Vice President Mike Pence (AP Photo/Getty Images/Salon)
Mike Pence hoped his worshipful silence would protect him from the Trump collapse. But the pandemic’s on him now
One of the most enduring Trump-era internet memes is “I hope you find someone who looks at you the way Mike Pence looks at Donald Trump.” Trevor Noah’s “Daily Show” has had a lot of fun with it:
And it’s not just the adoring gaze. When Pence speaks, it is invariably in the most servile tones, always suggesting that he has never had a thought in his head that “this president” didn’t “direct” him to have. He is the most loyal of all the Trump loyalists, a man who was saved from an ignominious failure as Indiana governor in 2016 and turned into the president’s personal political manservant.
Up until this year, Pence had managed to be nothing more than a cipher in the Trump administration, performing the patented furrowed-brow, look-of-love act at public appearances and not much else. The speculation was that his empty-suit role may have saved him. By doing nothing except standing next to Trump and smiling benevolently, he might be a rare survivor of the Trump White House and might still have a political career after it’s over.
I never thought that was possible. Pence’s close association with Trump has destroyed him, and if he runs for president he will be the Trump administration’s sin-eater. The base will have to make someone suffer for Trump’s failure, and Pence was always top of the list. Unfortunately for him, his role as the “pandemic czar” has probably sealed that fate.
Had Pence been left to his regular houseboy routine he might have slipped into obscurity if Trump loses the election in November. But because he was assigned the thankless role of supposedly heading the coronavirus task force he’s now the face of the administration’s failure, right alongside the man he stares at so dreamily.
Setting aside Pence’s lugubrious delivery and the apparent necessity to flatter the president in reverent tones, he started off doing a fairly decent job with the task force. His daily briefings, in the beginning, were hobbled by Trump’s often incoherent ramblings, which had to be explained away, but Pence at least allowed the experts to speak and take questions.
Under his early leadership the task force came up with guidelines called “30 Days to Slow the Spread,” which Pence discussed at every appearance. Thirty days was always inadequate, but at least that conveyed a sense of urgency and was an attempt to get the whole country on the same page. But as soon as Trump saw that people were paying attention to the briefings he horned in on the action and we know how that went. The bizarre daily spectacle of the president blabbering on about hydroxychloroquine and injecting disinfectant signaled that any serious attempt at a national response was over.
From that moment on, Pence has worked overtime to lose whatever small amount of credibility he was able to cultivate in those early days. The slide into Trumpian happy talk was demonstrated by Pence’s defiant refusal to wear a mask while palling around with Trump acolytes like Florida Gov Ron DeSantis as they declared “Mission Accomplished,” just a bit prematurely. Then Pence came out as a full-fledged propagandist with a big op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on June 16, in which he threw down a straw man and lit it on fire:
In recent days, the media has taken to sounding the alarm bells over a “second wave” of coronavirus infections. Such panic is overblown. Thanks to the leadership of President Trump and the courage and compassion of the American people, our public health system is far stronger than it was four months ago, and we are winning the fight against the invisible enemy.
He was addressing the spike in coronavirus cases that has now led to a gigantic surge all over the country except the Northeast. Nobody was talking about a “second wave.” Everyone knows we are still in the first one. And despite his claims that his “whole-of-America approach has been a success,” Pence’s plans to “slow the spread” did not come close to working. The virus is out of control.
But the New York Times reported that in a phone call with governors around that same time, Pence encouraged them to lie, saying, “I would just encourage you all, as we talk about these things, to make sure and continue to explain to your citizens the magnitude of increase in testing and that in most of the cases where we are seeing some marginal rise in number, that’s more a result of the extraordinary work you’re doing.”
In other words, he was telling them to parrot the president’s fatuous insistence that if we didn’t have all this testing we wouldn’t have all these cases. He was not even trying to be an honest broker.
Since then, Pence has held a couple of task force briefings for the first time in months. They might as well have involved Trump himself standing up there talking about miracle cures and claiming that the virus is going to disappear on its own. This week Pence appeared with some of the favored public health experts and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to share the administration’s directive that all schools must be open for in-person learning five days a week this fall or else.
They had planned to discuss the CDC guidelines for school reopening, but as usual Trump stepped all over it by disagreeing with them publicly:
He also threatened to withhold federal funding for any school that didn’t do as he ordered. Naturally, Pence eagerly backed up the boss:
“The president said today we just don’t want the guidance to be too tough,” Pence told reporters. “And that’s the reason next week the CDC is going to be issuing a new set of tools.”
CDC director Robert Redfield added, bizarrely, that they didn’t want schools to use the guidelines as an excuse not to open, raising the question of why in the world the agency would even bother to issue them in the first place.
This is exactly what happened in the spring when the CDC issued guidelines for reopening the economy and the White House withheld them for weeks so Trump could pressure states to withdraw their mitigation strategies and get the economy going in time for his re-election.
Well, the data is in. According to a Thursday report in the New York Times, the current surge was driven largely by states that were among the first to ease virus restrictions. Imagine that. Surely this latest push to reopen schools without the proper safeguards in place won’t have the same results,.
Mike Pence is now fully engaged in saving Trump, not saving American lives. He has big ambitions of his own and plans to run for president. But he’d better hope Trump wins in November, because if he thinks he can run in four years if they lose this time, he needs to think again.
There’s a reason Trump put him in charge of the worst crisis of his presidency. It’s Pence’s pandemic now. And you can bet that Donald Trump will be the first one to hang it around his neck with one of his extra-long red ties. After all, if Trump loses this fall, there’s every reason to think he’ll be running against Pence in 2024.
Heather Digby Parton
Heather Digby Parton, also known as “Digby,” is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.