There’s no doubt that Dick Cheney and Joe Biden wielded enormous influence in the last two White Houses but Mike Pence may turn out to be the most influential vice president of all.
Donald Trump has given Pence, whose connections, conservative credentials and knowledge of policy far outstrip those of his boss, a role that has him at the president’s elbow every day, relying on Pence to navigate Washington in ways that other modern presidents have not needed.
“I’m not surprised in the least. President Trump has no government experience,” said Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., who works closely with the White House. “This is a vice president that’s going to be extraordinarily busy.”
Trump doesn’t do much these days without Pence.
Pence is in the Oval Office when Trump calls foreign leaders. He’s in the room when the president meets with business executives, county sheriffs and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He’s there holding the executive orders after the president signs them. And he always has the best seat in the house when Trump holds a news conference.
“It’s good to have a navigator when waters are uncharted,” said Jonathan Felts, who served as White House political director for President George W. Bush and is close to people in the Trump White House.
Still, the former congressman and governor from Indiana hasn’t been able to stop the chaos in the White House, which has included weeks of infighting and leaking, the withdrawal of a Cabinet nominee and the firing of a top aide.
Trump asked for National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s resignation after it became public that Flynn had lied to Pence about the nature of his conversations with Russian officials before Inauguration Day. “I fired him because of what he said to Mike Pence,” Trump said at a news conference Thursday. “Very simple.”
In recent weeks, Democrats have steered most of their criticism of the Trump administration to other members of the team, but they quickly seized on the latest news to call both Flynn and Pence liars.
Pence isn’t the kind of person who would demand that Trump fire Flynn, several people who know him said. But for all Pence’s clout and loyalty, Trump neglected to tell him that the Justice Department had told the White House that Flynn had lied to him. Pence found out two weeks later from news reports.
“Whether or not this was Pence’s call, I’m sure that the vice president had a great deal to do with this,” Nora Bensahel, distinguished scholar-in-residence at American University’s School of International Service, said of Flynn’s firing.
Trump likens himself to a CEO who surrounds himself with multiple advisers, and it’s clear right now that Trump feels comfortable having Pence around. But observers caution it may not end up that way, as the new White House shakes itself out and other advisers learn the ways of Washington.
“Everything is going to depend on who Donald Trump believes is trustworthy,” said Leslie Lenkowsky, a former professor at Indiana University who has known Pence for two decades.
Pence’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump and Pence didn’t know each other well before Trump tapped him to be his running mate last summer. Pence had endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, for president just days before the crucial Indiana primary and had criticized Trump for, among others things, calling for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.
But Trump immediately began relying on Pence, who served in the House of Representatives leadership and was known for getting things done, to provide him with a dose of establishment respectability, expand on policy proposals and even interpret what he’d said in person or on Twitter.
He eventually asked Pence to lead the transition, holding a weekly call with select Republican members of Congress and keeping in regular contact with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and committee chairmen.
“Throughout the presidential campaign and the first few weeks of the new administration, Pence has handled every situation with grace and professionalism,” said Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who flew with Pence recently to West Point on Air Force Two. “He has gone above and beyond to make himself accessible to members of Congress and has been a great source of information and guidance.”
Pence helped Trump fill key appointments with those he was close to, including Dan Coats, nominated to be director of national intelligence, who was a senator from Indiana; Seema Verma, selected to be administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, who had advised Pence on health care when he was governor; and Marc Short, leader of the Legislative Affairs Office, who served as a longtime top adviser to Pence.
For Republicans, Pence was a welcoming and calming opposite to Trump’s abrupt, bombastic personality. “He is the great stabilizer,” said Doug Heye, a veteran Republican strategist who worked on Capitol Hill.
These days, Pence serves as Trump’s liaison to Congress, dining with Republican senators each Tuesday when he’s in town and chatting with lawmakers on the phone.
Republicans eager to enact the conservative agenda they have been advocating for the last eight years consider him their go-to contact in the White House.
He has a reputation for conservatism. He complained about rising budget deficits under the Republican watch and opposed former President George W. Bush’s move to expand Medicare to cover prescription drugs. He unsuccessfully challenged then-House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio after the party lost control of the chamber in 2006.
But Mitch Daniels, who was governor of Indiana before Pence and now serves as president of Purdue University, said people didn’t remember that Pence had tried to create a compromise immigration bill a decade ago that called for more border security but did not propose deporting millions of people who already were in the country illegally.
Now Trump has given Pence his biggest task to date: selling Neil Gorsuch, his nominee to the Supreme Court, to the Senate in a bitterly partisan atmosphere.
He’s giving speeches, appeared on Sunday talk shows and personally escorted Gorsuch to the Capitol to meet with senators ahead of his confirmation hearings.
“Things that are brand-new to the president are long suit to Vice President Pence,” Daniels said. “The vice president knows things and people he (Trump) doesn’t. It seems like the president realizes that and is taking advantage of that.”
Franco Ordoñez contributed to this article.
This story was originally published February 21, 2017 6:00 AM.