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‘An easy target’: Pence takes barbs from both sides as he promotes Trump

Vice President Pence praises President Trump during a veto ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House on Friday. (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)

It was the mildest of compliments from a predecessor: Joe Biden rather benignly described Vice President Pence as a “decent guy.”

And that’s when the attacks began.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), one of several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to weigh in, told MSNBC that Pence is “not an honorable person.” Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) said it was “ridiculous” and “outrageous” that he is unwilling to meet privately with female staff — prompting a flurry of Twitter refutations from top female administration officials. And at a CNN town hall, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) referred to Pence as “the cheerleader of the porn-star presidency,” wondering aloud if “he stopped believing in scripture when he started believing in Donald Trump.”

Pence has found himself thrust unwittingly into the center of the 2020 presidential debate, becoming a square-jawed punching bag for Democrats and, at times, even some in his own party.

Ever willing to defend Trump, Pence has drawn fervent opposition from a Democratic base that opposes his socially conservative policies and his docile allegiance to the president. Some Republicans are also increasingly airing their grievances about the president to Pence, who was part of the administration’s unsuccessful effort last week to keep GOP senators from breaking with Trump on a vote to reject his national emergency declaration at the southern border.

Yet in some ways, the public abasement of Pence is good for all sides — including for Pence. Aides to and allies of the vice president take an optimistic view, saying it offers fresh evidence of Pence’s willingness to absorb arrows for a president who places a premium on loyalty.

President Trump on March 15 vetoed the disapproval resolution from Congress regarding the national emergency declaration issued to build his border wall. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

On Friday, as Trump vetoed the House and Senate’s embarrassing rejection of his national emergency declaration, the vice president again demonstrated his fealty. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been more proud to be standing next to your desk than I am today,” Pence said, saying his boss was “keeping your word by vetoing this legislation.”

Nick Ayers, Pence’s former chief of staff, said the vice president sometimes finds himself a political bull’s eye because he “works hard” to avoid taking credit for the work he does.

“When his advice is taken, we don’t read about it,” Ayers said. “More importantly, when his advice is not taken, we don’t read about it. It’s nearly impossible to find a friend like that in Washington, but the president knows he has that in Mike Pence. But that also makes you an easy target.”

Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist and frequent Trump critic, offers a less flattering view, describing Pence as a “supplicant.”

“Pence has made a decision to have a constituency of one person — Donald Trump,” Murphy said. “And so he doesn’t really care about anything else, which on one hand is liberating, but if he’s smart, also ought to be terrifying because he’s hanging everything on the affection and allegiance of a madman.”

Pence rarely responds directly to his critics. The White House sees the sharpening criticism from Democrats as political overreach that will turn off voters and help Trump’s reelection, according to two administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the vice president’s strategy.

Attacking Pence, however, plays well among Democrats, especially those striving to differentiate themselves in a crowded field. Biden’s modest praise of Pence, delivered during a speech at the University of Nebraska Omaha late last month, received immediate backlash from actress and activist Cynthia Nixon, who chided Biden on Twitter for calling “America’s most anti-LGBT elected leader ‘a decent guy.’”

“Please consider how this falls on the ears of our community,” she wrote.

Biden, who is considering a presidential run, responded to say that Nixon was “right” and that “there is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights, and that includes the Vice President.”

After calling Vice President Pence "a decent guy," former vice president Joe Biden clarified that "there is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights." (Video: Reuters)

Pence, meanwhile, told Fox News on Thursday that Biden had “caved in to liberal activists” in apologizing for his original comments.

When asked for their views on Pence, other Democratic candidates have used the opportunity to distance themselves from Biden, who is believed likely to announce his own 2020 candidacy soon.

Buttigieg, who is gay and a fellow Hoosier , has been the most aggressive in taking on Pence, a former governor of Indiana. Buttigieg has described Pence as the kind of Republican who should know better but is enabling Trump rather than using his influence to rein him in.

In a telephone interview, Buttigieg said he has two theories of what he views as Pence’s evolution from a stalwart Christian conservative to Trump lackey — either Pence “traded his sense of morality for power,” he said, or the vice president “has somehow persuaded himself that this is consistent with some divine plan.”

“The president doesn’t really pretend that hard to uphold Christian values and so I think there’s a sense when he’s doing some of these outrageous things, that everybody’s in on the joke,” Buttigieg said. But with Pence, he added, “you don’t get that same sense.”

White House officials said Buttigieg and other Democrats are only trying to raise their profiles by sharpening their attacks on Pence, a strategy that they say alienates millions of Christian voters. A senior administration official said Buttigieg and Pence, while disagreeing on a number of issues, had a largely good working relationship in Indiana and cast Buttigieg’s recent comments as purely political.

“The fact that he has more or less become a litmus test for the Democrats in 2020 essentially speaks to the fact that he’s become the gold standard for what it means to be a conservative,” said Pence spokeswoman Alyssa Farah.

Pence mainly feels compelled to publicly push back on criticism when he believes Christians or his faith are being unfairly maligned, the officials said. The vice president only seeks to counter Democrats’ attacks on himself when he believes his record or views are misrepresented, they added.

Pence’s views on women have become something of an obsession for his critics. Pence told the Hill in 2002 that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife, Karen, and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side. Democrats have said this practice discriminates against women in the workplace.

“The idea that you would deny a professional woman the opportunity to have a meeting with the vice president of the United States is outrageous,” Harris said Thursday on MSNBC.

Farah dismissed Harris’s charge as a “false claim.”

“He’s elevated women to positions of leadership throughout his career & relies on their advice & counsel,” she wrote Thursday on Twitter.

While aides sometimes publicly defend Pence, the vice president has largely stayed out of the fray and focused his energy on serving Trump, taking political attacks and parrying them back to focus on the administration’s policies.

Last week, Pence conveyed to Republican senators that voting in favor of the Democratic resolution disapproving of Trump’s national emergency declaration would be viewed as voting against both the president and border security — and would probably have consequences. Some waverers, like Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who are up for reelection in 2020, ultimately voted with the administration. But 12 other Republicans joined 47 Democrats to pass the resolution, forcing the president’s first veto.

Earlier this month, another intraparty disagreement emerged when former vice president Richard B. Cheney challenged Pence directly during a March 9 closed-door retreat hosted by the American Enterprise Institute in Sea Island, Ga., repeatedly criticizing in blunt terms the Trump administration’s foreign policy record.

Though the Sea Island event was presented as being off the record before accounts leaked, Pence’s private comments were similar to the robust defense of the president he often offers in public. That unwavering devotion to Trump can come across as servile, even to some allies of the administration.

One Republican close to the White House, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment frankly, described Pence as “Mr. Bobblehead,” an allusion to his frequent pose nodding alongside Trump.

The vice president’s synergy with Trump has long sparked such mockery. During a FEMA briefing in June, Pence silently grabbed a water bottle from a conference table and placed it on the floor immediately after Trump, who was seated next to him, did the same.

The video of the synchronized water bottle removal briefly went viral. In an interview with The Washington Post last year, Pence said he simply wanted to move the water bottle out of view from the cameras and happened to do it just as Trump was also moving his water bottle from public view.

During another meeting last year in the White House Situation Room, Pence paused the proceedings when he noticed the presidential seal was still hanging on the wall, two people familiar with the moment said. He asked an aide to remove the seal out of respect for the president, who was not present.

A vice presidential seal was put in its place, one White House official said, and the meeting continued.