Vice President Mike Pence turned 58 on the same day that two senior intelligence officials fielded questions before a Senate committee about the FBI’s ongoing Russia probe — and one day before fired FBI Director James B. Comey appeared before the same committee to discuss why he believed President Trump had acted inappropriately.
The back-to-back rounds of testimony were merely the latest signs of a presidency in the grip of tumult. But flying down to Houston that morning for an astronaut event, Pence didn’t seem to have a care in the world.
His staff had decorated the middle cabin of Air Force Two with a festive tableau of balloons and streamers, and greeted him with a warbling rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
“What are you all doing?” the vice president asked with a smile, opening his arms wide and taking in the scene with a combination of faux-surprise and subdued delight. “This is out of control.”
Donald Trump’s administration did seem to be spiraling out of control, but Pence was — literally and figuratively — 1,400 miles away from the maelstrom in Washington, projecting his de facto stance of serene confidence or willful oblivion, depending on one’s perspective.
Such is life for Pence, who has earned his boss’s support and confidence one laudatory and skim-milk utterance at a time. On Monday, when the president held his first full Cabinet meeting, Pence set the tone by describing working for Trump as “the greatest privilege of my life” — setting off an avalanche of obsequiousness as the remaining officials took turns lavishing praise on their leader.
But Pence’s political balance-beam routine is showing signs of strain, according to a portrait of the vice president culled from interviews with 17 aides, advisers, friends, allies and Republican operatives. The vice president himself declined requests for an interview.
As the Russia investigation continues to expand, for example, Pence took steps this week to protect himself, hiring former U.S. attorney and Virginia attorney general Richard Cullen as his own outside legal counsel, just as Trump has retained attorney Marc Kasowitz.
The vice president’s advisers are also discussing bringing on an additional aide to help with strategy — likely either Nick Ayers, a senior strategist to Pence who is chairman of the vice president’s newly launched super PAC; Marc Short, who currently heads up legislative affairs in the White House; or Marty Obst, the former manager of Pence’s Indiana gubernatorial campaign who is executive director of the super PAC.
The moves seemed aimed, in part, at returning the vice president to his most comfortable role — supporting and defending the president — while also helping to insulate him from the turmoil that has enveloped the White House. Some believe that the vice president is being ill-served by the chronic chaos inside the West Wing and could benefit from a more forceful advocate on his staff.
“It’s tough to be Donald Trump’s vice president, because Trump says flamboyant things and then if you’re the vice president, you have to go on TV and defend things that are hard to defend,” Stephen Moore, an economist for the Heritage Foundation who served as a senior adviser to the Trump campaign. “He does it incredibly skillfully.”
But one senior White House official cautioned against the “toxic brew of a vice president who’s happy to be the No. 2.”
“One of his greatest strengths is that he never says no — but it’s important that he not be a ‘yes’ man,” this official added, speaking anonymously to offer a more candid assessment.
Pence suffered two high-profile embarrassments that have served to define his role in the administration’s early months: First, when he was misled about former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with the Russians, and again last month when Trump publicly contradicted him about the reasons for firing Comey.
One Pence loyalist described himself as at his “wits’ end,” adding, “There are some organizational gaps.”
One senior White House adviser said Pence was exasperated with the West Wing communications shop, which sent him out with a half-baked talking point to explain Comey’s ouster. But Pence’s office argues that Trump never undermined Pence with his public comments suggesting he fired Comey over the Russia probe; the president, the Pence team said,was simply adding more context to his decision and that it is not the vice president’s place to explain Trump’s decision-making process.
“The vice president stands by his comments and enjoys a great working relationship with all departments within the White House,” said Jarrod Agen, a Pence spokesman.
Although Trump and Pence enjoy a warm personal relationship, Pence allies say he faces two stark challenges. First, in a West Wing filled with competing factions vying for supremacy, the best interests of the vice president sometimes get lost. Perhaps more importantly, they say, Pence is simply too loyal and willing to parrot the White House message, even at his own potential peril.
One former Pence adviser described the vice president’s role within the White House as more of a “super senior staffer” than an empowered executive. Pence, who has an office in both the West Wing and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, is often seen floating in the hallways that connect to the Oval Office, not unlike other staffers. Another former aide mentioned Pence’s almost “military-style orientation toward authority.”
Faced with the revelation that Flynn had misled him over contacts with Russians, for instance, Pence had to be urged by staff to forcefully voice his frustrations with Flynn to the president, according to two people with knowledge of the incident.
And while aides said Pence does give Trump his honest and unvarnished counsel in one-on-one meetings, some Pence allies privately wish he would be bolder in asserting his opinions in the group debates the president enjoys.
The flip-side, of course, is that by publicly keeping his opinions close, the vice president — who, for instance, urged the president to withdraw from the Paris climate accord but did not crow about his victory — has not only engendered good will with Trump, but also managed to often steer clear of the sniping and power struggles that plague the administration.
“Pence has found a way to execute the balance between having enormous influence and being an honest broker, which is a hard thing to pull off,” said Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
The vice president — who routinely tamps down talk of a future “President Pence” — raised suspicions among Trump loyalists when he launched his super PAC, “Great America Committee” in mid-May, just a week after Trump fired Comey and during a moment of particular political danger for the president. Though the group had been long-planned and approved at the highest levels of the White House — the outside group can, for instance, help pay for travel expenses related to campaigning — the timing was inauspicious.
Some in the West Wing wondered if the vice president was trying to position him at the expense of Trump, and Roger Stone, a longtime confidant of the president, took to Twitter. “No Vice President in modern history had their own PAC less than 6 months into the President’s first term,” Stone wrote. “Hmmm.”
Pence’s super PAC team had originally planned a bigger roll-out, which they quickly scrapped, and both Ayers and Obst stressed to Trump aides that the group had been in the works for several months and was intended solely to help the vice president push the administration’s agenda across the country.
“People can’t have it both ways,” said Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, in defending Pence. “They can’t say he’s loyal to a fault and then also say he’s somehow competing with the president.”
This summer, Pence will ramp up his fundraising efforts for various Republican Party committees and will begin helping individual GOP candidates campaign and fundraise during the August recess and into the fall. He is expected to campaign with Ed Gillespie, the Republican nominee for governor in Virginia.
He will also focus on outreach to various conservative groups, and in August is planning a four-country trip to South America to focus on trade and security issues.
Trump initially chose Pence, in part, because he looked like a vice president out of central casting — a sort of generically handsome politician, with a close-cropped helmet of white hair and a compact physique that seemed to recall an iconic, Republican male from a bygone era.
But under Trump the former reality TV star, Pence, who heaps plaudits on Trump and frequently refers to his “broad-shouldered leadership,” has in some ways become a parody of a deferential vice president — a servant in waiting, eager to serve his master’s whims.
One Republican operative remembers a meeting with business leaders in the Roosevelt Room, to which Pence arrived late. Though there was an open seat at the table reserved for Pence near Trump, the operative recalled, the vice president stood alongside the outskirts of the room like a staffer before waiting for a break in the conversation to take his seat.
Others say differences in background and temperament have also prevented Pence from ever becoming a true Trump confidant. The president, after all, habitually evaluates others based on their personal wealth and Pence — who joked on the campaign trail that he and Trump were separated by “a whole bunch of zeros” — can never compete with Trump’s mogul friends.
People familiar with the interactions between the two men say the president often finds ways to remind Pence who is the ultimate boss. He jokingly yet repeatedly ribs Pence for, as Indiana governor, endorsing Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) over him in the state’s primary and often teases Pence about his far smaller crowd sizes — a quip Pence himself has deployed.
One person recalled that sometimes, when Pence speaks in a meeting, the president offers him a verbal pat on the head. “Wasn’t he a great pick?” Trump will say, with the tone of a dad whose kid finally said something useful.
Joel Goldstein, a vice presidential expert and law professor at St. Louis University, noted that Pence seems to enjoy significant face time with Trump and serves as a liaison to Capitol Hill, but added that he can come off as “sort of a sycophant-in-chief.”
“He runs a real risk in that so often his celebration of Trump is focused on how great Trump is, and not on the substance of the specific policies he’s trying to sell, and so I think that can end up making him look like he’s just sort of weak and not presidential and not dignified,” Goldstein said.
But Pence so far has accepted the rigors and challenges of his job with a serenity that some friends and aides attribute to his Christian faith.
Pence’s official portfolio includes a commission to investigate voter fraud, the National Space Council, and serving as president of the Senate. Allies say he was instrumental in helping Trump settle on Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and in a number of key Cabinet picks, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. He also helped revive the stalled House health-care legislation after it imploded on the first try.
During a frenzied day when it looked like Trump might withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement, Pence served as a conduit to the business community, many whom called to voice their alarm. “I hear you,” he told the worried executives. “I’ll be right back to you.”
And once Trump had decided to remain in the trade agreement, Pence again reported back, telling them matter-of-factly, “It’s been taken care of.” Pence, one Republican operative noted,never tried to claim any credit for the president’s reversal.