Mike Pence; Gerald Ford (AP/Michael Conroy/Photo montage by Salon)

Is Mike Pence pulling a Gerald Ford or a Spiro Agnew?

Pence is either getting ready to become an incoming president or an outgoing vice president

Matthew Rozsa
June 16, 2017 5:19PM (UTC)

Vice President Mike Pence's decision to hire his own lawyer for the special counsel investigation into alleged ties between Donald Trump's presidential campaign and the Russian government can mean one of two things — or perhaps even both things at the same time.

Either Pence is concerned that he may face charges of his own, or — believing that he is innocent — he wants to separate his own legal fate from that of a president whose innocence he (for good reason) doubts.


If the latter prospect is true, of course, it's doubtful that Pence will ever admit this publicly. As the Watergate scandal began to swallow up Richard Nixon, and Vice President Gerald Ford was confronted with the prospect that he would be thrust into the presidency, Ford nevertheless maintained his public defenses of the president. This was both politically necessary (Nixon was a fellow Republican, after all) and morally astute (it would be unseemly for the man who might benefit from Nixon's downfall to seem to contribute to it).

Although Pence should avoid defending Trump so vehemently that he winds up looking complicit, it is best for him to refrain from seeming over-eager at ascending to the White House himself. That said, if he has sound reason to suspect that Trump is about to take a mighty fall, it is wise for him to determine how he can best protect himself from a strictly legal standpoint.

This, by necessity, means he must at least partially decouple his fate from that of the president he serves.

Of course, there is also the possibility that Pence has reasons to be worried about his own future with the law. He does have at least one major scandal from his own past — in 1990, he used campaign funds to pay his mortgage and other personal expenses, which, though not illegal at the time, was regarded as highly unethical — and it is not inconceivable that there is something brewing beneath the surface that the public simply doesn't know about. The only vice president to resign due to scandal, Richard Nixon's own Spiro Agnew, did so not because of Watergate but for the entirely unrelated reason that he received over a quarter million dollars in bribes. It has long been speculated that prosecutors were eager to cut a juicy deal for Agnew so that he would resign before Nixon and an honest man could be appointed as his successor (Ford) to wait in the wings should Watergate destroy Nixon.

Perhaps, like Agnew, Pence was involved in an unknown scandal completely unrelated to the Russia shenanigans. Of course, it is also possible that Pence is personally involved in the Russia-related mess, especially considering the legend behind how he became Trump's vice president. The former reality TV star had apparently been set on choosing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as his running mate until his campaign manager at the time, Paul Manafort, claimed there were mechanical issues with Trump's plane as it waited on the tarmac in Indiana, which bought time for Trump to be wooed by Pence.

Manafort, you may recall, is under investigation by the FBI for his own potential connections to Russia, not the least of which is his work for Putin's puppet in Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych.


As I contemplate Pence's possible political future, I recall a story I wrote in March about the man. I had sent out word among Indiana Democrats that I was interested in hearing their take on who the man was and what kind of president he might be. I left with the impression that he was a governor who, regardless of what you might think of his ideas, was not very effective at getting them implemented; by contrast to another, more effective Republican Indiana governor, Mitch Daniels, whom one legislator described as "the man with the plan." Pence was also depicted as a hard-line conservative, albeit somewhat more generic in his views than the absurd ideological expediency that defines Trump.

Most important, however, was this observation by House Minority Leader Scott Pelath:


"Mike Pence has the prerequisite understanding of political customs, American history, and the three branches of government. My sleep would resume its normal patterns until the nation made a change and we could move on."

Assuming that Pence is in Ford's situation and not Agnew's, I would agree with Pelath's assessment. It is becoming increasingly difficult to believe that Trump isn't at the very least guilty of obstruction of justice, and more likely of electoral dirty tricks that would put Tricky Dick himself to shame. If Trump has obstructed justice, and especially if he did collude with Russia to sabotage Hillary Clinton's campaign, then we would be far better off with Pence in the White House than Trump.

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a breaking news writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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