Once again, Vice President Pence was out on a limb.
A day after President Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey, his vice president stared into a television camera, surrounded by a gaggle of reporters on Capitol Hill, and cited the president’s decision to rely on the counsel of his advisers as proof of his “strong” leadership.
“President Trump made the right decision at the right time to accept the recommendation of the deputy attorney general and the attorney general to ask for the termination” of Comey, Pence said.
But that wasn’t true.
Trump told NBC News in an interview the next day that he had not relied on the lengthy letter written by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein to make his decision, but rather that his mind had been made up before the letter existed.
Pence also had insisted that Trump’s decision was not influenced by his disapproval of the ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia — another statement contradicted by Trump in the NBC interview.
“In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won,’ ” the president said.
Aides declined to comment about when the vice president learned that Trump had decided to fire Comey.
Since his selection as vice president, Pence has been unflagging in his loyalty and deference to Trump. But in return, the president and White House aides have repeatedly set Pence up to be the public face of official narratives that turn out to be misleading or false.
It is a risk that comes with this high-wire presidency, where talking points and game plans nearly always have an unknown expiration date and where missing meetings can mean being out of the loop when critical decisions are made. The greatest disrupter of all is the president himself, who regularly — and without warning — throws out the communications playbook in favor of his own approach.
“He’s obviously been playing a ‘Mike Pence, cleanup on Aisle 5’ role quite a bit,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist. “When Trump won, we had a sense that things like this might happen, and we have now had 111 days of crises du jour.”
On Capitol Hill, Pence — a former House member — is still viewed as a steady hand in an unstable situation. He regularly attends the weekly Senate Republican lunch and can often be seen coming and going from his office in the Capitol.
Republicans involved in health-care talks said Pence emerged as a key point of contact when Trump and some House Republicans jump-started negotiations over the replacement bill that passed the House this month. They say he worked the phones and served as a salesman for the plan the White House and GOP lawmakers were pushing.
In the lead-up to Trump’s inauguration, Pence likewise became something of an ambassador to skittish Capitol Hill Republicans who had apprehensions about Trump’s management and governing style.
But Friday, Trump essentially acknowledged in a series of tweets that his surrogates had at times gone public with false information — in part because he is “a very active President with lots of things happening.”
“Where that leaves the No. 2 guy is, he’s following the talking points, and the No. 1 guy is using his own talking points,” said a Republican strategist who has worked with Pence for more than a decade. “His understanding of how they were going to explain the background leading up to the decision was different from how Donald Trump decided to explain it.”
“In the end, the president knows what’s in his head, and not everyone else does,” the strategist added.
Like most White House aides who flock to meetings and photo-ops with the president so they won’t miss out when critical decisions are made, Pence has made a habit of having a regular presence in the West Wing. Being physically absent from meetings in the Trump White House can mean being locked out of key decisions.
“I have spent a fair amount of time in the West Wing in the last three-plus months — I have never seen a vice president who was in the West Wing going in and out of meetings as much as I’ve seen Mike Pence,” said a prominent conservative who works closely with Pence and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss Pence’s role.
Pence communications director Jarrod Agen said the vice president was simply applauding Trump’s decisive action and highlighting how the decision aligned with the recommendations of senior Justice Department officials.
“The Vice President values his close relationship with the President and considers it the greatest privilege of his life to have such a strong working relationship with President Trump,” Agen said in a statement.
But this is the second high-profile instance in which Pence has found himself out front with comments that don’t stand up to scrutiny.
In January, Pence repeatedly denied that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn had spoken to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, statements that turned out to be false.
After White House counsel Donald McGahn and Trump learned that Flynn had misled the vice president, Pence was kept in the dark for weeks, until just before media reports about the misrepresentations were published.
People close to Pence say he has developed a relationship of trust with Trump in part because he has used his proximity and influence sparingly. He has learned to avoid agitating the president with public stories about his influence and has maintained an unflappable attitude when Trump leaves him exposed.
“The thing that Pence has figured out is, the thing that gives him the influence is the fact that we don’t know it,” said the conservative with close ties to the White House. “This guy is discreet in a town where everybody promotes themselves. . . . He’s playing to an audience of one.”
Sean Sullivan and Robert Costa contributed to this report.