How exactly Pence stays on Trump’s right side is something of a mystery. Obsequiousness is surely part of it. Last year, Pence gave a speech at the Munich Security Conference and in the course of the half-hour address he mentioned the president’s name 30 times—once per minute. (In his own half-hour speech at the same conference in 2015, then–Vice President Biden mentioned his boss, Barack Obama, just one time.) A European official who attended Pence’s speech told me that he was approached later by a Chinese diplomat who confided that the performance had reminded him of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, “where you had to mention the name of the ‘Great Leader’ every third sentence.”
“There’s no more loyal person who truly believes in President Donald Trump and all his accomplishments than Mike Pence,” said one senior Trump-administration aide, when I asked about Pence’s unstinting praise.
Even some senior White House officials have seemed unsure of what goes on between the pair when they talk alone. Pence tends to be reticent in larger staff meetings, former aides have told me. John Bolton, the president’s former national security adviser, writes in his new book, The Room Where It Happened, that he suspected Pence “did much of his best work in private conversations with Trump.”
On the campaign trail this summer and fall, Pence could face pressure to speak more openly about the administration’s pandemic response and his own role leading the task force. That pressure will be inescapable if he runs for president. “Trump’s legacy, which doesn’t look particularly good at this point, will certainly splash hard onto Pence,” Charlie Dent, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, told me.
At least one of his former associates has echoed that warning. After Pence won an Indiana congressional race in 2000, he would meet with Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister, and pray and read scripture together. Schenck sees two warring and unresolved dimensions of Pence’s personality, ambition and altruism, and says that one seems to be crowding out the other. “If he were to seek pastoral counseling from me, I would say to him, ‘Brother Mike, Jesus commands you to love your neighbor, not love your boss,’” says Schenck, who plans to vote for Biden, the first Democrat he’s supported in a presidential race since Jimmy Carter in 1976. “That’s not God’s command.”
A couple of years ago, Schenck sent a letter to Pence after seeing him at a swearing-in ceremony for Sam Brownback, the administration’s ambassador for international religious freedom. In the letter, Schenck cited the commandment that warns against bearing false witness. “I conveyed in the letter that that was one of the greatest failures of this administration: truth-telling,” Schenck told me. “I was trying to say to him, ‘You need to be a truth-teller.’” He never got a reply.
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is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers the White House.