When Mike Pence made his first visit to Capitol Hill as Donald Trump’s running mate this summer, several Republican senators made a request: They wanted a Vice President Pence in the GOP lunch gathering every week to discuss critical political and policy issues.
Three months later, Pence is expanding his reach beyond setting the agendas for Senate lunches. He is helping pick Trump’s Cabinet members, soothing conservatives’ anxieties and, perhaps most importantly for Trump, turning into the healer-in-chief for a fractured Republican Party.
He may not have the power or mystique of Dick Cheney, but it’s clear that Pence is already assuming a serious and workmanlike role as vice president-elect, shoring up Trump’s weaknesses in governing and intraparty relationships.
It was Pence who made the call on Trump’s behalf to make it clear the president-elect wanted Paul Ryan to remain speaker. It was Pence whose fingerprints are on the selection of at least four of the eight nominees to Trump’s administration so far — Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Georgia Rep. Tom Price, all of whom he quietly elevated behind the scenes. Seema Verma, Trump’s pick to head the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, worked with Pence to design Indiana’s Medicaid expansion.
And it was Pence who helped close the deal with Carrier, which marked the first de facto policy victory of the Trump administration, while his “Art of the Deal” president-elect swept in last week to claim credit before a frenzied audience.
Those assignments are a signal of the weighty role Pence is already playing, and they are serving as reassurance to anxious Republicans eager to see a conservative influence on the White House.
“Mike is heavily consulted and right in the middle of it all,” says a former aide to the Indiana governor. “Mike’s influence is very real, judging from the nature of the picks.”
Pence’s newfound stature stems largely from his connections: As Trump has turned his attention from campaigning to governing, Pence’s experience and relationships, particularly on Capitol Hill, have become more valuable. He remains close to many of his former colleagues, including Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who will be instrumental in delivering on Trump’s agenda and who are invested in empowering the man they consider the voice of the conservative movement in the Trump White House.
Pence is believed to have salvaged the relationship between Ryan and Trump. After weeks of growing tension between Trump and the speaker, Pence made telephone calls to Ryan and Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), informing them that Trump wanted to keep the House leadership intact amid a push to oust Ryan. Ahead of the vote, Ryan and Mulvaney spread the news to members, and Ryan won handily even though his speakership had seemed in jeopardy only days earlier.
Given the likelihood that Trump will train his focus domestically on some of the same issues Pence grappled with as governor — immigration, health care and jobs — the governor is poised to play a similar role going forward. “He’s going to play a more influential role on the policy front than we’ve seen from vice presidents in recent years,” says a former Pence aide.
During the campaign, Pence’s role had been murky — even to him and his aides, who were often confused by the dueling power centers around Trump and the chaotic nature of his universe. On the campaign trail, the two men sometimes seemed out of sync. When Trump announced his running mate in July, he looked apprehensive. Their subsequent clashes on military intervention in Syria and their assessments of Vladimir Putin became a running joke on late-night television.
All that changed after Nov. 8, however, when Trump put Pence in charge of the presidential transition as his focus shifted to assembling a government. And Pence’s importance as a link between the White House and GOP lawmakers is likely to grow as Trump turns to pushing through an ambitious legislative agenda.
Pence himself has cited Cheney, perhaps the most influential vice president in history, as his role model for the job. George W. Bush relied on his No. 2 not just to assemble his government but also to help set the parameters for America’s post-9/11 policies, including the decision to go to war with Iraq. Like Cheney, Pence was chosen for his experience in government and his even temperament.
“He’s wise and temperate, and I’m sure he plays a stabilizing role at moments when the energy is high,” former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who managed Mitt Romney’s transition operation, said of Pence.
While vice presidential nominees typically play the attack dog on the campaign trail, Pence was not selected for that role. Then-campaign Chairman Paul Manafort had urged Trump to bring him on because of his understanding of the federal government. Similarly, Bush wanted Cheney on his team because of his “understanding of how Washington worked,” according to Peter Baker’s chronicle of their relationship, “Days of Fire.”
Cheney came to the job with an understanding not only of the federal government, but also of strategy, tactics and operations after serving in numerous top-level executive positions — among them, White House chief of staff (to Gerald Ford), defense secretary (to George H.W. Bush) and CEO (at The Halliburton Co.).
Pence, by contrast, is more a creature of the conservative movement than of the corridors of power. He has always described himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” He spent years at a conservative think tank and as a talk radio host before getting elected to Congress in 2000 and serving a rocky term as governor. While well versed in conservative politics and ideas, he lacks Cheney’s command of the executive branch and his “killer instinct,” as one Republican lobbyist put it.
“He’s comfortable at Hillsdale College, but not in a boardroom,” said a former GOP congressional aide.
And while Cheney took the job grudgingly after leading an unsuccessful search for Bush’s No. 2, Pence remains upwardly ambitious and viewed a spot on the Trump ticket as an entrée to a future presidential bid.
“He would obviously be a favorite for a future presidential campaign after Trump has been president, and that’s unusual for somebody who didn’t run himself in what was a very crowded and talented field this year,” Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said in July.
Conservatives including the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol and the Club for Growth’s then-president Chris Chocola urged Pence to run for president in 2012, but he opted to go after the Indiana governor’s mansion instead. Had Trump not tapped him as his running mate, many expected him to lose his reelection bid. He had botched the handling of a religious freedom bill that sparked blowback from business leaders and liberal activists, and then agreed to concessions that made conservatives feel betrayed.
In the Republican primaries, Pence also came under enormous pressure to help stop Trump’s momentum by endorsing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Seeing Trump’s popularity in Indiana, Pence offered Cruz a half-hearted endorsement, but also kind words for Trump. The move disappointed some conservatives, who felt Pence helped tip the scales in a pivotal primary battle and prioritized his own reelection bid over the fortunes of the Republican Party.
Trump’s unexpected victory, combined with the tangible signs of Pence’s influence, has conservatives, at least, seeing him in a new light. As one leading conservative said, with Trump in the White House, “beggars can’t be choosers.”
Many Hill Republicans revere him, however. When Pence met last month with the House Republican Conference, which he used to chair, he got an extended standing ovation.
Several House members said they came around to Trump specifically because he put Pence on the ticket. When he was in Congress, his colleagues used to pick on him for wearing short-sleeved collared shirts instead of traditional shirts that cover your arms. When he’d walk into a room, they’d quip, “Sun’s out! Guns out!”
Those relationships will be key to persuading House conservatives, in particular, to help turn some of Trump’s campaign promises, like a costly infrastructure bill, into legislative reality.
People on the transition team, meanwhile, say the operation is running more smoothly since Pence wrested control from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“He’s a calm voice in the room. Stating the obvious here, I think that’s pretty helpful at the moment,” said one Republican close to the transition. “He’s making Trump look good.”
Pence has tried to improve communication between the D.C.-based transition staff and Trump’s top advisers in New York, and he’s held regular meetings in Washington with key transition officials.
“There’s a lot of great things about being an outsider and being from business,” said David Kensinger, a Kansas-based Republican strategist and former Pence adviser. “One of the challenges is you don’t have those personal relationships when trying to move legislation. And Pence brings that to the table, and they’re going to make use of that.”
Rachael Bade contributed to this story.
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