In a snakepit of narcissism and paranoia like the Trump White House, almost everyone is liable to become a target for negative gossip, intrigue, and sharp elbows, often deployed by the boss himself. But I have to admit I didn’t see this particular story line coming, as reported by the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman and Katie Rogers:
In recent weeks, with his electoral prospects two years from now much on his mind, Mr. Trump has focused on the person who has most publicly tethered his fortunes to him. In one conversation after another he has asked aides and advisers a pointed question: Is Mike Pence loyal?
Mr. Trump has repeated the question so many times that he has alarmed some of his advisers. The president has not openly suggested dropping Mr. Pence from the ticket and picking another running mate, but the advisers say those kinds of questions usually indicate that he has grown irritated with someone.
Now asking about Mike Pence’s loyalty to Trump might seem like asking if a dog really likes bacon. Yes, like most Americans, Pence had a pre-Trump history in which he did not yet adore Mr. MAGA, and like most Republicans, he felt compelled to frown a bit at the words Trump undeniably used in the infamous Access Hollywood video. But as veep, Pence has exhibited loyalty that often strays over into the kind of sycophancy that a more reflective man than Trump might consider embarrassingly excessive.
After one of Pence’s more obsequious chores for Trump — stopping by an NFL game just long enough to walk out when players conducting a kneeling protest during the national anthem — conservative columnist George Will echoed a consensus about the former governor’s conduct:
With eyes wide open, Mike Pence eagerly auditioned for the role as Donald Trump’s poodle. Now comfortably leashed, he deserves the degradations that he seems too sycophantic to recognize as such….
No unblinkered observer can still cling to the hope that Pence has the inclination, never mind the capacity, to restrain, never mind educate, the man who elevated him to his current glory. Pence is a reminder that no one can have sustained transactions with Trump without becoming too soiled for subsequent scrubbing.
Pence’s habit of referring to Trump’s “broad shoulders” as the symbol of America’s strength became so pervasive that Jonathan Chait identified 17 examples of its use, and that was as of August of 2017.
So if Pence isn’t loyal enough, who would be? Perhaps an actual poodle?
The Times story does suggest that a problem other than loyalty could be at the root of Trump’s doubts about his Sancho Panza:
[S]ome Trump advisers, primarily outside the White House, have suggested to him that while Mr. Pence remains loyal, he may have used up his utility. These advisers argue that Mr. Trump has forged his own relationship with evangelical voters, and that what he might benefit from more is a running mate who could help him with women voters, who disapprove of him in large numbers.
Enter the specter of Nikki Haley, the recently departed ambassador to the U.N. who is probably the intended beneficiary of such talk.
While Trump has indeed made a lot of white Evangelical voters happy, it’s important to understand Pence’s unique role in reassuring the leaders of that crucial flock that their heathenish president is being guided by godly men. You may have heard about the Evangelical theory that Trump is like the Persian emperor Cyrus, who, in the Hebrew scriptures, was guided by God to promote the interests of His people. There’s a more specific scripture-based idea about Pence, as the Los Angeles Times explained earlier this year:
Pence is regarded by some as a modern version of another Old Testament figure, Daniel, who safeguarded his fellow Jews while functioning as counselor to another pagan ruler, Nebuchadnezzar.
Daniel aided the Israelites by appearing to abandon his Jewishness in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. Pence, the argument goes, sets aside his moral standards to retain access to Trump. From his insider perch, he can do more good for religious conservatives than from the outside. And if he were to take that final step to the Oval Office, then the ends would justify the means.
Pence was a particularly central figure in the most elaborate presentation of the case for white Evangelical fidelity to Trump, the 2017 book The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual Biography, by veteran Christian-right journalists David Brody and Scott Lamb, as I noted in a review of the tome:
You can sense the authors’ nagging doubts, though, perhaps nourished by the new president’s nasty Twitter language and other forms of thuggish behavior toward critics. Near the very end of the book they bring in their star witness for Trump’s inner transformation: Vice-President Mike Pence, the Christian-right warhorse who constantly attests to the president’s reliance on both prayer and the prayer warriors (like Trump’s all-Evangelical Faith Advisory Committee) for whom Pence runs interference.
The possibility of Trump backsliding without the right set of advisers haunted even this most, well, sycophantic of Evangelical takes on the 45th president. So the idea that these same people think Trump can take off the spiritual training wheels and ride into the future without Pence is questionable. And while Republicans are legitimately worried about Trump’s appeal to women in 2020, they are doomed to defeat if Evangelicals don’t stay strongly in his corner. In the 2018 midterms, according to exit polls, the 74 percent of Americans who are not white Evangelicals voted Democratic by a stunning 66/32 margin. Trump needs Pence’s co-religionists even more than they need him.
There’s a whole separate set of questions involving the post-Trump future of the Republican Party; win or lose in 2020, you could see Pence being a formidable candidate for the nomination in 2024, along with Haley and others. But Trump dumping him before facing the voters again doesn’t make a lot of sense, unless he just can’t stand his veep’s company any more.