WASHINGTON — When President Donald Trump approached his vice president about heading up the coronavirus task force in February as criticism of the White House’s response was reaching a fever pitch, he didn’t sugarcoat the assignment.
In an Oval Office meeting, Trump told Vice President Mike Pence it was a potentially perilous job, both in the difficulty of wrangling federal, state and local bureaucracies and the political fallout for someone with presidential aspirations, according to multiple people familiar with the meeting. Leading the administration’s response during an unpredictable pandemic that could potentially claim the lives of thousands of Americans or more, the president acknowledged, was a thankless task.
But Pence — whose vice presidency until now had largely been defined by his loyalty to Trump and ability to sidestep major White House machinations — didn’t take any time to think it over, the people familiar with the conversation said.
“Yes, sir,” Pence responded without hesitation, immediately stepping into the role, according to an administration official.
It was the second time Pence was the president’s second choice. The former Indiana governor was not Trump’s preferred pick as a running mate in 2016, and the coronavirus task force was initially led by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
As with accepting the secondary spot on the ticket in 2016, becoming Trump’s top candidate to front the most important crisis of his presidency carries potential reward and a hearty dose of risk.
It’s well known, by the president, his allies and people close to Pence, that the vice president has aspirations for seeking the top job in 2024. And while he’s so far won mostly praise for his role in the administration’s coronavirus response — while Trump takes the brunt of criticism — that could easily change in a rapidly morphing crisis that has no end date in sight.
“This is Pence’s moment,” one person close to the White House said.
That can be risky for anyone who works for a mercurial president. So far Pence's leadership of the task force has been shaped by his carefully chosen words and his disciplined approach.
Initially Trump thought being the public face of the daily White House briefings on the pandemic would come with an onslaught of criticism, people familiar with the matter said. But once he saw how much attention the vice president was receiving, Trump decided to start regularly leading the televised daily updates himself, these people said.
Since he tapped Pence to lead the task force, people close to both men say the president has appreciated Pence’s value more than at any time since they entered the White House.
“Trump actually realizes he needs him,” explained one person close to the administration.
It’s a sharp contrast to the initial days of Trump’s presidency, which began with the public learning that the president’s national security adviser had lied to Pence and Trump and other top White House officials knew that but didn’t tell him. Now, people close to Pence say he is one of a handful people in the West Wing with whom the president communicates on a near-constant basis.
“There’s not that many people that the president trusts anymore,” a former White House official said.
The vice president has seemed to take deliberate steps aimed at maintaining his preferred status.
He’s carefully tried to strike a balance between what people close to him said is his “cautious” and “fact-based” approach to public comments and not undermining statements from a president who speaks in sweeping declarations more loosely moored to facts.
Pence typically begins public statements by praising the president’s leadership, and he salts his appearances with credit and accolades for Trump. If he differs from Trump, he does so as if he’s not.
“The president is an optimistic person,” Pence told CNN this week when confronted with some of Trump’s past comments downplaying the threat of coronavirus. He has avoided referring to the virus as “China” or “Wuhan,” phrases the president — and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — have repeatedly used, without drawing attention to the subtle difference.
At times Pence’s role has been as the president’s translator, gently softening the edges of Trump’s statements. When Trump said last week that the country might open up by Easter Sunday, April 12, Pence later explained that the president’s timeframe was “aspirational.”
While Trump has criticized some governors, Pence has praised them. When Trump has oversold the availability of coronavirus testing, Pence has matter-of-factly set more realistic expectations with specific numbers. And when an NBC News reporter asked Trump what he had to say to Americans who are scared, “I say, you’re a terrible reporter,” Trump snapped.
Pence, whose allies describe him as the “cool, calm and collected guy,” later answered the same question by saying he wouldd tell Americans: “Don’t be afraid. Be vigilant.”
At Wednesday’s daily coronavirus briefing, he appeared to take his ability to tap dance around a difficult topic to an extent even the president found noteworthy. After Pence responded to a reporter’s question about plans for the uninsured, Trump marveled at how his vice president was “able to speak for five minutes and not even touch your question.”
“Pence is a loyal soldier’s loyal soldier” as one person close to him said.
Presidential politics in a pandemic
Pence’s role leading the coronavirus task force has in some moments given him a platform to show how he might appear in the top job — at least during a health crisis.
His efforts have also given him something of a second chance at handling a pandemic. As governor of Indiana, Pence came under scrutiny for his handling of an HIV outbreak in 2015 when his reluctance to authorize a needle exchange led to an explosion of cases.
The vice presidency is seen by Pence's allies as an obvious stepping stone to the presidency. Yet until the past six weeks, his portfolio as vice president was considerably low profile, with a schedule heavy on political appearances to help Trump win a second term in November. Now that's all changed.
Well before the coronavirus reached every state in the country and national guidelines were put into place, Pence reshuffled his schedule to make the health outbreak his top priority, postponing all 2020 campaign travel as his own political future was on the line.
It’s been a month now since the vice president campaigned in any fashion, turning all his attention to the pandemic.
It’s not lost on Trump's allies that the man he charged with leading the coronavirus effort also hopes to be his successor, putting Pence in a precarious political situation. If his handling of the crisis is deemed successful, it could become one of his most reliable campaign talking points. If it’s considered a calamity, it could be a central tool for future opponents to use against him.
But those close to the vice president claim he is not at all focused on 2024, and even less so on 2020. “He’s completely focused on the task at hand and not thinking about politics right now,” one such person said.
Aides close to the vice president feel he has, so far, risen to the challenge of leading the coronavirus response. There was not a “clear, coordinated effort” before Pence was put in charge, one administration official said.
“There is no higher priority for the vice president than leading the coronavirus task force at the request of the president,” Pence spokeswoman Katie Miller said. “Vice President Pence has been working tirelessly to elevate public awareness, in addition to bringing all the relevant and necessary agencies to the table to make this one whole of government, whole of America response.”
At a Fox News town hall last month, Trump said Pence is “doing a fantastic job” and “working 20 hours a day or more” on the coronavirus outbreak.
Asked who his best friend in Washington is, Trump demurred and then brought up Pence, knocking down speculation that the president would dump his running mate in 2020.
“I keep hearing I'm replacing him. He's doing a phenomenal job. He's a great guy and a loyal guy, and he works so hard,” Trump said.
Even Nikki Haley, a rumored rival for a potential 2024 campaign, has taken note of Pence’s leadership, in this tweet that many in the vice president’s orbit were surprised and pleased to see. “So proud of my friend, Vice President Mike Pence. He is a former governor and understands what states are able to do during a crisis like this," Haley said. "He has managed this task force and worked with governors in a way that was needed.”