Vice President Pence denounced a New York Times article suggesting he is eyeing a 2020 run for president, calling it "disgraceful and offensive." (Reuters)

The statement from Vice President Pence about the New York Times strikes a serious tone: “Today’s article in the New York Times is disgraceful and offensive to me, my family, and our entire team,” said Pence in the first line of a four-paragraph blast at the newspaper.

To judge from that sort of language, surely the New York Times published something scandalous about the vice president, right? Perhaps something about how he treats staffers? Or the way he chews his food?

Nope: The New York Times reported that Pence was extraordinarily active on the political front for a first-term vice president. Written by Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns under the headline “Republican Shadow Campaign for 2020 Takes Shape as Trump Doubts Grow,” the article started with the beyond-dispute premise that the Trump White House is a mess. Even though President Trump hasn’t signaled that he won’t run again, “the sheer disarray surrounding this presidency — the intensifying investigation by the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and the plain uncertainty about what Mr. Trump will do in the next week, let alone in the next election — have prompted Republican officeholders to take political steps unheard-of so soon into a new administration,” Martin and Burns write.

Among this group, reports the newspaper, Pence himself is the “pacesetter.” “Though it is customary for vice presidents to keep a full political calendar, he has gone a step further, creating an independent power base, cementing his status as Mr. Trump’s heir apparent and promoting himself as the main conduit between the Republican donor class and the administration,” reads the article.

To substantiate those claims, Martin and Burns note that Pence has created his own fundraising arm, Great America Committee; Pence has converted his place at the Naval Observatory “into a hub for relationship building”; Pence has installed a political operative, Nick Ayers, and not a government vet as his chief of staff; Ayers had “signaled” to donors that Pence “wants to be ready” for 2020; and one of Pence’s aides, Marty Obst, had told an Indiana Republican that the Pence team wanted to be ready in case there was an opening in 2020. The story carries the Pence team’s denials on this front: “Mr. Obst denied that he and Mr. Ayers had made any private insinuations and called suggestions that the vice president was positioning himself for 2020 ‘beyond ridiculous.’ ”

So that’s what we’re talking about here: a piece of standard political reporting about the 2020 presidential race, whose insanely early start owes to the president’s dysfunction. Now soak in every word of Pence’s pushback:

The poison of Trump’s approach to the Fourth Estate is all over that statement. See, the Pence people cannot deny that the Republican Party is riven with concern about the president’s viability; they cannot deny the on-the-record quote from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the New York Times story: “They see weakness in this president. Look, it’s not a nice business we’re in”; they cannot deny the concerted fundraising activities of the vice president.

And so: “fake news”! “They haven’t actually specifically said what’s wrong with the story,” said Elisabeth Bumiller, the paper’s Washington bureau chief. “They say it’s disgraceful, but they haven’t said what’s inaccurate in the story. We absolutely stand by our reporting.”

In a pair of tweets, Ayers sounds every bit the “sharp-elbowed political operative” depicted in the New York Times article:

Asked about Ayers’s objections, Martin said, “I’ll let the reporting and the language stand for itself.” Noting that the newspaper had used the word “signal,” Bumiller said, “Come on, you know what that means.”

The president tweeted something about the New York Times on Monday morning, perhaps with this story in mind:

“There’s no question that the Trump culture has shaped the kind of public relations efforts by the vice president and other politicians,” Martin told the Erik Wemple Blog. “They take cues.” And even though Pence tweeted out his statement to his 4.1 million Twitter followers, there’s one account in which he’s especially interested. “In this case, the vice president seemed to be sensitive to how the president would receive this story. And my colleague Maggie Haberman put it pretty well: This is another example where statements, tweets — what have you — from the Trump orbit are really aimed toward an audience of one,” Martin said.

Whenever there’s a story in the mainstream media that the Trump people want to contest, there’s a nice place to do so. “Fox & Friends” on Monday morning welcomed Marc Lotter, the vice president’s press secretary, to say stuff such as this: “It’s absurd and really what you’ve got here is speculation, conjecture, half-truths masquerading as news on the front page of the never-Trump New York Times. The vice president has been nothing [but] supportive, he is supportive of the president and his singular focus is on making sure the president’s agenda is enacted and that the president is reelected in 2020.” One of the co-hosts invited Lotter to chat about how Pence’s fundraising committee could be helpful in 2024.

Lotter’s affirmations about the vice president’s approach, however, weren’t inconsistent with the New York Times story, which noted that Pence “has kept up his relentless public praise and even in private is careful to bow to the president.”