Vice President Pence is no fair-weather Indianapolis Colts fan. He routinely attended the team’s games as governor and in his five terms as a congressman from Indiana, even attended the Super Bowl to cheer them on twice.
For weeks, he had plans on the books to be at another big Colts game this past Sunday, where former quarterback Peyton Manning would have his number retired and be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor.
Until President Trump intervened.
Pence and Trump spoke by phone over the weekend about the vice president’s plans to travel home for the game, according to a White House aide, and the decision was made that if players knelt, he would head for the exits.
As the national anthem played, Pence rose with his hand to his heart. On the field, players from the opposing team, the San Francisco 49ers, were kneeling as they had for virtually every game this season to protest racial injustice. When it was over, as he had been asked to do by the president, Pence turned and left the game.
It was a moment that pitted against each other some of what Pence has stated are his most deeply held convictions: his advocacy for the First Amendment against his fidelity to the flag. And his loyalty to Trump against his love for his hometown team.
But as Pence has done repeatedly since being thrust on the national stage, he chose Trump’s agenda.
“He’s a loyal person, and his relationship with the president is very important,” said a Pence ally, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the vice president’s relationship with Trump. “He is in the middle of everything, and that’s where you want to be when you are vice president.”
The move was a hit among conservatives sympathetic to Trump’s campaign against kneeling National Football League players.
And the president was thrilled.
“I asked VP Pence to leave stadium if any players kneeled, disrespecting our country,” Trump wrote in a tweet Sunday. “I am proud of him and Second Lady Karen.”
Minutes after leaving the stadium, Pence fired off a series of tweets justifying his early departure. The White House blasted out an emailed photo of the Pences standing, hands to hearts, as the anthem played. And before the day was out, that photo became the official background image of Pence’s Twitter account.
In the face of protests, Pence has usually kept a cool head. After the 2016 election, when the cast of the Broadway hit “Hamilton” read a message of protest from the stage as the vice president-elect and his family sat in the audience, he responded graciously.
“I nudged my kids and reminded them that’s what freedom sounds like,” Pence told “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace at the time.
Trump, on the other hand, fired back at the cast, who he said had “harassed” Pence. “This should not happen!” he tweeted.
This time, Pence’s attention-grabbing statement of counterprotest seemed to channel Trump in substance and in tone.
To his critics, it was further evidence that Pence has gone too far to please Trump and is doing so at the risk of his own reputation.
“For 40 years, vice presidents have worked to elevate the stature of the office and to prove that it has real substance and plays a real part in governing. And what Vice President Pence did over the weekend is just a repudiation of all of that,” said Ron Klain, former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden. “It’s pure symbolism — it’s content free, it’s governing free. It is contrary to his persona and his role in this administration: He’s not Donald Trump.”
In one instant, Pence’s critics said, his long history of advocating for the First Amendment rights of protesters was eclipsed by his decision to join Trump in going all-in on a raging cultural debate over respect for the flag and the meaning of protest by mostly black football players.
For some Colts fans at home, Pence’s move pointedly showed that he was willing to inject politics into a day that was supposed to be all about the home team.
“There are some Trump-Pence backers — not all of them — who don’t like what he did because what he did was upstage Peyton Manning’s big day. And the Colts won,” said Gregg Doyel, an IndyStar sports columnist.“Those two things were supposed to be the headline, and then Pence does this thing, and now the whole world is talking about Mike Pence.”
He added, “It was a costly stunt that was about feeding the news cycle.”
It also instantly raised questions about whether the cross-country flight was planned as part of an orchestrated stunt to the tune of more than $240,000 charged to taxpayers, in addition to the expenses of ground transportation, hotels and overtime for local security.
Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative organization that has long criticized government officials over excessive spending, said that while he agrees with Pence’s stand, federal officials should take pains to avoid that kind of travel.
“Traveling to sports events falls into that category of travel that is unnecessary, and they should think about sparing taxpayers the expense,” Fitton said. “I’m sure it’s frustrating to have to answer for every time you go on a trip, but it’s only for four to eight years.”
The vice president’s office sharply disputed the notion that the trip was a stunt, saying Pence always planned to stay for the duration of the game, hoping that players would remain standing for the anthem. Officials expressed regret that a staffer in charge of logistics gave reporters the impression that an early departure was a foregone conclusion.
In a statement, Pence’s office said that if he had not traveled to Indiana after Las Vegas, he would have returned to Washington, incurring similar or greater costs for operating Air Force Two. A person familiar with the situation added that the hotel where Pence and his entourage planned to stay in Los Angeles could not accommodate the vice presidential contingent a night earlier if the vice president canceled the Indiana trip at the last minute.
Pete Ward, chief operating officer for the Indianapolis Colts, confirmed that the team had been “indirectly” aware for some time that Pence planned to attend the game.
A security specialist for an NFL team said that a game-day visit by either the president or vice president typically requires the Secret Service to visit “well in advance” of the trip, and to coordinate with stadium security officers, the FBI and local law enforcement agencies. A spokesman for the U.S. Secret Service said the agency was “unable to provide information on expenses at this time.” The Secret Service has a field office in Indianapolis, which could have minimized additional costs needed to provide travel and hotel accommodations for agents from other regional offices.
Pence’s truncated stop in Indiana also came at a time of heightened sensitivity about executive branch travel. A week earlier, Trump fired Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price for charging taxpayers for private charter flights for a mix of personal and professional duties, and the White House took the unusual step of reminding agency heads about the costs and optics of federal travel.
White House aides dismissed the blowback from the trip and have continued to push the NFL issue out to Trump’s core supporters, including on Monday afternoon, when the Trump-Pence presidential campaign sent out a fundraising solicitation to supporters touting Pence’s decision to walk out of the game.
“It's a divisive issue, we recognize that. But everyone in this office fundamentally believes he made the right call,” said a White House aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about internal discussions.
For Pence, the NFL controversy is fraught. While he has advocated free speech rights in other ways, such as advocating a federal media shield law as a congressman, he also supported a constitutional amendment that would prohibit the desecration of the flag, which the Supreme Court has ruled is protected by the First Amendment.
An avid football fan, Pence had planned for weeks to attend the Manning ceremony. But people close to the vice president also note that the issue is deeply personal to him as a father whose son is serving in the Marines.
“Just because someone may do something, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t . . . still show your support for the flag and the national anthem and for what it stands for,” said Marc Lotter, a longtime Pence aide and former spokesman. “The reason he was there was to attend the game as a longtime, passionate Colts fan and to show his respect for Peyton Manning and all that he’s done for football and the state of Indiana.”
Drew Harwell, Amy Brittain, Kent Babb and Jack Gillum contributed to this report.