Mike Pence—who’s quietly launched his own PAC and already begun glad-handing big dollar donors—is shocked (shocked!) by the rumors that he might be laying the groundwork for his own presidency. Fake news, he calls it. But while the veep doth protest, Republicans are already imagining the outlines of a post-Trump Washington—and the first moves of a Mike Pence White House.
Becoming president, Mike Pence will tell you, is not on his mind. He swears. He’s got a terrific job right now, as vice president—a gig that, despite any appearance to the contrary, is “the greatest privilege of my life.” Or so Pence gushed to Donald Trump (and an abundance of TV cameras) at a recent cabinet meeting, where he squinted those chestnut eyes of his and gave the honest-to-God impression that he’d like nothing more than to serve as Trump’s loyal understudy for the rest of his life.
So, the fury Pence summoned on Sunday was maybe more predictable than believable. Denying a report from the New York Times that Pence might be laying the groundwork for a presidential bid in 2020, the vice president blasted the article as “disgraceful and offensive.” For good measure, Pence added: “Whatever fake news may come our way, my entire team will continue to focus all our efforts to advance the president’s agenda and see him re-elected in 2020.” Fair enough. But if you accept his theatrics and take him at his word, Mike Pence is perhaps the only person in Washington not currently prepping for a Mike Pence presidency.
Yet, for all the eagerness to imagine Pence in the White House, the real speculating about his administration occurs mostly in furtive whispers and behind closed doors. “That’s a thought experiment that gets you killed,” demurred Frank Luntz, the generally loquacious G.O.P. pollster, when I tried to probe him about Pence’s future.
Still, there are moments now when Pence himself stokes visions of his ascendancy—days when he plays the role not of vice president but of a kind of virtual president. Instances, in other words, when he offers a glimpse of a future as tantalizing to some as it is frightening to others.
Maybe the most intriguing of these crystal-ball moments came this summer, after Trump’s first, dismal trip to Europe. The president used the visit to make headlines for, among other things, boorishly shoving the prime minister of Montenegro and haranguing NATO allies. To the power brokers back in Washington—the policymakers and think-tankers who sweat the details that Trump tramples—the performance was cringe-inducing, the commander in chief laying waste to 70 years of postwar American leadership.
To the G.O.P., Pence would be a kind of godsend, a president who would be, as the former adviser describes him, “a think-tank-talk-news-created Republican robot.”
Days later came Mike Pence, gliding to the rostrum in a D.C. hotel ballroom to put things right. In what was expected to be a humdrum speech at a gala for the Atlantic Council—one of those innumerable D.C. policy groups—Pence began mopping up Trump’s mess, allaying the concerns of the jittery power class. Earlier that day, he’d personally welcomed the manhandled Montenegrin leader to the White House. And now, as he spoke, Pence downplayed Trump’s blustery talk in Brussels, reminding the assembled that America was still committed to NATO.
Ticking through his to-do list, Pence even offered a few kind words about Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national-security adviser who’d recently died. The White House had neglected to issue condolences—presumably because of Trump’s ongoing war with Brzezinski’s daughter, Mika, the Morning Joe co-host whom he has assailed as being “crazy” and having a “low IQ.” None such juvenile belligerence from the veep. “Our thoughts and our prayers are with you,” Pence told the Brzezinski family.
The response to the speech was rapturous. The crowd gave Pence a standing ovation. The next day, The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, the premier channeler of the swamp’s chattering class, wrote a column about the speech. The headline? “President Pence’ Is Sounding Better and Better.” The event was a turning point, a moment of distilled competence in which the fantasy of a Pence reign—an eventuality mused about since the moment he was picked for the ticket—began to feel real.
His ascent has been spectacular, if under-appreciated. Until he was plucked by Trump last summer to help appeal to conservative voters, Pence was a scarcely known and largely unpopular governor facing an uphill re-election fight in Indiana. Today he’s next in line to a deeply embattled president; a guy who’s made himself seem vaguely right for the Oval Office simply by standing in contrast to its current occupant.
In May, Pence quietly became the only first-term vice president in history to form his own political-action committee, the Great America Committee, which, in addition to funding his political travel over the next few years, will help him build a network of deep-pocketed supporters should he want to run for president himself. At the same time, Pence has been hosting a series of dinners at the vice president’s mansion for some of the nation’s wealthiest and most prominent conservative donors. According to the Times, Pence arranges for an empty chair to be placed at each table so he can more easily schmooze as he wends his way around the room.
And now, as each new day seems to bring with it a revelation, or a poll, or a tweet that feels as if it nudges the vice president—perhaps the most unexamined major political figure in modern America—ever closer to the Oval Office, the powerful and the plugged-in across Washington are beginning to form answers to a suddenly more urgent question: What happens when Mike Pence becomes president?
Say Mike Pence becomes the 46th president of the United States. No matter the circumstances of Trump’s exit—whether he leaves early or not—Pence will inherit a hangover. Recall Gerald Ford’s efforts, in the wake of Watergate, to declare that America’s “long national nightmare is over.” Pence might need to do something similar.
“Like Ford, he’d try to be instantly reassuring,” says Andrew Rudalevige, a Bowdoin College political scientist who studies the presidency. But if Trump were to resign or be forced from office, Republicans would struggle in the long shadow of scandal and turmoil—and nobody would be more enveloped in it than Pence himself.
“It would be as if Agnew was taking over the Nixon presidency,” says Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, referring to Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s original vice president, who resigned before Nixon. Kristol’s point is that a President Pence wouldn’t be given the same benefit of the doubt enjoyed by Ford, who hadn’t been around for the Watergate break-in, and thus began his presidency relatively immune to its fallout. (Of course, after Ford pardoned Nixon a month later, his own days in the White House were numbered.)
Having been with Trump from the start of his presidency, Pence wouldn’t benefit in the ways Ford did. “Pence is inexorably tainted by Trumpism,” says G.O.P. strategist Steve Schmidt. “His credibility and integrity are in tatters along with that of most every other person who’s spoken for this administration from the grounds of the White House.”
Holding on to Trump’s supporters would likely require holding on to some of his popular promises, too.
So, perhaps Pence’s best chance at escaping the gravity field of the Trump regime depends on his knack for seeming wholly unlike Trump—for being the human embodiment of calm and order. “I’ve got one word if you were to compare a potential Pence presidency with the current one: boring,” one G.O.P. strategist says. “And that’s with three O’s: boooring.” In case I missed his meaning, the operative spelled it out: “That is not meant as a criticism.”
As with Pence’s comments at that Atlantic Council dinner, it’s his ability to quell drama that most excites Republicans. “They would not admit it publicly,” says Michael Steel, John Boehner’s former press secretary, “but if you got a little sodium pentothal in most congressional Republicans and Republicans in Washington, they would tell you that they’d breathe a huge sigh of relief if, one way or the other, Mike Pence became president.” The reasons are obvious enough. As Schmidt puts it: “The hourly embarrassment brought to the country by Trump’s reckless conduct and behavior would end.”
Beyond the prospect of fewer deranged tweets, what can we expect in the early days of the Pence era? Consensus holds that Pence would want to surround himself with new staff—particularly Republican heavyweights, aides and operatives of the stature and pedigree that Trump wasn’t able to lure to the White House.
Dan Scavino, Trump’s former golf caddie who now serves as the White House director of social media and an assistant to the president, would almost certainly be bounced. Ditto for rookie staffers and family members like Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Strategists like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller? “I’m sure Mike prays for both of their souls every night,” says one former Pence adviser, predicting they’d be axed.
Surprisingly, one high-profile survivor might be Kellyanne Conway, who served on Pence’s gubernatorial campaign as a pollster. At one point she even urged him to run for president in 2016, and later she talked him up to Trump during the veep search. “A lot of where Mike is today,” says the former Pence adviser, “he owes to Kellyanne.”
Throughout his political career, Pence has run a famously tight ship—relying on a close circle of aides that includes Karen, his wife of three decades. He insists that she accompany him to events where alcohol is served, and he notoriously refuses to dine alone with other women. Even behind closed doors, Pence’s moral rectitude and deep religiosity govern his affect and decision-making. During political or policy deliberations, the surest way for an adviser to win him over is to invoke God. In fact, says the former adviser, when Pence was deciding whether to join the ticket of Trump, a thrice-married libertine, a Christ-like argument was offered in favor of accepting the offer. “Proximity to people who are off the path,” Pence was reminded, “allows you to help them get on the path.”
It may sound now like an absurd notion—the idea that Pence might have changed Trump’s ways—but plenty of Republicans harbored the same delusion. To those who’ve grown weary wishing Trump was more in lockstep with the G.O.P., Pence would be a kind of godsend, a president who would be, as the former adviser describes him, “a think-tank-talk-news-created Republican robot.”
There’s an attractive thought aflutter in the upper echelons of the G.O.P., a prediction that replacing Trump with a traditional conservative like Pence would solve everything. That’s likely a pipe dream.
“There’s a longing among a lot of Republicans to return to a kind of pre-Trump party, and I think that’s just fantasy,” says the conservative intellectual and National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru. “A post-Trump party, however we get there, is not going to be the same as a pre-Trump party. We’ve learned things about the Republican Party that even Republicans are going to have a hard time unlearning.”
None of the systemic problems inside the G.O.P.—the divisions revealed in last year’s presidential primaries that helped fuel Trump’s rise—have been solved. If anything, Trump’s presidency has only grown those fissures and emboldened a contingent of aggrieved voters. And if Pence became president, he’d need to mollify those Trump boosters. “I expect him to serve his full term, but if not there’d be a core group of [Trump voters] who’d forever think Trump was wronged and who’d view Trump’s exit as a coup,” says G.O.P. strategist Ryan Williams. “Pence would need to pacify them to some extent and win them over.”
Today, Pence benefits from his unearned status as an outsider—a guy brought along by Trump to help him drain the swamp. In truth, he’s a G.O.P. loyalist who spent a dozen years in Congress before becoming Indiana governor. Holding on to Trump’s supporters would likely require holding on to some of his popular promises, too.
“He’d have to do big, symbolic things,” says one prominent Republican who knows both Trump and Pence, suggesting that Pence would fight for Trump’s travel ban and push to renegotiate NAFTA. “He would have to pick some signature Trump issues that would let him secure the base and let them say, ‘Hey, Mike Pence really is one of us.’ ” For instance, says National Review’s Ponnuru, Pence would likely press for the border wall—and, because there’s not much downside to angering Mexico, he might even continue Trump’s claim that they’d pay for it.
There are other norms of the Trump era that Pence might be more delighted to maintain. It’s tough, for example, to imagine him easing the burdens placed on the White House press corps. After all, as Indiana governor, Pence once tried to start a taxpayer-funded news service to cover his own administration. And it’s possible he’d even resist reinstating the presidential tradition of releasing tax returns. Financial transparency burned Pence before, when in 1990 it was revealed he’d used campaign funds to pay his mortgage and credit card bill.
Pence’s religious fervor might, ironically, give him less room to push for some of the conservative policies Trump has enacted.
Liberals, of course, have larger worries, given the prominence of religion in Pence’s governing agenda. Perhaps his most infamous move as governor of Indiana was signing a bill allowing businesses to discriminate against gays. Pence also pushed to mandate burials for aborted fetuses and made it possible to charge doctors who carried out certain abortions with wrongful death.
But for all the fears of a coming theocracy under Pence, more sober-minded observers suspect he could be largely hamstrung on sweeping social issues. Indeed, Pence’s religious fervor might, ironically, give him less room to push for some of the conservative policies Trump has enacted. For instance, Trump’s reinstatement of a ban on U.S. foreign aid being shared with NGOs that perform abortions probably would have garnered more attention—and been perceived as more of a religiously motivated move by critics—had it been orchestrated by Pence. “Trump can do a lot of socially conservative things,” Ponnuru says, “without getting the reputation of a moralistic theocrat because of his bad character—the charge is just not believable.”
There’s a way of thinking about Trump’s outrageous behavior—and even the scandals that result from it—as politically helpful to Trump. Anita Dunn, who served as communications director in the Obama White House, has detected in Trump’s antics a kind of smoke screen that keeps his policies from being fully dissected. “When Trump does horrible stuff like [the abortion-funding ban],” she says, “he’s providing a high level of entertainment on so many levels that people don’t have the energy to notice as much. There’s no way Pence will ever take up as much oxygen.” And as a result, the thinking goes, Pence’s ambitions might be easier to oppose.
In fact, one can imagine many of the big G.O.P. agenda items—from health care to a massive tax-reform plan—would likely remain out of Pence’s grasp, just as they have for Trump. “There might be reasons to root for a President Pence,” says the G.O.P. strategist Liam Donovan, “but the idea that you’re going to pass tax cuts or anything else is incredibly naive. A Pence presidency won’t send things back to normal.”
How We Got Mike Pence, Presidential Hopeful
The remarkably unremarkable rise of Mike Pence
1988–90 : Mounts two failed bids for Congress; gets blasted for using a racist TV ad that stereotyped Middle Easterners.
1992: Finds a niche in politics as a conservative talk-radio host—bills himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.”
2000: Finally gets elected to Congress. Spends the next 12 years introducing some 63 bills. Zero become law.
2012: Returns to Indiana as governor; makes headlines by allowing businesses to discriminate against gay people.
2016: Facing a tough re-election, gets a lucky VP offer. Trump tries to wiggle out of the deal but can’t.
2017: Claims to be in the dark about supposed Trump campaign sins, and voilà—emerges as G.O.P. presidential material.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped people in Washington—for reasons of both wishful thinking and contingency planning—from laying the groundwork for a Pence presidency. That seems to include Pence himself. Just consider the calculated space he’s putting between himself and Trump on the Russia investigation—with his team claiming he was not privy to the Trump campaign’s supposed misdeeds—not to mention that first-of-its-kind PAC he’s quietly running. Whether Trump knows enough to be perturbed by this sort of gamesmanship is an open question. “We don’t even know if the president realizes how unprecedented or out of the ordinary it is,” one person close to Trump says of Pence’s maneuvering.
Those near Pence insist that he’s not scheming. “If you had a character out of House of Cards as vice president instead of an evangelical-Christian man who believes he is where he is because God placed him there,” says Rex Elsass, a former Pence adviser, “then you might have someone who’d plan to undermine the man who gave him the greatest privilege of his life. But that’s not Mike Pence.”
So far, Pence’s efforts seem to be working. Even the famously paranoid Trump is said to harbor no suspicions about his number two. “He’s never been mad about Pence,” says one Trump confidant who’s watched Pence’s flattery keep him in the president’s good graces. And Pence’s over-the-top denial to the Times story seemed crafted to keep him there. It appeared to be written to reassure an audience of one: Donald Trump. And it’s likely Pence will deliver a similar message, in person, when he visits the president at his New Jersey golf club later this week.
But while it’s becoming increasingly easy to imagine a President Pence, it’s still possible to envision a different scenario. In this hypothetical, a scandal-plagued Trump fends off impeachment and resignation; he puts his fate in the hands of the electorate and runs for re-election. In that scenario, the only way he can survive as president is to cook up a dramatic new story line—even a fresh cast of supporting characters. “I could easily see him dumping Pence and putting in a new veep,” says one person close to Trump. “He’s a TV guy at heart, and it would be a TV move. ‘New season, I need a new cast. I’ve got to get renewed.’ ”
Jason Zengerle is GQ’s political correspondent.
This story originally appeared in the September 2017 issue with the title “Who’s Afraid of President Pence?”