WASHINGTON – When President Donald Trump approached his vice-president to lead the coronavirus task force in February, when criticism of the White House response came to a head, he did not endorse the mission.
At an Oval Office meeting, Trump told Vice President Mike Pence that this was potentially perilous work, both in the difficulty of wrestling with federal, state and local bureaucracies and the political fallout for someone. one who had presidential aspirations, according to several people familiar with the meeting. Leading the administration’s response to an unpredictable pandemic that could potentially kill thousands of Americans or more, the president said, was a thankless task.
But Pence – whose vice presidency so far had been largely defined by his loyalty to Trump and his ability to get around the main White House machinations – did not take time to think about it, familiar people said. with the conversation.
“Yes, sir,” replied Pence without hesitation, immediately entering the role, according to an administration official.
It was the second time Pence has been the President’s second choice. The former Indiana governor was not Trump’s favorite choice as a running mate in 2016, and the coronavirus task force was initially chaired by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar.
As with the acceptance of second place on the ticket in 2016, becoming Trump’s best candidate to face the biggest crisis in his presidency carries a potential reward and a generous dose of risk.
It is well known by the President, his allies, and those close to Pence, that the Vice President has aspirations to seek the highest office in 2024. And although he has so far won mainly praise for his role in the administration’s response to the coronaviruses – while Trump takes on the weight of criticism – which could easily change in a rapidly evolving crisis that has no end date in sight.
“It’s Pence’s time,” said someone close to the White House.
This can be risky for anyone who works for a mercurial president. So far, Pence has led the task force with his carefully chosen words and disciplined approach.
Trump initially believed that being the public face of the White House’s daily pandemic briefings would spark criticism, people familiar with the subject said. But once he saw the attention the vice president was receiving, Trump decided to start directing daily television updates regularly, the people said.
Ever since he hired Pence to lead the task force, people close to the two have said the president has appreciated Pence’s worth more than anytime since joining the White House.
“Trump realizes that he really needs him,” said someone close to the administration.
This is in stark contrast to the early days of the Trump presidency, which began by telling the public that the president’s national security adviser had lied to Pence and Trump and other senior White House officials knew this. but did not say it. Now people close to Pence say he is one of the few people in the west wing with whom the president communicates almost constantly.
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“There are not as many people the president trusts,” said a former White House official.
The vice president appeared to be taking deliberate action to maintain his preferred status.
He carefully tried to strike a balance between what his relatives said was his “cautious” and “factual” approach to public comments and not to undermine the statements of a president who speaks in more vaguely moored general statements to the facts.
Pence usually begins public statements by praising the president’s leadership, and he spoils his appearances with credit and praise for Trump. If he differs from Trump, he does so as if he were not.
“The president is an optimistic person,” Pence told CNN this week when he was confronted with some of Trump’s earlier comments downplaying the threat from the coronavirus. He avoided calling the virus “China” or “Wuhan,” said the president – and secretary of state Mike Pompeo – without drawing attention to the subtle difference.
Sometimes Pence’s role has been that of the president’s translator, gently softening the limits of Trump’s statements. When Trump said last week that the country could open before Easter Sunday, April 12, Pence later said the president’s schedule was “ambitious.”
While Trump criticized some governors, Pence praised them. When Trump oversold the availability of coronavirus tests, Pence set more realistic expectations with specific numbers. And when an NBC News reporter asked Trump what he had to say to scared Americans, “I say, you’re a terrible reporter,” snapped Trump.
Pence, whose allies describe him as “the cool, calm, and calm guy,” later answered the same question by saying that he would say to the Americans, “Don’t be afraid. Be careful. “
During Wednesday’s daily coronavirus briefing, he appeared to be using his flip-flop around a difficult subject to an extent that even the president found remarkable. After Pence answered a reporter’s question about plans for the uninsured, Trump marveled at how his vice president “was able to speak for five minutes without even touching your question.”
“Pence is a loyal soldier to a loyal soldier,” as someone close to him said.
Presidential politics in a pandemic
Pence’s role as head of the coronavirus task force at times gave him a platform to show how he could appear in the highest position – at least during a health crisis.
His efforts also gave him a second chance to manage a pandemic. As governor of Indiana, Pence came under scrutiny for his management of an HIV epidemic in 2015 when his reluctance to allow a needle exchange led to an explosion of cases.
The vice-presidency is seen by Pence’s allies as an obvious springboard to the presidency. Yet for the past six weeks, his portfolio as vice president has been considerably low-key, with a busy schedule of political appearances to help Trump win a second term in November. Now everything has changed.
Long before the coronavirus reached all states in the country and national guidelines were put in place, Pence reworked his schedule to make the health epidemic his top priority, postponing all trips for the 2020 campaign because his own political future was at stake.
It has now been a month since the Vice President campaigned in any way, with his full attention to the pandemic.
It is not lost on Trump’s allies that the man he hired to lead the coronavirus effort also hopes to be his successor, placing Pence in a precarious political position. If its crisis management is deemed successful, it could become one of its most reliable campaign talking points. If this is considered a calamity, it could be a central tool for future opponents to use against it.
But those close to the vice president say that he is not at all focused on 2024, and even less on 2020. “He is completely focused on the task at hand and does not think about politics at the moment,” said said one of these people.
Aids close to the vice president say he has so far taken on the challenge of directing the response to coronaviruses. There was “no clear and coordinated effort” before Pence was appointed, said an administration official.
“There is no higher priority for the vice president than leading the coronavirus task force at the request of the president,” said Pence spokesperson Katie Miller. “Vice President Pence has worked tirelessly to raise public awareness, as well as bringing together all of the relevant and necessary agencies at the table for this entire government, all of America to respond.”
At a Fox News town hall last month, Trump said Pence was “doing a fantastic job” and “working 20 hours a day or more” on the coronavirus epidemic.
When asked about his best friend in Washington, Trump refused and then raised Pence, reversing speculation that the president would abandon his running mate in 2020.
“I keep hearing that I’m replacing him. He does phenomenal work. He’s a great guy and a loyal guy, and he works so hard, “said Trump.
Even Nikki Haley, a supposed rival for a potential campaign in 2024, has taken note of Pence’s leadership in this Tweeter that many in the vice president’s orbit were surprised and happy to see. “I am so proud of my friend, Vice President Mike Pence. He is a former governor and understands what states can do during a crisis like this, “said Haley. He managed this task force and worked with the governors in a way that was necessary. ”