Becoming president, Mike Pence will tell you, is not on his mind. He swears. He’s got a terrific job right now, as vice president—a gig that, despite any appearance to the contrary, is “the greatest privilege of my life.” Or so Pence gushed to Donald Trump (and an abundance of TV cameras) at a recent cabinet meeting, where he squinted those chestnut eyes of his and gave the honest-to-God impression that he’d like nothing more than to serve as Trump’s loyal understudy for the rest of his life.
So, the fury Pence summoned on Sunday was maybe more predictable than believable. Denying a report from the New York Times that Pence might be laying the groundwork for a presidential bid in 2020, the vice president blasted the article as “disgraceful and offensive.” For good measure, Pence added: “Whatever fake news may come our way, my entire team will continue to focus all our efforts to advance the president’s agenda and see him re-elected in 2020.” Fair enough. But if you accept his theatrics and take him at his word, Mike Pence is perhaps the only person in Washington not currently prepping for a Mike Pence presidency.
Yet, for all the eagerness to imagine Pence in the White House, the real speculating about his administration occurs mostly in furtive whispers and behind closed doors. “That’s a thought experiment that gets you killed,” demurred Frank Luntz, the generally loquacious G.O.P. pollster, when I tried to probe him about Pence’s future.
Still, there are moments now when Pence himself stokes visions of his ascendancy—days when he plays the role not of vice president but of a kind of virtual president. Instances, in other words, when he offers a glimpse of a future as tantalizing to some as it is frightening to others.
Maybe the most intriguing of these crystal-ball moments came this summer, after Trump’s first, dismal trip to Europe. The president used the visit to make headlines for, among other things, boorishly shoving the prime minister of Montenegro and haranguing NATO allies. To the power brokers back in Washington—the policymakers and think-tankers who sweat the details that Trump tramples—the performance was cringe-inducing, the commander in chief laying waste to 70 years of postwar American leadership.
To the G.O.P., Pence would be a kind of godsend, a president who would be, as the former adviser describes him, “a think-tank-talk-news-created Republican robot.”
Days later came Mike Pence, gliding to the rostrum in a D.C. hotel ballroom to put things right. In what was expected to be a humdrum speech at a gala for the Atlantic Council—one of those innumerable D.C. policy groups—Pence began mopping up Trump’s mess, allaying the concerns of the jittery power class. Earlier that day, he’d personally welcomed the manhandled Montenegrin leader to the White House. And now, as he spoke, Pence downplayed Trump’s blustery talk in Brussels, reminding the assembled that America was still committed to NATO.
Ticking through his to-do list, Pence even offered a few kind words about Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national-security adviser who’d recently died. The White House had neglected to issue condolences—presumably because of Trump’s ongoing war with Brzezinski’s daughter, Mika, the Morning Joe co-host whom he has assailed as being “crazy” and having a “low IQ.” None such juvenile belligerence from the veep. “Our thoughts and our prayers are with you,” Pence told the Brzezinski family.
The response to the speech was rapturous. The crowd gave Pence a standing ovation. The next day, The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, the premier channeler of the swamp’s chattering class, wrote a column about the speech. The headline? “President Pence’ Is Sounding Better and Better.” The event was a turning point, a moment of distilled competence in which the fantasy of a Pence reign—an eventuality mused about since the moment he was picked for the ticket—began to feel real.
His ascent has been spectacular, if under-appreciated. Until he was plucked by Trump last summer to help appeal to conservative voters, Pence was a scarcely known and largely unpopular governor facing an uphill re-election fight in Indiana. Today he’s next in line to a deeply embattled president; a guy who’s made himself seem vaguely right for the Oval Office simply by standing in contrast to its current occupant.
In May, Pence quietly became the only first-term vice president in history to form his own political-action committee, the Great America Committee, which, in addition to funding his political travel over the next few years, will help him build a network of deep-pocketed supporters should he want to run for president himself. At the same time, Pence has been hosting a series of dinners at the vice president’s mansion for some of the nation’s wealthiest and most prominent conservative donors. According to the Times, Pence arranges for an empty chair to be placed at each table so he can more easily schmooze as he wends his way around the room.
And now, as each new day seems to bring with it a revelation, or a poll, or a tweet that feels as if it nudges the vice president—perhaps the most unexamined major political figure in modern America—ever closer to the Oval Office, the powerful and the plugged-in across Washington are beginning to form answers to a suddenly more urgent question: What happens when Mike Pence becomes president?
With his boss consumed by scandal, Mike Pence launched a political-action committee this spring—prompting speculation about his own ambitions.
Say Mike Pence becomes the 46th president of the United States. No matter the circumstances of Trump’s exit—whether he leaves early or not—Pence will inherit a hangover. Recall Gerald Ford’s efforts, in the wake of Watergate, to declare that America’s “long national nightmare is over.” Pence might need to do something similar.
“Like Ford, he’d try to be instantly reassuring,” says Andrew Rudalevige, a Bowdoin College political scientist who studies the presidency. But if Trump were to resign or be forced from office, Republicans would struggle in the long shadow of scandal and turmoil—and nobody would be more enveloped in it than Pence himself.
“It would be as if Agnew was taking over the Nixon presidency,” says Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, referring to Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s original vice president, who resigned before Nixon. Kristol’s point is that a President Pence wouldn’t be given the same benefit of the doubt enjoyed by Ford, who hadn’t been around for the Watergate break-in, and thus began his presidency relatively immune to its fallout. (Of course, after Ford pardoned Nixon a month later, his own days in the White House were numbered.)
Having been with Trump from the start of his presidency, Pence wouldn’t benefit in the ways Ford did. “Pence is inexorably tainted by Trumpism,” says G.O.P. strategist Steve Schmidt. “His credibility and integrity are in tatters along with that of most every other person who’s spoken for this administration from the grounds of the White House.”
Holding on to Trump’s supporters would likely require holding on to some of his popular promises, too.
So, perhaps Pence’s best chance at escaping the gravity field of the Trump regime depends on his knack for seeming wholly unlike Trump—for being the human embodiment of calm and order. “I’ve got one word if you were to compare a potential Pence presidency with the current one: boring,” one G.O.P. strategist says. “And that’s with three O’s: boooring.” In case I missed his meaning, the operative spelled it out: “That is not meant as a criticism.”