Pence’s ability to just be himself, however, has been greatly hampered by being Trump’s wingman. The president has undermined his government’s public-health message by contradicting its scientists, sowing doubt about mask-wearing and social distancing and claiming that the virus was mostly harmless and forever on the brink of disappearing. For his part, Pence wrote an infamous newspaper op-ed declaring there would be “no second wave” of the novel coronavirus. That was four months and 100,000 deaths ago. Cases were spiking at that time and now are spiking again. The White House has been the site of several outbreaks — including, most recently, a rash of infections among Pence’s own staff.
“I watched him try to do the right thing,” says Troye. “But also constantly have to pivot to stay in the good graces of the president. He was still trying to remain on the ticket, that’s reality.”
Troye left in August and has since become a vocal critic of the administration; Pence has responded by dismissing her a “disgruntled” former employee. “I wouldn’t trust anything Olivia Troye tells you,” said Pence spokeswoman Katie Miller.
Watching the 2020 campaign from afar, Troye sees a different kind of smile on Pence’s face. He flashed that smile recently during a standoff with Lesley Stahl on “60 Minutes”; the vice president, in an act of hostile politesse, refused to answer her questions and instead issued a weak but unrelenting stream of campaign-trail pablum in the manner of a garden hose attached to a tap someone left open by accident. He has worn the smile on rally stages across the country when he “brings greetings” from the president. That he’s continued to attend these rallies despite his own possible exposure to the coronavirus is particularly galling to Troye.
“Why wouldn’t you show leadership in this moment?” she says. “It’s hard to watch all the work he’s done on the task force get derailed and for him to be complicit in the path we’ve gone down.”
At the culmination of an election that is all about Trump, let us for a moment look past the president to the guy smiling beatifically in his direction from the corner of the frame. Let us consider how all this might turn out for Mike Pence.
Because the story of Mike Pence and his smile is the story of the Republican Party under Trump. For better or worse the president’s gravitational field is powerful; those who gets near him either find themselves in a tight orbit or crash landing. (Sometimes both. Anyone heard from Jeff Sessions lately?)
Republicans now encircle him like the moons of Jupiter, but at some point, maybe in a few months or a few years, Trump will be out of the White House. And what happens to the party then? What happens to the vice president, and all the people who want him to be president — a club that almost certainly includes Pence himself?
Those people were wary of Pence’s appointment as the head of the coronavirus response, Troye says, thinking that nothing good could come of it.
“It’s fair to say,” she says, “that they were looking at his political aspirations in 2024.”
Will Michael R. Pence, former governor of Indiana, onetime Christian radio host, loyal servant of Jesus Christ, devoted understudy of Donald Trump, lodestar of the well-mannered, Trump-loving right . . . will this man ever be president?
Look, we’re all just staring at the clock at this point, waiting on the 2020 results. So, in the meantime, we asked a lot of people — Republicans (and former Republicans), specifically — to think for a moment about 2024.
“If you list the top 10 most likely people to have a strong shot at the nomination, maybe Mike Pence makes number nine or 10,” says Terry Sullivan, who served as Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign manager in 2016. “Maybe.”
“I could maybe see him becoming the nominee, but president?” says Tim Miller, a spokesman for Jeb Bush’s failed presidential bid. “I just don’t see it.”
“It’s definitely going to be harder for a career politician to be president going forward,” says Mike Lindell, pillow magnate and Minnesota campaign chairman for Trump.
“Trump could be our party’s Iraq War,” says Alex Conant, who served as Rubio’s spokesman. “I wonder if four years from now we are nominating someone who had nothing to do with the Trump era.”
The vice president’s office didn’t want to play this game, by the way. “VP Pence is entirely focused on reelecting President Donald Trump and being Vice President for four more years,” wrote Miller in response to several different questions.
It doesn’t take a brilliant pundit (if such a thing exists) to see how a Trump loss on Tuesday could be bad for Pence’s political future. If Trump and Pence turn out to have been unable to keep both covid-19 and Joe Biden out of the White House, then Republicans could very well look to turn the page. And if not, perhaps Trump pulls a Grover Cleveland and runs a third time.
But even if Trump wins this year, Pence’s path to the presidency could be hard.
Starting with the 2024 Republican primary. “A good test of somebody’s political strength is their ability to clear the field,” says Conant. “Pence is not going to be able to do that. There are going to be 20 credible, elected Republicans running against him.”
And among them are natural heirs to Trumpism, not least Trump’s actual heirs. Like Donald Trump Jr., who was recently spotted on Instagram, posing next to a giant “DON JR. 2024” sign. (“This will make the lib heads explode. . . . let’s get through 2020 with a big win first!!!!”).
Other names on the tongues of Republicans: Fellow lib-head-exploders Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, all of whom might be a better bet to reignite the Trump base with a similarly high-octane brand of aggrieved politicking. Meanwhile, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina could offer less incendiary versions of Trumpism — perhaps in a more dynamic way than Pence, whose rhetorical style is as vanilla as his hair.
“He’s got the charisma of a ream of paper,” says Tom Nichols, a lapsed Republican who now advises the anti-Trump Lincoln Project.
“Clearly with Mike, he’s more conventional,” says Ed Simcox, Indiana’s former secretary of state and friend of Pence’s. “He’s not going to have 40,000 people at a rally on a few days’ notice.”
“He’s a better defender of Trump than Trump is of himself,” says Jeff Roe, a former campaign manager for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. “The problem is, you can’t fill a ballroom in Des Moines with him.”
And so, another question: Can a personality cult be passed on to a person with, let’s say, less of a personality?
This is the point in any article written about post-2016 political psychology where it’s necessary to mention that everyone is usually wrong about everything, and writing off a candidate is probably the quickest way to guarantee he ends up president. It happened to Trump four years ago. And it could well happen this year to Joe Biden, another white-haired former vice president who couldn’t fill a ballroom in Des Moines.
There won’t be any boat parades for Pence, but not all roads to the White House go through a marina. He might not call for the jailing of his political foes, but he might well find success in selling Trump’s phantasmagoria of “American carnage” — antifa mobs, police abolitionists, immigrant caravans, a new Red Menace — to voters who are more comfortable with a milder messenger.
“Pence is good at selling Trumpism to people who don’t like getting yelled at,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster.
“Whenever the Trump presidency ends, Pence will have an argument to make that he’s the best figure to unite the disparate factions of the party,” said Mike Steel, a former spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner.
“If the president were better at focusing on what he’s actually accomplished, I think he’d be doing better in the polls,” says Brett Talley, who in 2017 was nominated by Trump in a failed bid for a federal judgeship. “Pence is a good communicator on that stuff.”
Even Roe, Cruz’s old campaign manager, admitted that a second Trump term could mint Pence as the GOP front-runner.
“For Republicans, there’s nothing about his connection to Trump for Pence to ‘overcome,’ ” says Scott Jennings, a longtime adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “If they win or lose, he’s going to be seen as a loyal soldier to a president that they are overwhelmingly loyal to.”
“He’s the logical next step,” said Matt Schlapp, an unofficial adviser to the president. “That works very well if we’ve won a second election, things have gone well, and we want to keep it going.”
To keep the party going, Republicans probably will need both the lock-her-up rageaholics and the folks who want to Make America Great Again but don’t care for foul language. For all his milky, toasty milquetoast-ness, Pence may be the one candidate who can bring together what remains of the conservative establishment and the Republican voters whom Trump activated more than four years ago.
After all, that’s essentially how Pence got this close to the presidency in the first place.
Rick Gates, Trump's former deputy campaign manager, remembers thinking Pence had no shot at being Trump's VP. And neither, he says, did Pence.
“The first time I met Mike was on Bedminster golf course,” says Gates, who was assigned to Pence during the vetting process. “And the first thing he said to me was, ‘Thank you so much for having me. I know I don’t have much of a chance at this, but it will help me in Indiana.’ ”
Trump saw Pence as a bit of “a loser,” says Gates. Not in the personal sense, but politically speaking. He was an unpopular governor back home. He was part of that establishment class that Trump was running against. Pence had even endorsed Cruz over Trump in the primary. But Pence knew how to ingratiate himself.
“I was absolutely wrong,” Gates remembers Pence telling Trump. “And you destroyed Ted Cruz.”
At the time, Gates’s former business partner Paul Manafort and other members of the “establishment” saw Pence not just as one of their own but as a way to balance the ticket and soothe the nerves of anxious conservatives.
And that dynamic has served both Pence and Trump well, in that they both ended up with huge amounts of political capital. For Pence, this also meant access to financial capital. Early in the administration, he took the unusual step of creating his own PAC, a move that Gates said “rubbed some of the guys in the White House the wrong way.”
“We all know why he did that. He was setting the stage for his presidency,” Gates said. “That is the only overt time I can remember where Mike was thinking about 2024 or even 2020.”
Any personal ambitions have, for the time being, been supplanted by his desire to help Trump win again. Before the pandemic hit, Pence spent his campaign days riding on buses, talking to people in diners and in the suburbs trying to appeal to moderate voters. If he does run in 2024, he’ll be able to run on all the strait-laced parts of Trump administration’s record: a stacked federal judiciary, three Pence-like Supreme Court justices, tax cuts, rolled-back regulations and a strong pre-pandemic economy.
“Pence and Trump are polar opposites,” says former White House press secretary Sean Spicer. “But he has led a lot of the Trump initiatives and the question is how much credit he gets for it.”
Whether Pence is able to win the White House with Trump’s legacy might have everything to do with how Trump decides to spend his next four years, either as a second-term president or a Republican kingmaker. Those who know the president well, or even studied him from afar, say it’s unlikely for the president to just give away an endorsement rather than make Republican contestants audition for it, “The Apprentice”-style. Imagine what a volley of attacks — on Twitter, on Fox News, at a rally — could do to Pence, if Trump decides on a different heir. (Seriously, has anyone heard from Jeff Sessions?)
The president’s hair-trigger thumbs and absolutist ideas about loyalty complicate any attempt to run away from the parts of the Trump administration that become politically inconvenient to Pence. If Pence tries to shirk blame for actions of this administration — the coronavirus response, for example — he may end up on the receiving end of “greetings” from Trump.
“For a former vice president to run and be successful, he needs the ability to distance himself in certain ways from his old boss,” said Sullivan, Rubio’s old manager. “Can you even imagine if Pence tried to do that in the slightest how that would be met on Twitter with 30 seconds of that happening?”
And if that happens, a smile might not save him. Nor a stream of talking points from the garden hose. The old guard of the Republican Party helped Mike Pence get into the White House on Trump’s ticket, but it might not be powerful enough to let him write his own.
“I don’t think,” said Roger Stone, a longtime confidant of the president, “that the party will ever go back to the country club.”
Exceptions may be made for Trump-branded properties. With the boss’s permission, of course.