Pence’s balancing act as Trump’s No. 2 shows signs of strain amid WH turmoil – Washington Post

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Vice President Pence turned 58 on the same day that two senior intelligence officials fielded questions before a Senate committee about the FBI’s ongoing Russia probe — and one day before fired FBI Director James B. Comey appeared before the same committee to discuss why he believed President Trump had acted inappropriately.

The back-to-back rounds of testimony were merely the latest signs of a presidency in the grip of tumult. But flying down to Houston that morning for an astronaut event, Pence didn’t seem to have a care in the world.

His staff had decorated the middle cabin of Air Force Two with a festive tableau of balloons and streamers, and greeted him with a warbling rendition of “Happy Birthday.” 

“What are you all doing?” the vice president asked with a smile, opening his arms wide and taking in the scene with a combination of faux-surprise and subdued delight. “This is out of control.”  

Donald Trump’s administration did seem to be spiraling out of control, but Pence was — literally and figuratively — 1,400 miles away from the maelstrom in Washington, projecting his de facto stance of serene confidence or willful oblivion, depending on one’s perspective. 

(Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Such is life for Pence, who has earned his boss’s support and confidence one laudatory and skim-milk utterance at a time. On Monday, when the president held his first full Cabinet meeting, Pence set the tone by describing working for Trump as “the greatest privilege of my life” — setting off an avalanche of obsequiousness as the remaining officials took turns lavishing praise on their leader.  

But Pence’s political balance-beam routine is showing signs of strain, according to a portrait of the vice president culled from interviews with 17 aides, advisers, friends, allies and Republican operatives. The vice president himself declined requests for an interview.

As the Russia investigation continues to expand, for example, Pence took steps this week to protect himself, hiring former U.S. attorney and Virginia attorney general Richard Cullen as his own outside legal counsel, just as Trump has retained attorney Marc Kasowitz.

The vice president’s advisers are also discussing bringing on an additional aide to help with strategy — likely either Nick Ayers, a senior strategist to Pence who is chairman of the vice president’s newly launched leadership PAC; Marc Short, who currently heads up legislative affairs in the White House; or Marty Obst, the former manager of Pence’s Indiana gubernatorial campaign who is executive director of the leadership PAC.

The moves seemed aimed, in part, at returning the vice president to his most comfortable role — supporting and defending the president — while also helping to insulate him from the turmoil that has enveloped the White House. Some believe that the vice president is being ill-served by the chronic chaos inside the West Wing and could benefit from a more forceful advocate on his staff.

“It’s tough to be Donald Trump’s vice president, because Trump says flamboyant things and then if you’re the vice president, you have to go on TV and defend things that are hard to defend,” said Stephen Moore, an economist for the Heritage Foundation who served as a senior adviser to the Trump campaign. “He does it incredibly skillfully.”

Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, look over their pet rabbit, Marlon Bundo, as they speak during a May 9 event celebrating National Military Appreciation Month in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

But one senior White House official cautioned against the “toxic brew of a vice president who’s happy to be the No. 2.” 

“One of his greatest strengths is that he never says no — but it’s important that he not be a ‘yes’ man,” this official added, speaking anonymously to offer a more candid assessment.

Pence suffered two high-profile embarrassments that have served to define his role in the administration’s early months: First, when he was misled about former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with the Russians, and again last month when Trump publicly contradicted him about the reasons for firing Comey.

One Pence loyalist described himself as at his “wits’ end,” adding, “There are some organizational gaps.” 

One senior White House adviser said Pence was exasperated with the West Wing communications shop, which sent him out with a half-baked talking point to explain Comey’s ouster. But Pence’s office argues that Trump never undermined Pence with his public comments suggesting he fired Comey over the Russia probe; the president, the Pence team said, was simply adding more context to his decision and that it is not the vice president’s place to explain Trump’s decision-making process. 

“The vice president stands by his comments and enjoys a great working relationship with all departments within the White House,” said Jarrod Agen, a Pence spokesman.

Although Trump and Pence enjoy a warm personal relationship, Pence allies say he faces two stark challenges. First, in a West Wing filled with competing factions vying for supremacy, the best interests of the vice president sometimes get lost. Perhaps more importantly, they say, Pence is simply too loyal and willing to parrot the White House message, even at his own potential peril.  

One former Pence adviser described the vice president’s role within the White House as more of a “super senior staffer” than an empowered executive. Pence, who has an office in both the West Wing and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, is often seen floating in the hallways that connect to the Oval Office, not unlike other staffers. Another former aide mentioned Pence’s almost “military-style orientation toward authority.”

 Faced with the revelation that Flynn had misled him over contacts with Russians, for instance, Pence had to be urged by staff to forcefully voice his frustrations with Flynn to the president, according to two people with knowledge of the incident.  

And while aides said Pence does give Trump his honest and unvarnished counsel in one-on-one meetings, some Pence allies privately wish he would be bolder in asserting his opinions in the group debates the president enjoys.  

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