What's behind Mike Pence's stony visage? Trump may plan to dump him for Nikki Haley

Pence's demeanor during the Pelosi-Schumer circus sparked much hilarity. But maybe the veep glimpses the future

By Heather Digby Parton


Published December 12, 2018 9:15AM (EST)

Nikki Haley; Donald Trump; Mike Pence (AP Photo)
Nikki Haley; Donald Trump; Mike Pence (AP Photo)

It looks as if The Trump Show will take some interesting turns in the new season, which begins Jan. 3. The teaser we saw on Tuesday was a doozy. Minority Leader and soon-to-be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer went up to the White House to meet with the president about the looming government shutdown and all hell broke loose before the meeting even started. When the fur starts flying at the photo-op, you know that things are going to get crazy.

Trump did his normal thing: Lying, exaggerating, threatening, bragging, complaining. But instead of the usual GOP sycophants clapping like a bunch of trained seals, this time he got pushback. He's not used to that and it didn't go well for him.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Trump stomped off and threw a folder full of papers around the room after the meeting, which is understandable. He had no idea what had just happened to him and he was frustrated.

It's hard to believe it was this easy but Pelosi got him rattled by confronting him and then Schumer goaded him into yelling "I'll proudly shut down the government if I don't get what I want!" which, if it happens, is going to be an albatross around his neck. The Republicans are reportedly none too pleased that the greatest negotiator the world has ever known was so easily backed into a corner, leaving them with little room to maneuver on the budget, especially since the latest polling shows that a large majority of American don't want a shutdown over the wall. Even 30 percent of Republicans are against it.

One person who had not one word to say about all this was Vice President Mike Pence, who sat frozen in a chair like a Madame Tussaud's wax figure, not moving or changing expression the entire time. His behavior was so strange it went viral almost immediately:

It's actually quite understandable that Pence was, well, a bit pensive. The meeting was a train wreck, and it's plausible that he had recently been on the receiving end of Trump's wild temper and was just happy not to be involved. After all, Trump had just suffered a major humiliation when Pence's chief of staff, Nick Ayers, pulled out of an apparent agreement to move up and replace Trump's departing chief of staff, John Kelly. Trump had foolishly announced Kelly's departure as one of his distraction ploys during last week's rollout of bad legal news and no doubt held Pence somewhat responsible for the humiliation when his boy backed out. That's just how he rolls.

Nobody really knows why Ayers turned down the job. He's been working for Pence from the beginning of the term and his main characteristic seems to be relentless ambition. But he did, and now Trump is scrambling to find someone. As of Tuesday afternoon, the White House had to backtrack and say that Kelly would stay on until after the first of the year.

The Ayers saga has been going on for some time. Apparently he was pushed hard by Ivanka and Jared Kushner, largely because of their antipathy for Kelly. There were strange little kabuki dances staged for the press, denying that there was any unpleasantness, but nobody was fooled. One of the more recent palace-intrigue stories might have also contributed to Ayers' departure and Pence's odd behavior. Gabriel Sherman at Vanity Fair reported recently that there was some talk that for all of his ostentatious bootlicking, Pence wasn't really bringing anything to the party:

[Earlier this month] Trump hosted a 2020 strategy meeting with a group of advisers. Among the topics discussed was whether Mike Pence should remain on the ticket, given the hurricane-force political headwinds Trump will face, as demonstrated by the midterms, a source briefed on the session told me. “They’re beginning to think about whether Mike Pence should be running again,” the source said, adding that the advisers presented Trump with new polling that shows Pence doesn’t expand Trump’s coalition. “He doesn’t detract from it, but he doesn’t add anything either,” the source said. Last month, The New York Times reported that Trump had been privately asking advisers if Pence could be trusted, and that outside advisers have been pushing Nikki Haley to replace Pence.

It's hard to know if Ayers' abrupt departure from the White House might have anything to do with those musings, but you can bet that Pence has heard about it.

That polling is correct, by the way. Pence's place on the ticket was always predicated on the need for Trump to reel in folks on the religious right who might be put off by his libertine ways. As it turns out, they love him just the way he is.

CNN's Ron Brownstein looked at some previously unpublished results from the 2018 exit polls and they show something startling. Republicans actually ran poorly among white working-class women who are not evangelicals. Nearly three-fifths of those women voted for the Democrats, more than double the share of evangelical women. Even white working-class non-evangelical men, who did give Republicans a majority, still voted twice as often for Democrats as did white male working-class evangelicals. Most college-educated evangelicals voted for Republicans too. They are consistently Trump's most ardent followers.

In fact,  just last week a group gathered at the Trump Hotel in Washington to pray for him:

[L]ast Friday afternoon (Dec. 7), one of the hotel’s many glimmering ballrooms was transformed into a sanctuary, where dozens of worshippers held their hands aloft and spoke in tongues as Jon Hamill, co-founder of Washington, D.C.-based Lamplighter Ministries, led the group in prayer. Hamill — whom supporters describe as a prophet — closed his eyes tightly and shouted above the chattering: “In Jesus’ name, we declare the Deep State will not prevail!”

The Trump advisers who brought him his polling no doubt understand that these people are in the bag for 2020. But if they want to win they have to figure out a way to bring back some of those non-evangelical women who are abandoning the Republican Party in droves. In that respect, maybe putting Nikki Haley on the ticket makes some sense.

If people are talking about this to the press you can be sure Pence knows about this scuttlebutt too. So does Pence's fair-haired boy, Nick Ayers, which may be informing his decision to spend more time with his money. That faraway look in the veep's eye may be the look of someone who's trying to come to terms with the fact that he's just another in a long line of Donald Trump's castoffs who have been used, abused and left with nothing.

By 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.

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