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Opinion Even Trump’s best lackey can’t defend him

Vice President Pence in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House on April 13. (Mandel Ngan/Afp Via Getty Images)

When Donald Trump chose Mike Pence as his running mate in 2016, the obvious political benefit was that Pence, a former governor and House member who is famously Christian, could boost evangelical and conservative turnout to help Republicans up and down the ballot. But for the egomaniacal Trump, Pence had another key qualification: “He says nice things about me."

Since being named to the ticket, Pence has repeatedly put his obsequiousness on display: Few on Team Trump are better at deploying up-is-down reasoning to spin news to Trump’s benefit. But during the vice president’s appearances on NBC’s and Fox News’s Sunday morning talk shows, it was clear that even Pence could not bootlick his way out of the lurch the president’s actions leave the rest of us in.

On Friday, Trump spoke out in support of protests against stay-at-home orders imposed by Democratic governors in Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia. It’s disturbing enough that the president would undermine the fight against the pandemic. Worse was his provocative call on Twitter to “LIBERATE” those states — and, in Virginia’s case, “save your great 2nd Amendment” — which caught the attention of far-right extremists. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) rightly observed Friday, “The president is fomenting domestic rebellion and spreading lies — even while his own administration says the virus is real.”

Protests with honking horns, anti-shutdown signs and angry Americans continued in Maryland, Texas and Wisconsin on April 18. (Video: The Washington Post)

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Naturally, hosts on both NBC and Fox asked the vice president to explain the president’s comments. After all, as Fox host Chris Wallace pointed out, “they’re protesting your own guidelines to stop the spread.” On Fox, Pence focused on bragging about the White House coronavirus task force. When pressed, he assured viewers that “no one in America wants to reopen this country more than President Donald Trump” — a line he repeated on NBC. In both interviews, he then turned to touting guidelines that Trump issued Thursday for reopening states. Pence omitted that the guidance leaves key decisions up to governors, who Trump has said should call the shots on reopening. Both are in keeping with this president’s refusal to take responsibility for the pandemic crisis or a national response.

Stay-at-home orders and other measures across the country are exacting terrible tolls on the economy and Americans’ mental health. But they are saving lives. And as Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) stated bluntly on “Meet the Press” a few minutes after Pence’s interview, the only way to reopen is to “do it very, very carefully so we don’t get a lot of people killed.” A responsible president would acknowledge the costs of preventing viral spread but stand firm and stress its necessity. As DeWine said, “The only thing that I’ve asked our protests to do is to observe social distancing. … They were protesting against me yesterday, and that’s just fine.” Meanwhile, the president is stoking unrest and undercutting public health measures, at a potentially deadly cost.

The simple truth is that Pence dodged because the president’s actions were indefensible. But Pence can’t say that, both because the protests are being cheered by Fox News and like-minded outlets and because Pence wants to stay in the good graces of a president who values loyalty to him above all else. So long as conservative media and egomania mean more to the president than Americans’ lives, the rest of the country suffers.

Trump may think he can sugarcoat coronavirus, but media critic Erik Wemple says it is time for the government to speak with one clear voice about public health. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Hold these Republicans accountable for deaths caused by recklessness

The Post’s View: Trump’s reopening guidance has a glaring gap

Leana S. Wen: Three key issues missing from Trump’s guidance on reopening the country

Max Boot: With this president, the buck always stops somewhere else

Matt Bai: Here’s what we all have in common with Trump