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Walking Shadow: The Riddle of Mike Pence
The VP isn't Trump's supporter. He's his property.
“He is a liar, the demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. His attack is psychological, Damien. And powerful.”
—Father Merrin, The Exorcist
FEW CHARACTERS in the Trump universe are as enigmatic as Michael Richard Pence. Who is this guy, really? What lurks behind those impassive eyes? What thoughts fire beneath that imperturbable robot’s dome? Is there any softness at all beneath the carapace of white hair? In the practiced cadence of that hypnotic voice, what is actually being communicated? For four full years this poor player—this bad actor!—has strutted and fretted his hours upon the national stage, and managed to signify…nothing. The real Mike Pence is a walking shadow.
Since his emergence as the running mate in the summer of 2016, Pence has been presented as a sort of compromise candidate—someone outside Donald John Trump’s incestuous inner circle. A chapter in Tom LoBianco’s fine Power & Piety: Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House explains the chaotic VP selection process: There was great reticence on the part of Trump to tap the Indiana governor; he preferred Chris Christie or Newt Gingrich, both of whom he had relationships with. It was only when then-campaign chair Paul Manafort contrived for Trump to spend the night in Indianapolis, as discussed, that Trump finally relented. There is a palpable awkwardness in that first interview of them together as running mates—almost like both men regret their decision:
Conventional wisdom held that Pence—former GOP Congressman; Evangelical Christian—was a concession to establishment Republicans, as well as the religious right. His presence was said to ease their concerns about the monster at the top of the ticket. To that end, his job has been to translate Trump’s noxious bombast into something palatable to both of those demographics. And if he has to lie to get the point across, so be it. “He didn’t really mean that,” Pence assures us, in his soothing, radio-host voice. “He really means this.”
In effect, the VP is a glorified press secretary, a Sean Spicer or Sara Huckabee Sanders or Kayleigh McEnany—just another foot soldier in Trump’s army of soulless gaslighters. He’s a handsome guy (as Trump’s male supporters never tire of telling us), he has gravitas, and, most importantly, he is the most skillful liar in the Beltway—which puts him in the running for the most skillful liar on earth. His forked tongue is positively Satanic. (What’s the line from The Usual Suspects? “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” The fly in his hair was trying to tell us something!)
The difference between Pence and the titular press secretaries is that the former is first in the line of succession. This is an obvious but significant fact. Because another lie we are told about Pence is that he is highly ambitious and wants, above all, to be president himself. His actions as Vice President, however, bely this. For the entire Trump term, there have been calls for the 25th Amendment, which establishes a mechanism for the removal of an incapacitated president. Pence, as Vice President, would be the one to make that move. There has not even been a hint of him doing so. Even now, he is far more likely to pardon Trump than to eighty-six him. It can’t be because he thinks Trump has done a bang-up job.
That makes two false narratives the media feeds us about Mike Pence: First, that he is independent of Trump. Second, that he is motivated by his own White House ambitions. There may be elements of truth in both of those narratives, as in any effective disinformation campaign. But the riddle of Mike Pence is easily solved when we discard the falsehoods and see him for what he is: owned. He is Trump’s property. Pence is to Trump as Trump is to Putin.
To get you to play ball, mobsters make too-good-to-be-true offers. Maybe they shower you with money. Maybe they put you on the ticket in a national election. In exchange, they ask for “a favor, though.” Look the other way when members of your organization are criming. Tell a lie or two on national TV. Once you’re in, you’re in. They own you for life. You can’t ever break free. Because now they really have something on you. They can make any request of you they like. Then the offers they make are the kind of offers you can’t refuse.
This, I submit, is what happened to Mike Pence. It was Paul Manafort, remember, that bosom friend of mobsters and spies, who installed him on the ticket. Once that vampire was allowed inside the house, Pence was gradually exposed to more and more crime—so much crime, his only recourse was to continue aiding and abetting. As we shall see, it started small and grew, culminating in the sabotage of the coronavirus task force that led to the death of 335,000 Americans and counting. It may yet include the ultimate “offer you can’t refuse:” a full presidential pardon for a resigned Donald John Trump—or, if the Stalin-loving Fascists at Rasmussen have their way, outright sedition in the U.S. Capitol. And Pence has no choice but to comply.
How do I know this? Am I privy to some covert missive? A tranche of hacked AOL emails, perhaps? A secret source? No. The truth, like Pence himself these last four years, has been hiding in plain sight. We need only look at what he did during his time as Vice President—and, more tellingly, what he chose not to do.
On February 5, 2020, the Senate voted to acquit Donald John Trump on the charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress—crimes of which he was clearly guilty. The mechanism to remove Trump from office and replace him with Pence—who was presumably more palatable to establishment Republicans, and certainly to the religious right—was handed to them on a proverbial silver platter. Why did they not use it? Of all the Trump mysteries, this one, to me, is the most vexing.
At the time, the novel coronavirus raging in Wuhan Province was already in the United States; all 50 Senators knew damned well how much of a threat it posed—to American lives, to the economy, to their own re-election chances. Why did they trust Trump with the pandemic response? There is an alternate reality in which Mike Pence becomes president on February 5, 2020, fires the inept Trumpers in the West Wing, empowers Dr. Fauci, presides over a successful pandemic response, and beats Biden in November. Republicans could have had that outcome. Instead, they stuck with the hapless crook, a fake conservative they all privately detest—and Pence’s obsequious support for Trump never wavered.
This made no sense at the time, before we were all in masks. It makes even less sense in hindsight, as covid-19 claims 3,000 American lives each day. Why did the GOP not jettison Trump? Were they really scared of mean tweets, and his angry base of Fox News zombies?
Put another way: Why did the GOP not elevate Pence? And—crucially—why did Pence himself not turn on Trump at that moment, and take the White House for himself?
The image of Pence as separate from Trump—as a conservative Voice of Reason, a West Wing ombudsman—was carefully crafted, but is, like the notion that he is some sort of sex object to suburban women, pure fantasy. He is shackled to Trump in the same way that Rudy Giuliani is: cutting the cord assures mutual destruction. Rudy knows about Trump’s work as a confidential informant; Trump knows about Rudy’s ties to the Gambino crime family; thus, omertà. This is how mobsters operate, as Lincoln’s Bible keeps telling us.
On June 20, 2016, Trump fired his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, and replaced him with Paul Manafort. At the time, this was widely regarded as a savvy move by Trump. In the spring of 2016, remember, there was the threat of a brokered convention, and Manafort had experience managing the last brokered GOP convention, back in 1976. He was painted as a respectable, establishment type. The press didn’t much bother reporting on his work with dictators—especially his most recent gig in Ukraine, a veritable Petri dish of mobsters and spies, and his close association with the oligarch Oleg Deripaska or the Russian intelligence officer Konstantin Kilimnik.
A month later, a mysterious flat tire on “Trump Force One” grounded Candidate Trump in Indiana. “Some aides saw God’s hand at work,” the Pence biographer LoBianco writes; “others saw Paul Manafort’s. Regardless of the reason, Trump was stuck in Indianapolis overnight.” Trump’s family, including Jared Kushner, flew in for the subsequent sit-down. The next day, July 15, Manafort got his way: Pence was on the ticket.
But why did Manafort want him? In 2016, Mike Pence was an unpopular Midwestern governor up for re-election that November. His term at the Statehouse was beset by minor but telling scandals. There was the use of campaign funds to pay his mortgage. There was the use of a private AOL account to conduct official business. There was his obdurate support of the ill-conceived “religious objections” bill that cost his state thousands of jobs. And there was the tragic HIV outbreak in southern Indiana, borne of Pence’s contempt for, and ignorance of, Planned Parenthood. One also wonders about his private life. There have long been rumors about Pence’s sexuality—rumors only enhanced by his staunch anti-gay political views. Nothing in LoBianco’s biography suggests that the whispers are true; if anything, the Vice President seems to have an uxorious fondness for “Mother,” who wears the pants in the family, and with whom he went from conservative Catholic to Born Again Christian. But if all this smoke really does lead to some fire, it’s safe to assume that Paul Manafort knows all about it.
What did Manafort see in Pence? A distressed asset with perennial money problems. Blindingly ambitious, but on the way out. Comfortable with the media, unafraid of taking unpopular positions, but soft, quiet: “Rush Limbaugh on decaf,” as his radio show was described. And, just maybe, a homophobe whose fervent prayers to the heterosexual gods went unanswered.
In short, Paulie Ostrich Coat saw a mark he could easily take control of.
After the election, Pence chaired the Trump Transition Team, which members included Mike Flynn, Rudy Giuliani, Jeff Sessions, K.T. McFarland, Steve Bannon, Devin Nunes, Steve Mnuchin, Newt Gingrich, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Rebekah Mercer, Kellyanne Conway, Chris Christie, Chris Collins, Pam Bondi, Reince Priebus, Jared Kushner, and Ivanka, Eric, and Donald Trump, Jr.—the Legion of Doom, basically. To date, only three of these people have been indicted; two have been tried, convicted, and then pardoned. I expect the number of indictments and conviction to increase in the coming months. Regardless, the Transition Team was a Who’s Who of traitors—and Pence was in charge.
Pence’s first big lie was in January 2017, in an appearance on Face the Nation. John Dickerson asked if anyone on the Trump campaign had meetings with Russians. “Of course not!” an indignant Pence snapped.
In early 2017, the vice president claimed he learned that then–national security adviser Mike Flynn, his former Trump transition team deputy, had discussed sanctions in his December meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak by reading the exclusive in The Washington Post. The rest of the Trump team was aware weeks before the story broke. In her congressional testimony, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates said Flynn was a liar and “compromised with respect to the Russians.” Yates was urgently concerned that Pence was “making false statements to the public” regarding Flynn that “we knew to be untrue.”
Whatever his aw-shucks demeanor, Pence must have feared legal exposure, because he retained some very good attorneys not long after taking office:
It was around this time in 2017 that Republican wunderkind Nick Ayers became Pence’s chief of staff. So impressive was the 34-year-old political strategist that Trump tried to poach him, offering him the gig as White House Chief of Staff in December 2018. Ayers…turned him down—and, for good measure, skipped town. And look, Ayers might have had really good reasons to snub a once-in-a-lifetime job like that. But the most logical reason is that he saw something that spooked him and hightailed it out of Dodge.
Maybe what Ayers saw was underhanded shit in Ukraine? That embattled ally nation is where Rudy Giuliani was spending an inordinate amount of time in 2019, setting up “cybersecurity” operations and manufacturing dirt on Hunter Biden. Ukraine was where Energy Secretary Rick Perry, one of the “three amigos,” was making deals. And that was the country whose new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was being extorted by Donald John Trump—a brazen abuse of power that led to his impeachment.
Despite the requisite public denials, Mike Pence knew about all of this. To prep for a meeting with the Ukrainian president in Warsaw on September 1, 2019, Pence read, or at least was given a transcript of, Trump’s July 25 call with Volodymyr Zelensky. “We focused entirely,” he said later, “in my meeting with President Zelensky of Ukraine, on the issues that President Trump has raised as a concern, namely the lack of support from European partners for Ukraine and real issues of corruption in Ukraine.” As I wrote in Newsweek:
When asked point-blank whether he was aware of Trump shaking down Zelensky to implicate Joe Biden, the former debate team champion twisted himself into a rhetorical pretzel to avoid a direct answer. “I never discussed the issue of the Bidens with President Zelensky,” Pence said. His evasive response to that explicit question is clearly not the same as “I had no advance knowledge of Trump's desire to smear Biden.”
It strains credulity to believe that Pence was unaware of Trump's crooked intentions. If Bill Taylor and Fiona Hill and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman and Tim Morrison and Gordon Sondland and John Eisenberg and Mike Pompeo and Rick Perry and Rudy Giuliani and John Bolton and the still-anonymous whistleblower all knew what Trump was up to regarding Biden and Ukraine, how could Trump's second banana possibly be in the dark?
Also of note: Pence had his own call with Zelensky—a fact that Trump, tellingly, brought up in the press. “I think you should ask for Vice President Pence's conversation,” he tattled to reporters, “because he had a couple of conversations also.” Why would Trump do this, if not as a not-so-subtle warning? Even if Pence wanted to come clean during impeachment, when a statement by him condemning the President would have led directly to him taking the White House, he knew that he could not, because he was complicit in the same crime. Trump had him by the proverbial short hairs.
In February 2020, with the pandemic mounting, Trump shelved HHS Secretary Alex Azar and put Mike Pence in charge of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. As I tweeted at the time, the VP had every incentive to succeed:
Mike Pence did not succeed. Indeed, Mike Pence did nothing at all in that position to even attempt to stop the spread. The novel coronavirus pandemic that happened on his watch made the HIV outbreak in Indiana that also happened on his watch look like a “best practice” that should be taught in college public health classes. He did what he always does—he fucked up and then lied about it.
As the pandemic raged on, Pence did not adjust his position. To the contrary, he doubled down, even as staffers in his office came down with the virus. He attended maskless rallies in retirement communities. He and his wife refused to take appropriate caution when debating Kamala Harris. He’s still taking unnecessary risks, putting innocent people in needless danger. Maybe he thinks we can pray away the Rona, like he thinks we can pray away the gay?
In the dying days of the Trump administration, Pence has kept his physical distance from the President—probably on advice of the aforementioned counsel, who, being familiar with federal bribery statutes, would not want Trump to overtly offer a resignation-for-pardon quid pro quo. But the VP has remained as devoted to Trump as he was four years ago.
And Mike is not the only Pence involved with the Trump crime family. His brother, Greg Pence, a Congressman from Indiana, signed on to the seditious lawsuit advocating the overthrow of the election. The VP’s nephew, John Pence, is on the board of American Made Media Consultants, an LLC that was the beneficiary of some $700 million in Trump campaign spending. Lara Trump is also on the board. “The L.L.C. has been criticized for purposefully obscuring the ultimate destination of hundreds of millions of dollars of spending,” the New York Times reports. “Ms. Trump is married to Eric Trump, one of the president’s sons. Ms. Trump was initially intended to be the president of the entity, and Mr. Pence the vice president of it, the documents show.” We don’t yet know all the facts, but this sure has the smell of a shell corporation designed to siphon money from campaign donations—a small reward, perhaps, for four years of eating shit. Or maybe it’s yet another way to yoke the President and the Vice President together, so that the latter will never rat out the former.
This sort of relationship is easily recognizable to anyone who binge-watched The Sopranos during quarantine—or who read Goethe. We’re just not used to seeing it in this context. The Vice President of the United States is supposed to be the President’s successor, not his property. And that’s what Mike Pence is.
This is not sycophancy. This is ownership.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore. Governor Mike Pence speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the Mesa Convention Center in Mesa, Arizona, 2016.