If Donald Trump was looking to move past reports that he was uncomfortable with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate and explored dropping him as late as early Friday morning, their first event together on Saturday did not do it.
After a rambling 28-minute speech that frequently turned to topics unrelated to Pence, Trump closed his introduction by effectively mocking his running mate as a slippery politician who bent to powerful interests on the eve of the Indiana primary to support Trump’s opponent, Sen. Ted Cruz.
“Governor Pence, under tremendous pressure from establishment people, endorsed somebody else,” Trump said in New York. “But it was more of an endorsement for me.”
Pence’s endorsement of Cruz was widely regarded as tepid at the time and he took pains to praise Trump in announcing it. It was an awkward moment that came at a time of intense division with the GOP, but one that Trump felt was worth recalling seconds before bringing Pence onstage. Trump called it “the greatest non-endorsement I ever received.”
That was one of several references to the primaries, which Trump seems incapable of moving past in speeches and interviews even as the party's convention is set to start Monday. Trump again boasted that he received more raw votes during the race than any past GOP nominee, adding that he “won in a landslide” and that it “wasn’t close.”
“One of the primary reasons I chose Mike was I looked at Indiana and I won Indiana big,” Trump said at one point. “Remember, Indiana was going to be the firewall. That’s where Trump was going down.”
Turning to more recent events, he bragged how he had “crushed immediately” an effort by some GOP delegates to defeat him at the convention's Rules Committee. This came moments after he said a top reason he chose Pence was “party unity, I have to be honest.”
Pence was not onstage with Trump during this extended tribute to Trump’s own greatness, and Trump left the stage before Pence began his own remarks.
Trump called Pence “my first choice,” which seemed like a direct rebuttal to reports by NBC News and others that he made phone calls late into the night Thursday asking confidants whether he could choose someone else before announcing the Pence pick via Twitter in the morning.
At times, Trump seemed to have to remind himself of the event's purpose, saying "...back to Mike Pence" after discussing subjects like a building project in Washington, D.C. and a recent conversation with a friend who specializes in outsourcing.
He called Pence a “highly talented executive” with an “incredible family” who would confront Islamic terrorism abroad. Other than broad pronouncements, though, there wasn’t much to explain their apparent mutual affection.
Trump professed amazement at Pence’s success bringing unemployment down to 5 percent in Indiana, which is almost exactly the same as the national rate of 4.9 percent. Trump has often told supporters in speeches that standard measures of unemployment are “phony numbers,” and has falsely claimed that the “real” unemployment rate is as high as 42 percent.
In his own remarks, Pence showed why he was regarded by many as such a promising choice. He offered a focused and articulate message recounting his own humble roots and promising that “strong Republican leadership can bring about real change.” It was the kind of speech that might soothe traditional Republicans skeptical of Trump — and exactly the kind of speech Trump has avoided while cultivating the outsider image his supporters have come to love. In some ways, Pence seemed to be speaking from another reality.
But even Pence managed to draw attention to the odd circumstances surrounding their union. He described how he “got the call” from Trump Wednesday asking him to be vice president.
That account of Trump’s decision contradicted not only news reports of Trump's late waffling, but Trump’s own remarks on Thursday evening to Fox News, in which he said he was still deciding between Pence, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. His staff had also shot down reports earlier that day that Trump had made a final decision.
It will take all of Pence’s political skills to sell voters on the GOP nominee’s vision while navigating the often tumultuous environment surrounding the campaign. But, as Trump made abundantly clear on Saturday, it’s a supporting role. Even at an event exclusively devoted to introducing his running mate to America, the focus will always be on Trump’s victories, Trump’s enemies, and Trump’s inner greatness.