With President Trump besieged by scandal and seemingly unable to stop tweeting himself into a deeper hole, suddenly the idea of a Mike Pence presidency is being seriously debated again. Several conservative pundits have argued that Republicans should be less hesitant to abandon Trump, since his replacement would be a competent Evangelical who issues threats with his steely gaze, not his Twitter account. However, this week the vice-president got caught in Trump’s web of controversy when a New York Times report suggested he might have lied about when he was informed of the issues surrounding former national security adviser Michael Flynn. On Thursday, New York Magazine’s politics team — Jonathan Chait, Ed Kilgore, Eric Levitz, and Olivia Nuzzi — joined digital deputy editor Jebediah Reed to discuss Pence’s role in the ongoing Trump drama, and what to expect if we find ourselves in a Pence administration before 2020.
Jebediah Reed: Has Pence left a clear fingerprint on the Trump administration so far? Where can we see his influence?
Ed Kilgore: He’s been wheeled in on occasion to deal with House conservatives, like on health care.
Jonathan Chait: I think Pence has had a big role in steering Trump toward conventional right-wing Republican policy. He has mostly ditched the populist economic gestures.
Olivia Nuzzi: And remember, Pence is close with Paul Ryan. I think together, along with more Establishment types like Reince Priebus, they have convinced Trump to behave like a run-of-the-mill Republican in some respects.
Chait: I see Pence’s hand in things like the appointment of Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney.
Nuzzi: Exactly, Jon.
Kilgore: Makes sense, though there’s not a lot of direct evidence that Pence was the key figure.
Nuzzi: Like with all things in this administration, you have to guess a lot.
Eric Levitz: It’s worth emphasizing that absent Pence there’s a very good chance there wouldn’t have been a Trump administration. The mobilization of white Evangelicals helped compensate for many of the campaign’s fundamental weaknesses. If Trump went with his gut and tapped Chris Christie, we might be living in a very different world.
Kilgore: Having Pence on the ticket did a lot to comfort certain kinds of conservatives during the campaign, but probably not as much as Trump’s list of potential SCOTUS nominees.
Levitz: And Trump’s reliance on Pence (and his constituency) has prevented him from moving to the center on social issues, in a way one might have imagined early in the 2016 cycle
Reed: We’ve learned this week that Flynn told the transition team — headed up by Pence — in early January that he was under federal investigation for his work as a lobbyist for Turkey. So Pence might have been dissembling when he said in March that he had just learned of that. Potentially how big a deal is this?
Nuzzi: I would point out this is at least the third time Pence has been put in the position of saying something grossly inaccurate and being humiliated by the actions of this administration. But the question now is really: What did Pence know, and when did he know it? There’s the potential that he will be implicated in all of this, and then the conversation about impeachment becomes very different.
Kilgore: I’m guessing any decisions on Flynn were made by Trump. But keep in mind as well that the identity of the veep matters when impeachment — or what I think is more likely, a coerced resignation — is on the table. It’s no accident Nixon didn’t really start going down the tubes until Agnew resigned.
Levitz: Seems like either Pence was a grossly incompetent manager of the transition, or he knew that they were making a secret agent of the Turkish government their national security adviser.
Nuzzi: Either way, not great for Pence. (One worse than the other, of course.)
Kilgore: To turn around Jeb’s question, do we know of any enemies Pence has in the White House? I don’t.
Levitz: If chatter about President Pence gets much louder, he may make one big enemy
Nuzzi: Maybe some of the women he refuses to have lunch with alone?
Chait: I thought it was only dinner?
Nuzzi: It’s “meals.”
Reed: Politico says that Republicans on Capitol Hill are buzzing about the possibility that, if Trump gets impeached or is forced to resign, we may see a Pence administration before 2020. How should political liberals regard that prospect?
Nuzzi: I think liberals would miss President Trump if Pence were installed. Trump is getting basically nothing done, and is screwing up left and right. Pence has a belief system, he knows what he wants, he knows how to work with Congress. He would be productive. Or much more productive, anyway.
Levitz: I think that would be true if we were talking about a Pence presidency that began on January 20. But a post-impeachment Pence presidency is ’nother ball o’ wax. If Trump is impeached in the near-term, Pence takes the reigns of a fractured party in a midterm year (or close to one).
Chait: People — especially though not exclusively conservatives — are overrating the degree to which Trump is the cause of the party’s difficulty. The issue is that all their policies are incredibly unpopular.
Kilgore: This really gets to the question as to whether Trump’s fucking things up, or the GOP’s terrible agenda is fucking things up.
Chait: Trump didn’t write the health-care bill that’s at polling at 20 percent. Paul Ryan did.
Levitz: If Trump has been forced out of office against his will, you’ll have a large segment of the GOP base that is utterly demoralized. Nixon willingly resigned and had no Twitter account
Kilgore: Pence would be the perfect vehicle, however, for a conservative re-takeover of the GOP on grounds that Trump was just a tragic error.
Levitz: I don’t think Pence is a very strong 2020 candidate.
Nuzzi: No, me neither.
Kilgore: I agree, insofar as he was on the way to losing a gubernatorial reelection in Indiana when Trump put him on the ticket. But still, somebody will have to pick up what’s left of Trumpism after the Great Man has departed from the scene — granting that if Trump is forced out he may continue to preside over a government-in-exile at Mar-a-Lago.
Chait: I think, in general, the psychology of the Republican Party is extremely oriented toward following the leader, and Pence would become a unifying and even beloved figure. There would be endless stories about his steely gaze and Reaganesque qualities.
Reed: Yeah, there is something inherently humiliating about Trump as a figure that the Christian right rallies around. Pence would spare them that.
Kilgore: Speaking of Reagan, the fact that Gerald Ford was able to beat the Gipper in 1976 is relevant to the question of whether Pence could be formidable against, say, Tom Cotton or Ted Cruz.
Chait: The difficulty here is that a world in which two-thirds of the Senate has impeached Trump looks very different from the current one. It could happen, but a lot of things would have changed.
Nuzzi: I don’t think you can overstate how fundamentally Trumpism has changed politics — Republican and otherwise — and it’s hard to say, right now, how Pence would change things in Trump’s absence. You have to wonder how much of the damage Trump has done is truly permanent to the brand. Would the right use Pence as a way of trying to deny that the Trump era ever happened?
Chait: The broader point here is that we’re so disoriented by the chaos of Trump’s Washington that projecting several moves down the line is almost impossible — all the rules seem to have changed.