WASHINGTON – The day after President Donald Trump sparred with reporters on live television over assigning blame for violence at a white supremacist rally, White House aides were stunned, advisers were whispering their frustrations, business allies were cutting public ties with the White House and Trump was out of sight.
But Vice-President Mike Pence was on message.
At a press conference 5,000 miles away in Santiago, Chile, Pence offered a robust defence of the president, while neither endorsing nor denouncing his words.
“What happened in Charlottesville was a tragedy, and the president has been clear on this tragedy and so have I,” Pence said Wednesday in response to a reporter’s question during a weeklong trip to Latin America. “I spoke at length about this heart-breaking situation on Sunday night in Colombia, and I stand with the president, and I stand by those words.”
Time and again, with cool reserve, unquestionable loyalty and unflappable message discipline, Pence has defended Trump and downplayed his troubles of the moment, all while appearing mindful of the political perils of becoming a chief spokesman for the unpopular president. While he never fails to stand by his boss, he also does not repeat Trump’s more bombastic statements. He is a master of the dodge, at keeping a safe distance, at making Trump’s most shocking comments sound more reasoned. After seven months on the job, Pence has mastered the art of managing the Trump outburst.
On the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Pence was Trump’s loyal defender, but he did not endorse his view that both hate groups and counter-protesters were to blame. Nor did he weigh in on the loaded subject of whether removing Conference monuments was an attack on “culture.”
In the immediate aftermath of last weekend’s violence, as Trump was under fire for not specifically calling out the white supremacists and racists who descended on Charlottesville, Pence simply spoke the words Trump hadn’t.
“Yesterday, President Trump clearly and unambiguously condemned the bigotry, violence, and hatred which took place on the streets of Charlottesville,” Pence said last Sunday, calling out white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the KKK by name.
The careful positioning comes as Democrats are monitoring Pence closely, with the assumption that he is likely to run for president as soon as 2020, if Trump does not pursue a second term. Pence’s team appears to be deeply concerned about suggestions that Pence is preparing a campaign, reacting furiously to a New York Times article that reported that multiple Pence advisers had suggested to party donors that the former Indiana governor might decide to run in 2020 if Trump did not seek re-election — an assumption that nearly everyone in Washington had long made.
Pence, according to several aides, sees his role as a simple one: helping to amplify the president’s message and serving, in the words of one, as the president’s “wingman.” Pence and Trump share a close, personal relationship, forged over a brutal campaign, and speak to each other multiple times a day.
But those aides also do not paint a picture of Pence as the kind of influential adviser who tries to push Trump in one direction or the other. Asked whether Pence openly shares his opinions privately with Trump, one aide explained that Pence gives his opinions when he’s asked for them.
When it comes to his frequent forays on the world stage, Pence sees himself as a messenger, coming to personally explain the president’s statements, free from media distortions, they said. The aides spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss Trump and Pence’s private relationship.
In practice, Pence’s role as he’s travelled across Southeast Asia, Europe and Latin America, has emerged as that of a rose-colored filter, a Trump translator quietly reassuring anxious foreign leaders that the president’s statements about NATO, nuclear weapons or military action in Venezuela are not quite what they seem.
While Trump spent the past week managing his troubles, Pence was busy delivering speeches, meeting with world leaders, and glad-handing embassy staffers. Pence often seemed to be travelling in an alternate reality — one in which a staid, conventional politician is in charge.
Pence does not shy away from referencing Trump in his interactions with world leaders, quoting him extensively in his remarks. But Pence also works to blunt Trump’s rough rhetoric.
Days after Trump threatened a potential “military option” to halt Venezuela’s collapse, alarming allies in the region, Pence noted repeatedly that, while “all options” were on the table, the U.S. wanted to work with them to find a “peaceable solution.”
At stop after stop, Pence told business and government leaders that Trump’s protectionist rhetoric on trade and “America first” philosophy wasn’t really what it sounded like: “America first does not mean America alone,” he said.
Still, Pence was careful to make his alliances clear. Asked Tuesday about squabbling in the West Wing, Pence thanked a reporter for her question before launching into an enthusiastic defence of Trump.
“What the world has seen under President Donald Trump is an American president who is once again embracing our historic role as leader of the free world without apology,” he said, adding: “In a very real sense, I believe that President Trump has restored the credibility of American power by being willing to take American values and American interests onto the world stage. “