Trump and his management of the pandemic.
During a meeting last Tuesday, according to one recording, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) recounted how his phone calls are always returned and said: “In our deepest, darkest hour of need, everybody in that room, and the president as well, was with us when we needed them.”
But administration officials say Pence’s stewardship of the coronavirus task force has been mixed. Trump originally considered former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R) and former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb for the role. Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, was also initially reluctant for Pence to take on the responsibility, though Pence quickly accepted.
The task force meetings were plagued by indecision, and Pence himself had little expertise in the nuances of the novel virus. Pence was initially dubious of masks and reluctant to implement what he saw as overly long lockdowns that could harm the economy. Short, his chief of staff who controlled the task force, was viewed by some of the medical experts as ideological. He was determined to travel, even though other White House aides warned against it. His travel included a controversial trip to Seattle in the early days of the pandemic.
Some staffers felt that too much time was spent bogged down on the same topics — mask guidance, which was constantly shifting; the distribution of personal protective equipment; and preparing the vice president and president to brief the media — and not enough time on formulating a still-nonexistent national testing strategy or weighing broader containment strategies. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, didn’t always attend task force meetings but often made key decisions.
Some aides say Pence painted what one administration official called a “relentlessly positive” picture of the virus to Trump, papering over the severity of the spread and telling the president the situation was under control. Pence told others he was regularly looking for positive developments to show the president. Even as the number of infections and deaths spiked, Pence kept a cheery demeanor, praising members of the task force relentlessly in meetings.
In response to questions sent by email, infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci praised Pence as “a truly decent person, and very smart, who is trying to do his best in a very difficult and fluid situation.” He said that while Pence is “an optimist” and “glass half full type of person” who always presents the “optimistic” view to Trump, the vice president has never prevented him from sharing his “darker side” with the president.
“I am sometimes referred to as ‘the skunk at the picnic’ but Pence never directly asks me, the skunk, to be quiet or leave,” Fauci wrote, adding: “Some may say that Pence and his team are ‘too ideological’ but they are after all political people. This is not unexpected.”
In mid-June, Pence penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled “There Isn’t A Coronavirus ‘Second Wave.’ ” Contradicting many of his task force’s own experts, he argued that any panic over the pandemic worsening this fall or winter was “overblown.” Along with Trump, he has repeatedly pushed to reopen schools even though some officials are skeptical it can be done safely. Like Trump, he was initially reluctant to wear a mask and was rebuked by the Mayo Clinic for not wearing one during a visit there.
Within weeks, another coronavirus surge was washing over the South and Southwest.
Members of Pence’s team stressed that Trump has repeatedly praised Pence’s handling of the virus and provided a list of some of the president’s public comments, including boasts that Pence has been “working day and night” and has made a “fantastic” effort. But other aides say Trump has griped about Pence privately, blaming him for the negative coverage of the coronavirus response.
One tense moment came in late April when the task force brought in William N. Bryan, the science administrator at the Department of Homeland Security, to privately brief Trump before his coronavirus news conference on new research that found that sunlight and disinfectants could quickly kill the virus on surfaces. Some argued that the research was “half-baked.”
The result: Incendiary remarks by Trump, in which he suggested injecting disinfectant to fight the virus.
Soon after, the daily briefings were canceled, even though Pence told other aides he didn’t understand why they ended. They have been revived in recent weeks.
Now, however, Trump usually appears alone, rather than flanked by Pence and the rest of the task force, and reads morosely from a script.
“Trump-Haley 2020,” read the Wall Street Journal opinion piece, which reverberated around Washington’s political set last June. In just over 300 words, Andrew Stein — a former president of the New York City Council, who in 2016 founded a Democrats for Trump effort — argued that while he meant “no disrespect” to Pence, the vice president already had “given Mr. Trump all the help he can.”
“To have the best chance of reelection, he should replace Vice President Mike Pence on the ticket with Nikki Haley,” Stein wrote, referring to the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former South Carolina governor.
The essay was just another splash in the stream of chatter urging Trump to replace his No. 2 — often with Haley, though, more recently, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) have also merited mention.
At the time of the Journal column, Trump sought to reassure Pence. “Mike is my guy,” the president concluded, according to people familiar with the conversation.
Those close to Pence insist there never was any real worry his job was at risk. The vice president carefully tracks Trump, watching his rallies and reading the transcripts of all his interviews and public comments, and is determined never to outshine the president. Aides say he seeks to avoid interviews or stories that focus on him, fearful the attention could rile Trump. He clears remarks with Trump and deliberately avoids making news; he was unhappy when a visit he made to a border facility with caged men in July 2019 dominated the headlines.
Trump also relies on Pence, calling the vice president as many as a half-dozen times a day for brief check-ins. Because Trump is often swayed by whoever he talked to last, Pence makes an effort to be physically present when Trump is; former aides recall his visiting the Oval Office multiple times a day and stopping by the desk of Trump’s executive assistant to touch base.
Pence has been careful never to disagree with Trump in meetings with other advisers present, preferring to offer his counsel one-on-one with the president. At times, former Trump aides grew frustrated with Pence when he was unwilling to help dissuade the president from what they viewed as rash or ill-considered decisions.
“To say that he was a sycophant so understates it,” said one former senior administration official. A Pence aide said he offers his counsel to Trump in private.
During the initial mass protests that followed the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed in Minneapolis police custody, Pence floated the idea of using the Insurrection Act of 1807 to deploy the U.S. military to quell the violence in the streets. But after Trump sided with military advisers who objected to the idea, Pence then voiced agreement with the president’s decision. Pence usually holds a more hawkish foreign policy view than Trump and is more socially and fiscally conservative, aides say, but he is deferential at almost all times.
Jim DeMint, a former head of the conservative Heritage Foundation, recalled a meeting with Trump at the White House. Trump joked about Pence, who wasn’t there: “You know, Mike wants to pray about everything, and he’s always coming in here and praying. I bet I’m the only New York developer who has prayed about anything!”
DeMint said Trump meant the comment as a “positive” observation on Pence’s evangelical Christian faith. Former aides say that in the early tumultuous months of the administration, then-chief of staff Reince Priebus and Pence regularly joined for prayer on Priebus’s patio.
A former White House aide said Trump also would allude to Pence’s statement as a congressman that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife, and won’t attend events with alcohol without her at his side. The president would sometimes joke, this aide said, that they needed to send a male staffer to pass along a message to Pence, because he doesn’t like to be alone with women.
Since Pence officially began campaigning for Trump’s reelection last October, the vice president has made 73 trips to 27 states, according to aides — including 10 visits to Florida, seven to Wisconsin and six to Pennsylvania, all 2020 battlegrounds.
He has cruised along on 11 bus tours, rallied the crowd at 10 “Make America Great Again” rallies, and chatted through more than 150 regional media interviews in nearly 30 states.
Pence has done it all in service to Trump — Trump’s ambitions, Trump’s ego, Trump’s second term. He begins many speeches by saying he’s just spoken with the president, who sends his greetings.
Pence’s efforts on behalf of Trump serve a dual purpose: Proving his loyalty while nurturing his own political relationships. He has taken trips abroad that Trump prefers to delegate, wooed donors at his residence through the political action committee he created in 2017 and regularly connected with conservative leaders. When he visits key states, he often meets with top political and business officials privately.
“People often mistake humility for weakness or lack of ambition, and they do so at their own peril when it comes to Mike Pence,” Phillips said. “Pence is neither weak nor lacking in ambition. He is strong and, in a good sense of the word, ambitious.”
Pence regularly holds calls with conservative groups such as Concerned Women for America, FreedomWorks and the Heritage Foundation. He also provides his West Wing office space for a loose network of conservative activists to gather monthly, and Pence occasionally stops by.
He focuses on personal touches, sending notes and cards and thanks yous, and hosts meals with operatives and donors. His office is fastidious about fulfilling small favors — organizing White House tours and answering calls from lobbyists, executives and others. Much of the political effort is orchestrated by Short, Pence’s chief of staff, who has deep ties in the conservative community and has worked for the Koch brothers and Oliver North.
“As we say in the Jewish community, everybody thinks the vice president is a mensch,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Pence wrote the foreword to Marjorie Dannenfelser’s new book, “Life is Winning.” Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an antiabortion group, said Pence has never hinted at a possible 2024 presidential run of his own.
“There’s no wink, there’s no nod, there’s no indication that ‘Hey, later we’ll talk about that when it’s just you and me,’ ” she said. But if Pence sought the presidency, she added, “he’s the best positioned person that I know.”
Pence’s wife, Karen, also plays an outsize role, both in the vice president’s office and in protecting her husband, according to people familiar with their relationship. She has told his staff that she doesn’t want him doing early morning television or radio interviews or late-night travel.
She bears similarities to Nancy Reagan — a fierce defender and protector, as invested in her husband’s political future as Pence himself. She sat in with Pence on interviews for potential hires and met with the lawyer who represented Pence in Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation before the attorney was hired.
Many of his allies concede that if Trump loses in November, Pence is likely headed to the “markdown bin,” in the words of one. And if the Trump-Pence ticket does win four more years, a successful 2024 bid for Pence is still uncertain. As one Republican operative put it: “Who do you talk to who’s fired up for Mike Pence?”
Others are more optimistic. Michael Steel, a longtime adviser to former House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said Pence is “fundamentally rational and intelligent and conservative.”
“I don’t know how many of us there are,” Steel said, “but I am a Republican who would be much more comfortable pulling the lever for Mike Pence than for Donald Trump.”
Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.
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