Political News

Pence takes head-down, sleeves rolled up approach to his first year

Posted January 18, 2018 5:47 p.m. EST

— Mike Pence walked into the West Wing as vice president for the first time on the afternoon of January 20, 2017, with an eye on the history books, but ready for action. He took photographs with his family -- a tradition for the new administration -- then turned to aides and said, "Let's get to work."

Friends and aides to the vice president say that kind of attitude may sound trite, cheesy perhaps, but that's him.

The year that unfolded, however, was filled with palace intrigue, staff shakeups and an unpredictable President Donald Trump.

As the No. 2 to the least popular president at this point in his term, Pence has spent his year threading the needle of being a "loyal foot soldier," as aides have described him, and staying above the fray amid Trump's tumultuous first year.

Pence, for example, still hasn't commented on the disparaging remarks Trump made in a bipartisan immigration meeting last week, where he denigrated African countries and Haiti. A senior White House adviser says Pence's plan is to ignore them.

"His take is, in general, to focus on the policies and agenda, and what it's doing for Americans," the adviser told CNN. "The vice president is focused on the midterms, and he's not going to let any comments deter him from pursuing that."

Unlike Trump, Pence has rarely waded into controversy. The most notable exception was when he walked out of an Indianapolis Colts game in October when some players knelt during the National Anthem.

"I left today's Colts game because @POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem," Pence tweeted afterward.

Longtime Indiana friend and GOP political consultant Mike Murphy said that with Pence, what you see is what you get.

"I think the essence of understanding Mike Pence is simple: Mike Pence takes his faith very seriously, to the extent that he believes nothing happens without God approving it," Murphy told CNN. "It's hard for some people to understand. People were startled that someone who reached the level of politics that he's in is as clean and genuine as he is. He's a very humble guy."

'They've become very close'

Aides to the vice president said that when Trump and Pence are at the White House, they spend hours together having regular lunches and attending presidential events.

"They've become very close," one source close to the vice president said. The vice president's office isn't inclined to share details of the private conversations between #1 and #2, but one person familiar with their conversations said the vice president's "goal is to bring the best information, the best people," every day to Trump.

"The President wants information. He's a huge consumer of information and he wants information from all sides," the source added.

Another senior White House official called the relationship between the two men "very strong" and said Pence played an influential role in the South Asia strategy. Pence made his own trip to the region before the President and relayed his conversations with foreign leaders and his impressions to Trump.

But there was at least one point of tension in their first year -- in August, after The New York Times published a story stating that Pence was running a "shadow campaign" for 2020.

Pence used White House letterhead to rebut the claims to reporters, stating in part that the article was "disgraceful and offensive to me, my family and our entire team."

"The allegations in this article are categorically false and represent just the latest attempt by the media to divide this administration," he added.

And yet there were "multiple phone conversations" between Trump and Pence about the story, according to a source familiar with the talks. Trump expressed his displeasure with The New York Times story and Pence "wanted to make it clear that the story was not accurate." The source added that there was also an "ongoing" conversation in the West Wing about the formation of the pro-Pence super PAC "Great America Committee."

How he spent his time

The vice president traveled domestically and abroad almost every week, something his office says informed his first year. One senior White House official said a spurt of travel in the spring, listening sessions and speeches on health care reform across America were "enormously helpful on the legislative front."

Pence, a former congressman, was often deployed to Capitol Hill to serve as a Trump administration liaison with lawmakers on issues ranging from health care to tax reform. But with the exception of tax reform, Trump's legislative agenda has largely been stagnant, despite Republican control of both the House and Senate.

Pence felt proud of the Obamacare individual mandate repeal in the tax cut package that the administration pushed through Congress at the end of last year, a senior White House official said, as well as the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, the booming economy and the planned move of the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The vice president keeps disappointments closer to the vest. Asked about his reaction to the multiple failed attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare, a person close to Pence said: "He knows that more work is going to be done."

Trump had also named Pence the chairman of the now-defunct voter fraud commission, though one person close to the vice president said he distanced himself from it as the commission fell apart.