Mike Pence is working to wrest control of the GOP away from Trump

As Pence tries to do the political work that Trump won't, tensions are mounting between the two

Published May 15, 2018 10:41AM (EDT)

Considering the possibility that President Donald Trump could be impeached (especially if Democrats capture both the Senate and House of Representatives in November), it has been nothing short of remarkable that Trump has managed to remain on good terms with the man who would replace him if he is removed from office, Vice President Mike Pence. But if recent reports are to believed, that positive relationship may be beginning to fray.

One of the chief underlying issues is that Pence has been picking up the slack left by Trump when it comes to building the party from the ground up, according to The New York Times. Although Trump himself remains a very popular figure among the rank-and-file, he has done little to help congressional, senatorial and other aspiring Republican politicians, creating a void that Pence and his team have worked to fill. In order to offset the perception that they are doing so to undercut Trump, Pence has made a point of effusively praising the president in his speeches even as he performs duties that might be normally left to the president himself.

Unfortunately for Trump and Pence, however, there have been at least a few occasions when the vice president has crossed lines that his superior would have preferred him to avoid overstepping.

As The New York Times reports:

Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas needed a favor: Before retiring, he wanted to anoint a local activist as his successor. Mr. Hensarling, a veteran conservative, reached out to President Trump for help, but the White House hesitated to intervene, according to a person familiar with the overture.

Instead, Mr. Hensarling found a willing ally at Mr. Trump’s right hand: Vice President Mike Pence. Mr. Pence backed the congressman’s favorite, Bunni Pounds, last month in a tweet that blindsided key White House aides.

Pence also found himself at loggerheads with the White House when he tried to appoint Jon Lerner, a Republican pollster who has a close relationship with Pence's Chief of Staff Nick Ayers, as his national security aide. When Trump discovered that Lerner had taken a leading role in attacking Trump during the 2016 presidential election, Pence was pressured into giving up on his attempts to hire Lerner. As the Times reported, Pence also got into trouble when he seemed to be flying too close to the sun of the presidency.

Tensions also flared last year, after Mr. Ayers and another Pence aide were reported to have made suggestive comments to Republican donors about planning for an unpredictable 2020 election. Most brazenly, Marty Obst, a senior Pence adviser, told a Republican donor that Mr. Pence wanted to be prepared for the next presidential race in case there was an opening.

This isn't to say that Pence's political interventions are entirely unwelcome.

Pence played a key role in convincing Trump not to endorse Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to succeed Speaker of the House Paul Ryan after the latter announced that he was not going to stay in his position. Pence's position – which Trump ultimately shared — was that Republicans in Congress should be allowed to decide on their own who should assume leadership in the party.

Pence also intervened when it seemed like Trump had endorsed one candidate in a Florida Republican congressional primary, Rep. Ron DeSantis, over one of Pence's former colleagues from the House of Representatives, Adam Putnam. Although the DeSantis campaign still believes that a Trump endorsement will eventually come, Pence managed to convince Trump that it would be wiser to avoid endorsing any candidate in that election.

Yet even a Pence moment that seemed designed to help Trump — his glowing words of praise for former Sheriff Joe Arpaio at an NRA event — could wind up inadvertently ticking off the president.

The vice president drew wide criticism, and grumbling from White House aides, for hailing former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio as a “tireless champion of strong borders and the rule of law.” Mr. Arpaio, who is running in a Senate race Mr. Trump’s advisers tried to keep him out of, was convicted of criminal contempt but pardoned by the president last year.

Attendees at the gathering cheered Mr. Pence but said they were drawn to him chiefly because of his association with Mr. Trump.

And then, of course, there are the number of occasions when Trump has replaced Pence at major political events: Deciding to attend the NRA convention only after he learned Pence was scheduled to deliver the keynote address, going to the World Economic Forum in the Swiss city of Davos after initially asking Pence to do so, headlining an event by the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List after Pence did so last year, according to Politico.

Making matters more uncomfortable in the White House, Pence recently announced that he was hiring former Trump Campaign Manager Corey Lewandowski to his own political action committee, Great America, which is responsible for helping Pence travel around the country and support various preferred Republican candidates. Because Lewandowski helped orchestrate Trump's upset victory in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, many Trump supporters are concerned that the hiring of Lewandowski reflects Pence's own ambitions for higher office.

As I've noted in the past, the ongoing scandals plaguing Trump put Pence in a position quite similar to that which faced another American vice president more than forty years ago, Gerald Ford. Like Ford, Pence must make it clear that he is not bucking for his boss's job even as he avoids putting himself so firmly in the president's corner that he can't get out of it should the scandal(s) ultimately compel the president's resignation. It is unclear if Pence has mulled over how his situation is similar to Ford's or whether he has tried to emulate Ford's admirable example when it comes to his own conduct.

One thing that is clear, however, is that even if Pence plays all his cards right, there is always likely to be some level of suspicion toward him from the White House that he claims to be serving. The only point of mystery is whether Pence is intentionally trying to build his own power base or is simply stepping up to perform necessary duties because his superior has not done so.

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By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff 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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2020 Presidential Election Donald Trump Mike Pence