Politics & Policy

Life on the Inside: Mike Pence’s Turbulent Trip with Donald Trump

Pence speaks at a rally in Charlotte, N.C., October 10, 2016. (Reuters poto: Jason Miczek)
The vice-presidential nominee reflects on a whirlwind campaign in its final days.

LaGuardia Airport, N.Y. — We struck the runway with a thud and felt the wheels clawing for traction on the rain-blanketed tarmac, but it hardly seemed an emergency. The Boeing 737 gradually slowed until it reached an ungraceful standstill, at which point we all laughed and exchanged jokes. Mike Pence was grinning a minute later as he approached from the front. “Everybody okay?” he asked me and six other reporters. Yes, we replied, no big deal. Except that it was: The plane had slid off the runway altogether and sliced through a concrete track designed to buffer us from tragedy. Dozens of rescue vehicles were now screaming across the airport in our direction, sirens blaring in the brisk October evening; first responders would soon climb the back stairs and shout for us to evacuate immediately. “I didn’t realize it,” Pence told us of the accident, “until I saw mud on the front windows.”

Of course, it’s impossible to survey the wreckage from inside the plane.

This has been the story of Pence’s time as Donald Trump’s running mate. The Republican vice-presidential nominee is not oblivious to external perception; he has been stung by criticisms from onetime allies in the Evangelical and conservative worlds. Yet down the stretch of this campaign he has tuned them out, retreating deeper into the safe confines of Trump’s bunker to block out the antagonism and gloom. He barely interacts with the embedded reporters who travel with him. He responds to questions highlighting Trump’s inaccuracies with a foreign gaze. In an interview aboard his plane, he draws heavily from his stump speech and offers few original or introspective observations about the extraordinary journey he’s been on since mid-July.

In conversations with Pence’s friends and advisers, all of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly, it’s apparent that the Access Hollywood tape — on which Trump can be heard boasting about groping women — was a devastating blow to him. It was also a watershed: Pence spent the weekend holed up, unwilling to face questions, and when he re-emerged after private discussions with a contrite Trump, he went into a different sort of shell, newly certain that his running mate — a man he’s prayed with, golfed with, become friends with — is being victimized by a bloodthirsty liberal media. Pence is now willfully insulated — from the possibility that Trump may indeed have committed sexual assault; from the harshest critiques of his decision to join the GOP ticket; and from the reality that its defeat is likely. It’s telling that while many of his allies are bearish about what Election Day will bring, Pence is certain that a historic triumph is at hand.

“I believe it. I believe it. I really believe it,” he tells me, 90 minutes prior to our headline-grabbing arrival in New York. “The American people know we can be stronger. They know we can be more prosperous. They know we can stand by our most cherished constitutional principles. But they know we’ve got to have new leadership. So I really believe — I really believe — that we’re on our way to a victory.”

What’s notable isn’t that a politician would profess confidence. It’s that Pence — who describes himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order” — attributes his confidence not to the providence of God, or to the power or principle, or to the fitness of his party, but to the transcendent appeal of his running mate, who he says “has tapped into the frustrations and aspirations of the American people like no one in my lifetime.” This is not a façade. People close to Pence say that despite his initial distaste for Trump’s style, he was awestruck by the candidate’s galvanizing effect on voters in Indiana. And the more they talked, the more Pence subscribed to Trump’s political analysis: Once an avowed free-trader — and supporter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — he admits that Trump transformed his thinking by arguing that multi-national trade agreements are impractical and ripe for exploitation. Trump told him the U.S. should only deal with individual countries, and Pence found himself agreeing. “I’ve supported virtually every free-trade agreement that’s ever come across my desk,” he tells me. “But I just found his arguments very persuasive.”

It’s a remarkable reversal of fortune for a man whose national political aspirations were on life support just four months ago.

Pence also began to see a different side of Trump’s personality. Behind closed doors, he discovered the brash billionaire to be hospitable, inquisitive, even “modest.” He visited Trump’s businesses and observed his breezy interactions with blue-collar employees. He watched Trump patrol the aisles of his personal jet, asking if the meals were sufficient. He listened to Trump’s questions about Evangelicalism, which began at their first breakfast and have not ceased. As they grew closer personally, Pence became certain that outsiders — and he himself — had gotten it wrong. This allowed his faith in Trump to blossom. The best-case scenario for nervous Republicans at the time of the V.P. announcement was that Trump would observe the pious, gentlemanly Pence and gravitate toward him. But if anything, the opposite has happened: Pence, convinced of Trump’s goodness and moved by his almost-supernatural connection with the electorate, has become the nominee’s staunchest advocate and most steadfast ally. Trump’s finest sales pitch of 2016 may have been the one he made to his own running mate.

This hasn’t changed Pence personally, his allies say. He’s still the same decent, devoutly religious, unfailingly polite person he’s always been. He still loves Will Ferrell movies and does funny impressions of politicians (even The Donald, when he’s not around). And yet his political recasting — from a Midwestern social-values crusader pushing his party rightward, to the loyal wingman of a crude, formerly pro-choice Manhattan populist — makes him a study in contradiction. The man who forbid female staffers from working late, out of concern for optics, is now “standing shoulder-to-shoulder” with a running mate facing numerous accusations of sexual assault. The man who once declared that “America’s darkest moments have come when economic arguments trumped moral principles” is now partnered with a thrice-married adulterer whose views on trade he finds persuasive. The man who once swore off negative campaigning now devotes roughly half of his stump speech to hammering Hillary Clinton, though he delivers the lines with a bedside manner that conveys more disappointment than disgust.

And then there’s Paul Ryan. He and Pence served together in the House and remain so close that Pence asked the speaker to introduce him at the Republican convention. When Trump initially declined to endorse Ryan in his August primary, Pence made a rare public break with his running mate, telling Fox News, “I believe we need Paul Ryan in leadership in the Congress of the United States.” But the prolonged feud between Trump and Ryan has tested Pence’s loyalties. He was vexed by Ryan’s decision to stop advocating for Trump after the Access Hollywood tape, while Trump himself denounced Ryan as “our very weak and ineffective leader” and suggested he should lose the speakership.

In our interview, Pence declined three times to answer the question of whether Ryan should be reelected as speaker. “My respect for Paul Ryan is boundless,” he says, repeating it twice. “I’m not a member of the House Republican conference anymore. I wouldn’t presume upon what the members of the conference choose.”

After the interview, one of his senior advisers clarifies: If Pence were still a congressman, he’d vote to reelect Ryan. This is ironic, because if Pence were still a congressman, it’s likely that he would be in Ryan’s shoes right now. He served as the fourth-ranking member of House GOP leadership before stepping down to run for governor, and was immensely popular inside the conference. He would have been the consensus choice for speaker with John Boehner and Eric Cantor out of the picture. If past is prologue, Pence might have made Trump’s life miserable, too. After all, he was “tea party before it was cool,” defying Boehner and George W. Bush on the party’s biggest initiatives. He voted against No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, and the bailouts of Wall Street and Detroit.

But Pence didn’t want to become speaker of the House. He wanted to become president.

So he ran for governor, hoping to burnish his résumé before an eventual White House bid. As the gulf widened between tea-party conservatives and big-government moderates, Pence tells me, he saw “a Republican party that had lost its way.” He sensed there was an anti-establishment backlash forming. He knew it would be powerful. And he hoped, by escaping Washington, to position himself as its potential leader.

Somehow, serendipitously, an even greater opportunity has fallen into his lap. A Trump loss will commence intra-party jockeying to challenge Clinton in 2020; it will also force the GOP to confront its divisions and search for unifying figures. No Republican will be better positioned, on either front, than Pence. He’s not just the inheritor of a new and robust nationwide following; he’s the straddler of parallel political universes, the translator between ideological tribes, the missing link between partisan species. He can’t see much from the inside, but he can surely see this.

It’s a remarkable reversal of fortune for a man whose national political aspirations were on life support just four months ago.

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Gage Skidmore)

Pence enjoyed the perks of being home — he became friendly with Colts quarterback Andrew Luck over chats at the downtown barbershop they both frequent — but after more than a decade in Congress, his 2013 re-immersion into Indiana politics was rocky. Mitch Daniels, his predecessor, had been arguably the most effective governor in the country. Adjusting to a new job was hard; securing policy wins that would distinguish him from Daniels and raise his profile ahead of a possible presidential run was even harder.

So in early 2015, when Indiana Republicans began pushing legislation aimed at protecting religious liberties — an issue of increasing resonance with the Evangelical wing of the GOP base — Pence saw it as a no-brainer. In early February, as the state senate began considering the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, he joined a rally at the statehouse in support. The bill was rushed through the legislature and arrived on his desk by late March. Despite impassioned objections from Democrats, who claimed it would permit discrimination against the gay community, the governor signed it.

All hell broke loose. Facing a sudden national uproar and dire warnings from the state’s business community, Pence demanded the legislation be fixed. The changes didn’t satisfy either side: Liberals thought he hadn’t gone far enough, and conservatives thought he’d caved. His closest allies marveled at how badly he’d mishandled the crisis. Pence brought his long-time communications specialist to Indiana to help weather the fallout, but the damage had been done. He could forget about running for president; he would have a tough enough time running for reelection.

Indeed, by the spring of 2016, things looked grim. Pence’s popularity had tanked in Indiana — his approval rating was underwater in public and private polls — and he was running even in his race against Democrat John Gregg, whom he’d narrowly defeated in 2012. His team of advisers had formed a political triage unit. They discussed going negative against Gregg as necessary for survival, and privately worried that Pence’s career and his path to the presidency were fading.

Then, he was thrown the unlikeliest of lifelines: Donald Trump wanted to vet him as a possible running mate. It didn’t matter that Pence had endorsed Ted Cruz, or that Trump had effectively clinched the nomination in Indiana without the governor’s support. (Well, it sort of did: Trump frequently brings up the Cruz endorsement, sources close to the campaign say, both in public and private settings, and it’s the source of awkwardness and occasional tension.) Trump was told by his children — and by former campaign chairman Paul Manafort — that he needed balance. Pence, an Evangelical conservative with both executive and legislative experience, was a perfect fit on paper, and Trump told him so.

In a matter of months, Pence has gone from an endangered small-state governor to the most popular Republican in the country.

“He was drawn to my experience as a governor . . . and I also think he was impressed with my twelve years in Congress, and [by] the relationships that I enjoy not only with members of the House, but also with former members of the House who are now in the Senate,” Pence says.

Pence begins every speech by claiming he said yes to Trump’s offer “in a heartbeat,” but in fact he accepted only after a condition was met. Upon completing the vetting paperwork, he informed Trump’s campaign that he wouldn’t join the ticket unless their two families first spent time together. “I remember when I made that request in late June, I didn’t think it was realistic that they would accommodate that. But they did,” he says. “Fourth of July, they invited our family out to spend the better part of the weekend with their family. Morning, noon, and night, we got to be around them.”

That time together at Trump’s golf course in New Jersey — two weeks before the GOP convention — sealed the deal. Trump, who preferred Chris Christie, was convinced by his kitchen cabinet that Pence was the sound pick. And Pence, who had been warned about associating himself with Trump by allies, determined that the rewards far outweighed the risks: Not only would he be rescued from a deteriorating situation in Indiana, he would be elevated and exposed to a national audience. He accepted the offer and quit his gubernatorial race.

It’s impossible to quantify just how splendidly this has worked out for Pence. The vice-presidential nominee, faced with the riddle of running alongside the volatile and self-sabotaging Trump, solved it with ease. He has won Trump’s trust by keeping disagreements private. (Campaign sources say he persuaded Trump to change the blanket ban on Muslim immigrants — which, prior to joining the ticket, he had called “offensive and unconstitutional” — to a ban on immigrants from terrorist conflict zones.) He has also endeared himself to Trump’s core audience, a group that otherwise might’ve never known his name, by dutifully standing beside the nominee as other Republicans abandoned ship. And all the while, his poise and steadiness amid the storm — including an outstanding debate performance in early October — has earned the renewed affection of a GOP establishment that once viewed him warily.

Three days after Pence’s debate victory, a Politico/Morning Consult poll of nearly 2,000 registered voters pegged him as the Republicans’ leading 2020 contender if Trump loses. A plurality, 22 percent, said Pence would be their first choice to challenge Clinton, followed by 13 percent for Ryan, 12 percent for Cruz, 11 percent for Senator Marco Rubio, and 7 percent for Governor John Kasich.

Bloomberg Politics poll in mid-October asked who should become the face of the GOP if Clinton wins the White House: Twenty-seven percent said Pence, followed by 24 percent for Trump, 19 percent for Cruz, 15 percent for Ryan, and 10 percent for Kasich.

Days later, a Fox News survey of more than 1,200 likely voters nationwide showed Pence with a higher favorable rating (52 percent) than the Democratic party (51 percent), the Republican party (48 percent), Clinton (45 percent), Trump (42 percent), or Tim Kaine (42 percent).

In a matter of months, Pence has gone from an endangered small-state governor to the most popular Republican in the country.

*    *    *

Tim Alberta)

Two staffers are lined up as receivers, split left and right of their quarterback, and two staffers lurk several feet away, crouched in defensive stances, awaiting the snap. The field general surveys the situation, squinting into the late-afternoon sunshine, his crisp white shirt and cobalt blue tie jumping off an idyllic backdrop of Iowa cornfields.

And then, bending forward with the ball gripped in his right hand, he slaps it with his left. “Hut!”

His receivers take off running vertically, but the quarterback has a problem: It’s a blitz. He has no choice. With the defender bearing down, he plants his back foot and arches a spiral high into the air. It’s a perfect read of the situation, and a decent throw. But his receivers, having failed to anticipate the blitz, continue sprinting ahead. The second defender, drifting into the middle of the field, slides underneath their routes and snags an easy interception. The quarterback did his part. But football is a team sport. And right now, Mike Pence isn’t getting much help.

If the Republican ticket goes down next week, it won’t be on him. The margin of defeat will inform the scope of the finger-pointing, of course, but Trump will almost certainly be blamed for alienating women, Millennials, Hispanics, African-Americans, and college-educated suburbanites from the GOP. Pence certainly has his own political liabilities — the religious-liberty mess will follow him interminably, as will his ultra-conservative record on everything from bank bailouts to gays in the military — but as Trump’s running mate, he has done his part.

That perception, combined with Pence’s newfound national following, all but guarantees more trips to Iowa in his future. His friends know it. His advisers know it. And although he insists he’s focused solely on winning the vice presidency, it’s clear that Pence knows it too. Anyone who itches to play in the biggest arena, as Pence does, finds it difficult to walk away once they’ve had a taste of the action — especially if the fans are cheering them on.

Anyone who itches to play in the biggest arena, as Pence does, finds it difficult to walk away once they’ve had a taste of the action.

“The thing on my mind has been, do any of these people know God?” says Joyce Toms, an 81-year-old resident of Fort Dodge, Iowa. It’s mid-afternoon and Pence has just finished speaking in her hometown of 25,000. Toms, a former Republican county treasurer, has watched generations of politicians come and go, and was particularly unimpressed with the 2016 crop. None of the candidates struck her as sincere. Toms had never heard Pence’s name before he joined the GOP ticket. Now she’s a believer. “I’m so glad I came to see him,” Toms says. “That man knows God.”

To attend a spree of campaign stops with Pence as he delivers his closing argument — urging Republicans to “come home” and support the party up and down the ballot on November 8 — is to discover different voters in different places paying Pence the same compliment. Some, such as Neal Westwood, a 69-year-old Air Force Veteran in Salt Lake City, like that Trump’s running mate is “a decent human being.” Others, such as Steve Harmon, a 64-year-old builder in Colorado Springs, say they appreciate that “he doesn’t have any skeletons in his closet.”

It all boils down to the same sentiment: In this dark election, Pence is a bright spot.

There’s no question that if Trump loses and Pence runs for president, he will encounter resistance from some Republicans who can never forgive his affiliation with the 2016 ticket. But he will also begin with a built-in reservoir of goodwill that spans the party’s deep internal divisions.

After Pence explains to me how the GOP lost its way, I ask whether it’s been found. He smiles. “I think it has. I think when you look at the agenda of the Trump-Pence team, and frankly, when you look at the ‘Better Way’ agenda of Speaker Ryan and House Republicans, what you see is a party getting back to the principles that Ronald Reagan brought to the national stage.”

It’s this answer — citing the agendas of both Trump and Ryan as proof of the GOP’s renaissance — that explains the unique appeal Pence will have in the aftermath of November 8. Not only does he retain credibility in seemingly every camp of an asymmetrical conflict, from the Evangelical world to the Acela-corridor commentariat to the Trump base to the conservative movement to the Koch donor network; he really believes that Trump and Ryan possess compatible visions for the party and the country. He has been in the foxhole alongside both, and can articulate the marriage of Ryan’s philosophical conservatism and Trump’s economic nationalism.

Even so, the underlying divide between coastal political elites and their frustrated constituents in flyover country will remain. Luckily, Pence — the Christian talk-radio host who became the fourth-ranking House Republican and then returned home to serve as Hoosier State governor — has spent plenty of time with both.

#related#On the occasion of our aeronautical scare, the vice-presidential nominee was traveling an unusual itinerary: Fort Dodge Regional Airport to LaGuardia. Pence’s speech at Iowa Central Community College would be followed by a two-hour chartered flight and a private donor meeting in Manhattan. But adverse weather in New York delayed our departure. Hence the football game: Pence saw staffers lobbing a pigskin back and forth across the aisle and agreed we could all use some fresh air. Within minutes, a roster of aides, reporters, and Secret Service agents stood on the tarmac below. Pence was still on the airplane and would join us shortly. As we waited, a few of us ventured a bit farther from the group and began tossing the ball.

As we did, I envisioned photographic angles. It wasn’t promising: On our side of the plane, the landscape was dotted with security vehicles, utility structures, and aircraft hangers, and there were broadening shadows cast by the late afternoon sun. But then I looked to the other side of the airplane: green grass, golden cornfields, full sunshine, not a shadow in sight. We’re on the wrong side for a photo-op, I thought.

Not a minute later, Pence descended the staircase. “Come on!” he shouted, waving for everyone to follow him toward that picturesque playing field. His sleeves were already rolled up, the top of his shirt unbuttoned, and his tie loosened. As the cameras began to roll, he cocked his arm to throw.

— Tim Alberta is National Review’s chief political correspondent.


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