Apr 18, 2018

Mike Pence's "Art of the Deal"

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

What was most surprising about President Trump’s irritation with Vice President Mike Pence's pick for national security adviser is how rarely the two men betray any friction.

Why it matters: No one inside the White House has navigated Trump and the watch-your-back internal dynamic more adeptly than Pence, administration officials tell us. Pence's unifying role has positioned him perfectly for all scenarios — solid in his standing as V.P., and ready to lead if Trump were to be impeached or decide one term is enough.

How Pence does it, based on reporting by Jonathan Swan and me:

  • He rarely offends or challenges Trump — and never in public or in front of others. In TV interviews, he treats the boss with deference that makes many cringe but delights the Big Man.
  • He has assembled his own team, loyal to him, and mostly savvy enough to keep their heads down and mouths shut. Pence is the happy, on-message Christian warrior.
  • Since the campaign, Pence has played on his "aw shucks" second-fiddle role, even joking about how much poorer he is than Trump. He told members at a Republican retreat that he comes from "the Joseph A. Bank wing of the West Wing." Trump loves that.
  • Former campaign officials used to joke that if Newt Gingrich had been chosen as V.P., he would've lasted about a week before Trump ripped his head off.
  • Trump couldn't stand having a V.P. with whom he'd have to compete with for media attention. There's no risk of that with the studiously sober Pence. 

Pence abroad:

  • Trump loathed former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and didn't trust him to conduct his diplomacy. So for sensitive assignments — think the Middle East trip after the Jerusalem embassy announcement, or Korea for the Olympics amid high stakes clashing with Kim Jong-un — Trump sent Pence.
  • Foreign leaders knew that Pence was speaking for Trump, when they never felt that way about Tillerson.
  • After a Middle East trip in January, an Asia swing in February and a last-minute Peru summit stop last week, Pence will head to Brazil next month with a trade message.

Pence at home:

  • With little national attention but lots of local coverage, the V.P. travels out of town two or three times a week to campaign for midterm congressional candidates — his big focus for this year after a heavy foreign schedule last year.
  • The White House estimates that so far this year, local media coverage of Pence in midterm states has reached 13 million households.
  • His domestic portfolio also includes space policy, and his event themes are heavy on tax reform, military spending and border security.

Be smart: Administration officials say one of Pence’s great talents is being in a different ZIP Code, often a different time zone, when trouble is roiling the White House.

  • Either that or plead ignorance. He’s dodged Russia, Stormy, Charlottesville and the rest.
  • Pence’s team — which tried to kill this story and views it as “unhelpful” — says it’s nonsense that he deliberately skips town to avoid crises: He planned his heavy schedule of political travel, with the input of the senior White House staff, at the beginning of the year.

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