On a videoconference call Monday morning with the nation’s governors and the White House, New Mexico’s first term governor Michelle Lujan Grisham lost her cool as weeks of frustration boiled over. According to multiple people on the call, Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, lashed out at President Donald Trump over chemical shortages that were making it impossible for her state to expand testing for coronavirus. Despite promises from the federal government, nothing had been fixed.
As she confronted the President over the problem, things got tense quickly.
Then Mike Pence spoke up. The Vice President deescalated the confrontation by saying he would personally follow up with Lujan Grisham. Within 30 minutes of the call ending, the first-term Democratic governor got a private phone call from Pence, according to an aide for Lujan Grisham, who said the call went a long way toward engendering some goodwill.
“She appreciated his commitment to getting us what we need to expand testing to the extent the governor wants,” said the aide. Within a couple days, state and private health labs in New Mexico said they were expanding testing.
Pence’s intervention is a good illustration of the role he’s played since being put in charge of the administration’s coronavirus task force late last month. While still careful to defer to Trump, Pence has asserted himself in more subtle ways, bringing a healthy dose of level-headedness, political experience and in some ways a sense of humanity to the job.
When Trump decided to task Pence with running the government’s disjointed coronavirus response, some in Washington wondered whether the President was handing off a ticking time bomb to his second-in-command — and giving himself an easy scapegoat should the situation get out of hand.
But in the three weeks since, Pence has largely risen to the occasion. White House officials have been reassured to have Pence in charge, and he’s gotten mostly good marks from governors and public health officials he’s worked with. That includes some of the President’s most strident political opponents, many of whom have been impressed by Pence’s communicativeness and responsiveness.
“I think it had a great impact on kind of focusing the mind,” a senior White House official said. “It’s the Vice President of the United States at the head of the table.”
This isn’t to say everything’s gone smoothly. The federal government still does not have a handle on the scale of the pandemic in the US due to early missteps and insufficient testing. Hospitals are beginning to express serious concerns about shortages of crucial medical equipment, from protective gear to ventilators.
Pence himself hasn’t always been able to avoid the administration’s chaotic response. He struggled to clean up the confusion about the European travel restriction following Trump’s widely panned Mar. 11 address to the nation. Pence also claimed on Mar. 3 that “any American can be tested” for the coronavirus, even as problems of lack of access have persisted for weeks since.
Pence and his team initially struggled to rally the White House staff to what was quickly becoming the top priority. With outgoing White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney all-but powerless to lead, Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short turned to someone with more influence and firepower than the vice president himself: Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, to mixed results.
Still, Pence’s leadership on coronavirus is undoubtedly the most high-profile moment of his vice presidency and has been a shot in the arm for his political standing. Long seen as a bit player in the daily drama of the White House, Pence has largely been content in his role as loyal sidekick, allowing for no daylight with Trump as he collects the trust of Trump’s loyal political base.
But now, the former Indiana governor with indisputable presidential ambitions finds himself in his most presidential role to date, particularly has Trump has ceded the spotlight. One of the most visible impacts Pence has had is his decision to bring back the daily press briefings, which had vanished at the White House over the past year. It’s all part of what Pence spokeswoman Katie Miller said is the Vice President’s “mission” to provide transparency amid this crisis.
During his near-daily appearances at the White House briefing room podium, Pence has exuded qualities that aren’t exactly Trump’s strong-suit: calm, organized, collaborative.
“I do think that Americans see him probably in a different role than they’ve seen him before. It’s a reassuring leadership role,” a senior administration official said. “And he’s been able to communicate to the American people with a calming presence.”
Working with governors
More than anyone, the nation’s governors — who are all dealing most directly with containment and surveillance of the virus — have had a front-row seat to Pence’s leadership.
“I think quite honestly one of the smartest moves, one of the best things the President did was put Mike Pence in charge of this operation,” said Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican and the chairman of the National Governors Association.
Hogan, a Republican who has nonetheless criticized Trump both in general and specifically on the President’s coronavirus response, said Pence has done a better job communicating with the public than Trump.
“The Vice President speaks with more clarity and more directness. You can tell he’s leading the team,” said Hogan. “The Vice President just knows more detail.”
Pence has also helped improve relations with some of the country’s Democratic governors who, while not fans of Trump, have forged a basic understanding with the Vice President, a former governor himself.
That’s been particularly notable with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, who has been one of the Trump administration’s most outspoken critics over the response to the virus. The relationship between Pence and Cuomo has been fairly positive, particularly after the two met on Feb. 28 and testing in New York was rolled out, according to a senior aide to Cuomo.
There are signs Pence’s good working relationship with Cuomo may be paying off. After days of a contentious back-and-forth between Trump and Cuomo, the two New Yorkers appear to have buried the hatchet, with Trump saying on Tuesday that Cuomo is doing a “really great job” in the Empire State, where the coronavirus outbreak has been particularly bad.
Pence has also helped focus the administration’s response, making early moves to add several key officials to the task force including the head of the FDA, the Surgeon General and the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. Administration officials working on coronavirus were most grateful for his quick decision to appoint Dr. Deborah Birx, who previously led the US’s global anti-AIDS campaign, as the coronavirus response coordinator.
Pence has primarily viewed his role as two-fold, a senior administration official said: marshaling a whole-of-government effort from the inside while also serving as the public and reassuring face of the government response.
Pence aides also tout his longstanding relationship with Trump — forged over weekly lunches and a track record of unfailing loyalty — as key to Pence’s effectiveness. During the coronavirus epidemic, a senior administration official said Trump and Pence speak multiple times a day, with Pence becoming a two-way vector for information between Trump and the task force.
“His job is to bring the decisions — the important ones — to the President,” the official said.
Still limited by Trump
Even so, some officials say Trump’s own off-the-cuff remarks in recent weeks have undermined Pence’s image as a commanding leader of the task force.
For Democrats on Capitol Hill, Pence’s role as the head of the coronavirus task force has been seen as more as a conduit of information than the person in charge. Multiple Democrats who spoke with CNN said Pence’s office has been responsive to questions and getting information to offices when pressed, but that ultimately Pence had been undermined by the President’s shifting messages.
“Senators appreciate what the Vice President is doing,” one Democratic congressional aide told CNN, noting that at a recent lunch, the Vice President and his team stuck around for roughly 45 minutes fielding questions on coronavirus.
But the problem has often been one of mixed signals and insufficient follow-through, say aides close to Democratic state and federal officials. Even the aide to Lujan Grisham told CNN that Pence’s call back on testing materials Monday was atypical of the Trump administration’s interaction with governors.
“There’s not always follow-through,” the aide said Tuesday. “But yesterday there was.”
Behind closed doors, top officials including Dr. Anthony Fauci and HHS Secretary Alex Azar say Pence has done a good job communicating the herculean task ahead, but aides say at times those comments have been dwarfed by something the President says hours later.
“Mr. Pence has a really uncanny ability to make you feel like your concerns are registering without him doing anything about it,” said the Democratic congressional aide. “Like everything with this administration and so many senators learned this with the shutdown, nobody speaks for the President except for the President himself.”