Pence, in many ways, has long been the historic picture of a Republican president in the Trump era — conservative, seemingly imperturbable and, perhaps most important, distinctly not Trump.
And now, in the waning days of the Trump administration, Pence is occupying the role of pretend president, executing the tasks and responsibilities of the presidency — some ceremonial and historic, others urgent and practical — that Trump appears unwilling to do.
“The fact that we’re seeing this — and it’s because Trump has no interest in participating in the traditional activities of the presidency — is just another way in which Trump is showing his utter dereliction of duty,” said presidential historian Lindsay M. Chervinsky, author of “The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.”
Of course, serving as understudy is the inherent lot of any vice president, and Pence is hardly the first second-in-command to take on additional duties traditionally associated with his boss. When Woodrow Wilson had a severe stroke toward the end of his presidency, his vice president and Cabinet secretaries took over many of his responsibilities. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was ill and couldn’t travel as much during the end of his time in the White House, his vice president at the time, Harry S. Truman, helped shoulder the burden.
But, Chervinsky said, with Trump not actually incapacitated and with a nation currently facing multiple crises — the coronavirus pandemic, the struggling economy and the “enormous threat of white-supremacist violence” surrounding Biden’s inauguration, among others — Pence’s recent prominence only underscores Trump’s absence.
In the weeks following Trump’s electoral defeat, the White House press office began blasting out almost farcical language each day claiming, “President Trump will work from early in the morning until late in the evening. He will make many calls and have many meetings.”
Trump has not held a public event since Jan. 12, when he visited the border wall in the Rio Grande Valley and refused to accept any culpability for the violent insurrection by his angry supporters at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
But while Trump has remained largely out of sight, Pence has been present and visible. On Thursday, in addition to receiving an inauguration security briefing at FEMA, the vice president made an unplanned stop to greet National Guard troops stationed on the East Front of the Capitol.
As governor of Indiana, Pence previously commanded his own state’s National Guard, and on Tuesday he praised the men and women for their service, thanking them for “stepping forward for your country.”
He ended his impromptu remarks with a final thanks and wishes for “a safe inauguration and a swearing-in of a new president and vice president.”
On Friday, Pence traveled to Charleston, W.Va., to speak at the memorial for retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager, the World War II fighter pilot who became the first person to break the sound barrier. And over the weekend, he and his wife, Karen, traveled first to Lemoore, Calif., and then Fort Drum to address and thank the troops stationed there.
“The American people are grateful,” Pence said. “And I want to assure you that you have our deepest respects for the selflessness and courage that you personify every day.”
He added: “I’m proud to say, with just a few days left in this administration, this is the first administration in decades not to get America into a new war.”
And on Tuesday, Pence chaired his final coronavirus task force meeting.
Pence has often taken on roles that, in other administrations, might have gone to the man on top. He made several foreign trips at the president’s request or in his stead, and more recently, he accepted the fraught role on the pandemic task force, over the warnings of many friends and allies.
Over four years, the vice president has soothed congressional lawmakers, the nation’s governors and world leaders, his mere presence and calming countenance seeming to reassure them that his boss was not, in fact, the tempestuous leader they feared him to be.
But perhaps the starkest contrast between the diminished president and the elevated vice president came Jan. 6, when Trump egged on an angry mob to violently turn against the very government he still led as Pence was attempting to fulfill his constitutional duties by formally announcing the victory of Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris. The vice president’s break with Trump marked his first and only complete public rupture from the president whom he had served loyally — sometimes to the point of servility — for the past four years.
During Wednesday’s inaugural festivities, Pence will serve as the Trump administration’s most senior attendee, as Trump himself is refusing to attend.
He will not fulfill all of the ceremonial duties typically associated with the outgoing president, however, such as greeting the incoming president and first lady or riding in a shared limousine to the Capitol with Biden.
The vice president has tremendous respect for the president and the office of the presidency and is going to follow all protocol and not overstep his role, said a White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. As the vice president, Pence will take his usual motorcade to the inauguration, this person added.
Despite the recent public and private tensions between Trump and Pence, the two men visited in person Thursday and spoke on the phone Friday, the official said. White House officials said Pence is not going to attend Trump’s planned farewell ceremony at Joint Base Andrews on Wednesday morning, citing the inauguration festivities a few hours later.
Pence is frequently mentioned in Republican circles as a 2024 presidential hopeful, and his actions in recent days could have an impact on his prospects.
Immediately after the attack on the Capitol, Republican pollster Frank Luntz conducted a focus group of 12 Trump voters from 11 different states. When asked to name their preferred candidate for president in 2024, not a single one said Pence.
But in a survey of more than 800 Trump voters nationwide a few days later — also after the attack on the Capitol and before Trump was impeached for the second time — Luntz asked the respondents whom they would most likely support for president, with Trump omitted as an option.
Pence was the front-runner by far, with 34 percent saying they preferred him. The next closest was Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), with 14 percent, followed by Trump’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, both with 7 percent.
Asked to explain Pence’s sudden surge in popularity, Luntz said the vice president had, for the first time in several months, “been allowed to be presidential and he’s lived up to that role.”
“Trump voters have been paying such close attention to what’s going on, so they’re watching what everyone says and what everyone does,” Luntz said. “The fact that Mike Pence has been so presidential will help him significantly in the future.”