Amid Political Disarray, Pence Reaches for Control of GOP
Posted May 14, 2018 2:49 p.m. EDT
Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas needed a favor: Before retiring at the end of his term, Hensarling, a powerful conservative, wanted to anoint an activist named Bunni Pounds as his successor. He reached out to President Donald Trump for help, but Trump and his aides hesitated to meddle in a House primary, according to a person familiar with the overture.
Instead, Hensarling found a willing ally at Trump’s right hand: Vice President Mike Pence. Anxious to please his former House colleague, the vice president backed Pounds last month in a tweet that blindsided key White House aides.
The eager assistance Pence provided a senior lawmaker reflected the outsized political portfolio that the vice president and his aides have seized for themselves as the 2018 elections approach. While Trump remains an overpowering personality in Republican politics, he is mostly uninterested in the mechanics of managing a political party. His team of advisers is riven with personal divisions and the White House has not yet crafted a strategy for the midterms. So Trump’s supremely disciplined running mate has stepped into the void.
Republican officials now see Pence as seeking to exercise expansive control over a political party ostensibly helmed by Trump, tending to his own allies and interests even when the president’s instincts lean in another direction. Even as he laces his public remarks with praise for the president, Pence and his influential chief of staff, Nick Ayers, are unsettling a group of Trump’s fierce loyalists who fear they are forging a separate power base.
In addition to addressing dozens of party events in recent months, Pence has effectively made himself the frontman for America First Policies, an outside group set up to back Trump’s agenda. He has keynoted more than a dozen of its events this year, traveling under its banner to states including Iowa and New Hampshire. And Pence has worked insistently to shape Trump’s endorsements, prodding him in the contests for governor of Florida and speaker of the House, among others.
Word of the internal tensions is getting out beyond the walls of the White House: one prominent lawmaker said the complaints of high-ranking Trump officials were starting to circulate on Capitol Hill.
“They’re looking for people to stay on the team, not break away from the team,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., of the Trump side of the West Wing.
Trump and Pence remain on good terms personally, and the president has largely welcomed the vice president’s political guidance, according to people close to both men. And Pence has been intimately involved in planning for the 2020 campaign: He joined Trump for the meeting where the president told Brad Parscale, a digital strategist in the 2016 election, that he would manage the 2020 race. Pence stood behind Parscale, rubbing his shoulders, as Trump spoke.
Yet in at least two instances, the vice president, Ayers and other aides have badly overstepped. Pence recently abandoned an attempt to hire Jon Lerner, a Republican pollster close to Ayers, as a national security aide, after Trump discovered Lerner had helped lead attacks on him in the 2016 election. The quick dismissal of Lerner was widely seen as a brushback against Pence and Ayers, a way for Trump’s advisers to signal that they were closely watching the vice president’s office. Two senior White House officials said the Lerner episode made Trump more acutely aware of what these aides described as Pence’s empire-building.
Tensions also flared last year, after 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 Pence wanted to be prepared for the next presidential race in case there was an opening.
For now, Pence and his aides have found a yawning opening within the West Wing, as Trump’s principal political aides spend much of their time managing his impulses and vying with each other, instead of overseeing the party and this year’s campaign. While past vice presidents, like Joe Biden and Dick Cheney, have played important roles maintaining the political coalitions of their ticket-mates, neither man wielded Pence’s independent influence over an administration’s political network and agenda.
Steering Pence’s strategy is Ayers, a 35-year-old operative who is the subject of the most pointed criticism from Trump stalwarts. Ayers regularly joins Pence in meetings with the president and has told associates that if aides in the West Wing cannot stay on top of things, his office will step up, White House officials said. Ayers again unsettled skeptics in the West Wing this month by poaching a politically savvy aide to Trump, William Kirkland, to join the Pence team. Kirkland ran Sen. David Perdue’s 2014 campaign in Georgia, and Trump officials believe he will effectively run a shadow political office for Pence, a setup unheard-of so soon into a new administration.
Pence’s team is aware of the unease within the White House, and Ayers recently told one Republican ally that one reason Pence is so effusive in his public remarks about Trump — he has recently hailed Trump as a “champion” for conservatives and branded the recent tax cuts a “Trump bonus” for America — is to tamp down questions about his loyalty.
Alyssa Farah, a spokeswoman for Pence, said in an email that the vice president’s activities were planned in “close coordination” with Trump and congressional leaders. She said they had formulated a 2018 campaign plan at a Camp David retreat in January and followed the blueprint since then.
“The vice president’s political and fundraising travel advances the president’s agenda by aiding targeted candidates and committees during the midterms, which is what the president asked us to do,” Farah said. “Our team works hand-in-hand with our colleagues and have tremendous respect for the work they do.”
Farah denied that Ayers had made comments about displacing the White House political office. “Nick has never said anything of the sort,” she said. She also said Ayers had not described Pence as being publicly ingratiating to prove his loyalty: “This is false.”
Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs, said in a statement that Pence was vital to the administration’s political strategy. “The vice president’s tireless efforts to protect the majority in the House and expand our majority in the Senate are essential to our legislative agenda,” he said.
Pence and his aides, however, have plainly functioned in many cases as allies of traditional Republican Party leaders, at times checking Trump’s instincts.
In April, after Paul D. Ryan announced he would step down as speaker of the House, Pence urged Trump against endorsing Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican who is the House majority leader, to succeed Ryan. Pence counseled the president to let congressional Republicans work things out on their own, according to Republicans close to the White House and congressional leaders.
The same month, Pence weighed in to deter Trump from intervening aggressively in the race for governor of Florida. The president had endorsed Rep. Ron DeSantis, a vocal defender of Trump and critic of Robert Mueller, on Fox News, in a December tweet, and privately told DeSantis to expect a joint appearance this spring.
But DeSantis faces a contested primary against Adam Putnam, Florida’s agriculture commissioner and a former House colleague of Pence. After allies of Putnam appealed to the vice president, Pence — along with cautious White House aides — argued against further meddling in the race, according to people briefed on the White House deliberations. Trump has yet to appear with DeSantis.
Advisers to DeSantis remain optimistic that Trump will intervene again in the race, despite internal resistance. Even skeptics of Pence have done little to block him from building his own political apparatus, and some concede he is performing a role that has been left more or less vacant. Pence formed a joint fundraising committee with McCarthy and also created his own political action committee, taking in millions of dollars to give congressional candidates.
Jan Brewer, the former governor of Arizona, who introduced Pence at a Phoenix event convened by America First in early May, said he could operate more freely than Trump at this point.
“We really, really appreciate him leading our party in that respect,” Brewer said, adding: “His mission is maybe a little bit different than the president, and he is not under attack 24/7 like the president is.”
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." Arpaio, who is running in a Senate race 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 Pence but said they were drawn to him chiefly because of his association with Trump.
“I don’t know if he can get the nomination or not,” said Lyle Campbell, a retiree living in Scottsdale. “I like Pence very much, but I’d rather have a woman run — I’d rather have the ambassador to the U.N.”
That would be Nikki R. Haley, the former South Carolina governor who currently employs Lerner and intended to retain him as a joint adviser with Pence.
After opening for Trump at the National Rifle Association’s convention in Dallas on May 4, Pence earned appreciative but not overenthusiastic reviews. John Ray, a retired medical-equipment executive from Missouri, called him a useful sidekick.
“He brings to the table staunch support of the president,” Ray said. “And the president needs that.”