Mike Pence described in book as Trump’s bootlicking `Bobblehead’
WASHINGTON – As Mike Pence headed to the airport on his way to test his chemistry with Donald Trump in July 2016, he questioned the wisdom of auditioning to be Trump’s running mate.
Pence anxiously called Kellyanne Conway, the pollster he shared with Trump, to express his concerns, according to a new book.
Conway told him there was no going back.
“You crossed the Rubicon,” she said, according to Tim Alberta’s “American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War.”
The book, which came out this month, tells the story of Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party at the end of a decade-long GOP civil war. One of the main plot lines is Pence’s transformation as well.
Alberta, chief political correspondent for Politico Magazine, describes Pence as mutating from one of “the most intellectually sovereign voices in all of Washington” to a No. 2 so servile that “some of his longtime friends were left to wonder (only half-jokingly) whether the president had blackmail on him.” Capitol Hill Republicans dubbed him “the Bobblehead” for his bootlicking and solemn nodding routine whenever Trump talked.
“Nobody expected Pence to make a show of publicly rebelling against the president,” Alberta wrote. “What they did expect was a token of intellectual and ideological consistency rather than unabashed allegiance to all things Trump.”
Pence’s reward for his “deal with the devil”? Alberta credits him with pulling the levers in the early months of the administration, including figuring prominently in the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, convincing Trump to take specific actions against abortion and for “religious liberty,” and stocking federal agencies with longtime allies and kindred spirits.
Waiting in the wings
Pence is also waiting patiently in the wings for his turn to lead the GOP, “certain that his dutiful subservience will be rewarded,” Alberta wrote.
In a public discussion of his book at the National Press Club Wednesday, Alberta said he came away with more sympathy for Sen. Ted Cruz than he expected – and less for Pence.
After battling Trump in the 2016 primary, Cruz did not endorse him at the GOP convention. Instead, he urged Republicans to “vote your conscience” – as the arena exploded in boos.
As for Pence, while any number of Republicans have made accommodations to survive, Alberta said, Pence’s contortions have been “so far beyond what others have done.”
Pence’s spokeswoman declined to comment.
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Alberta’s criticisms of Pence cut even deeper when compared with how he writes about Mitch Daniels, the Republican who preceded Pence as Indiana’s governor and who once had presidential aspirations of his own.
Daniels, Alberta wrote, had been “arguably the most effective governor in the country,” while Pence struggled during his one term. Alberta also calls Daniels’ 2011 speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference “one of the more compelling speeches by a Republican in the twenty-first century.” Daniels’ vision, he wrote, was grounded in “realism and reasonableness” and elevated common purpose over cultural warfare.
“But few chose to see it,” Alberta wrote. “Trump’s alternative, a loud, swaggering, confrontational bravado, was a better fit for the Republican base.”
It was not, however, a good fit for Pence – at least initially.
Alberta flashes back to Pence’s Capitol Hill days, where as a leader of House conservatives he opposed the 2008 financial industry bailout “because free-market principles meant nothing if they could be jettisoned at the first sign of a crisis.”
As the 2016 campaign got under way in early 2015, Alberta describes Pence as opposed to “the nakedly nativist instincts of some on the right who called themselves Christians while showing no compassion for some of the most vulnerable among us.”
Even as Trump was about to clinch the GOP nomination in 2016 by winning Indiana’s May primary, Pence “loathed Trump, his longtime friends and allies whispered at the time.” Pence, a true believer who “approached politics with a zealot’s sincerity,” thought Trump’s personal indiscretions and campaign rhetoric hurt the conservative cause.
But Pence also saw Trump “channeling voters’ anxieties in a way he had never witnessed.” And, the longer Pence watched Trump, Alberta wrote, “the more he gravitated toward this sense of power.”
Still, Pence sought reassurance that it wouldn’t be career suicide to merge with Trump. Former Rep. David McIntosh, who had preceded Pence in his congressional district and now heads the free-market Club for Growth, assured his longtime friend that “you’re still going to be Mike Pence.”
(After the election, however, when Pence defended a package of tax breaks and incentives to keep some jobs at a Carrier Corp. factory in Indiana from moving to Mexico, McIntosh began to question whether Pence would be “true north in the administration,” according to Alberta.)
Pence’s bigger test was, of course, the release during the campaign of the Access Hollywood recording in which Trump had bragged about grabbing women’s genitals.
Pence’s wife, Karen, threatened to no longer appear in public if her husband stayed on the ticket, Alberta wrote.
Letter to Trump
Initially inconsolable, Pence was persuaded by advisers that sticking with Trump was his only option, according to the book. Pence did write Trump a letter, describing the impact of the tape on him and Karen.
“He took a little time. It’s okay. I understand. Many people did,” Trump told Alberta about Pence’s brief withdrawal from the campaign trail. “You know, a couple of days off, it didn’t make an impact on me. Because I had people who took a whole lifetime off.”
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Pence convinced himself that Trump had changed since the 2005 recording, was genuinely contrite and had become a follower of Christ. But Alberta didn’t buy it.
“This is when the BS dictator starts to beep,” he wrote. “Nobody who has spent time with Trump has ever walked away believing him to be a Christian.”
When Trump won, however, Pence “felt a certain absolution” after having projected his unfaltering belief that Trump was destined to be a pivotal character in the American story.
‘Eyes and ears’ across government
Pence, for his part, became “cunningly effective” in stealthily making his mark. While loyalists expected to get jobs in Pence’s immediate orbit, for example, Pence wanted them sprinkled throughout the executive branch so he could have “eyes and ears across the government.”
In one scene in the book, Cruz’s campaign manager laughs with Jared Kushner about Trump tapping Mike Pompeo to be CIA director despite Pompeo’s having accused Trump, during the primary, of being immoral and possessing dictator-like qualities.
“No! That was him? We’ve got to take it back!” Trump cried. “This is what I get for letting Pence pick everyone.”
Pence’s strategy of quietly working behind the scenes while assigning all credit to Trump paid off – even as his staff constantly worried about not offending Trump.
“Trump quickly came to trust his second in command above all others, prizing Pence’s unwavering fidelity and discretion,” Alberta wrote.
As examples of his sway, Alberta wrote that Pence coaxed Trump not to move on, but to try again, after the House initially rejected a bill to repeal Obamacare. After Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican who killed the health care bill in the Senate, died last year, Trump agreed to lower the White House flag to half-staff only after “spirited lobbying” from Pence and then-chief-of-staff John Kelly.
Alberta contrasts Pence’s merger with Trump with the opposite path taking by former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, Pence’s close friend who had shared both an ideology as well as a standard of personal decency in their treatment of others. Finding himself out of step with the Trump-dominated GOP, Flake decided not to seek re-election in 2018 – and Democrats picked up his seat.
While Trump has bragged about having “retired” Flake, the Arizona Republican does not condemn his former compadre for teaming up with Trump.
“We’ve taken different paths, but I’m not trying to suggest that mine is a more virtuous path than his. He’s in a position with considerably more power than I have, and there’s something to be said for that,” Flake told Alberta. “If he can influence the president in a positive direction, then maybe that was a wise choice.”
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