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Pence, As Coronavirus Task Force Head, Aims To Show He Can Manage A Crisis


Today, Vice President Mike Pence is travelling to Minnesota to highlight COVID-19 research at the Mayo Clinic. It has been two months since President Trump put Pence in charge of the coronavirus task force at the White House. It is the highest profile role the vice president has taken on in the administration. But it comes with some political peril. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Vice President Mike Pence spends a lot of time on the phone with the nation's governors. He's had 13 conference calls with all 50 of them since late February. And there are individual check-ins, too, even with governors President Trump is fighting with.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You know what I say? If they don't treat you right, I don't call. He's a different type of person. He'll call quietly anyway, OK?

JAY INSLEE: That's a true statement.

KEITH: Jay Inslee is the Democratic governor of Washington state.

INSLEE: That was a true statement by the president. And we've retained that working relationship.

KEITH: Inslee says his solid working relationship with Pence has been unaffected by the running commentary from President Trump.

INSLEE: He has responded to my questions in a timely fashion. And I think he's been very helpful to the process. Now, he has not been able to solve all of our concerns, obviously.

KEITH: When President Trump put Pence in charge of the coronavirus task force, it was at a moment of growing pressure. A former White House official says Pence was the obvious choice, one of the few people left in the administration that Trump trusts and someone with the stature to coordinate across agencies. Joel Goldstein is a vice presidential scholar.

JOEL GOLDSTEIN: It makes sense to have somebody like Pence involved. But it does present risks for any vice president with this kind of a problem. And it has particular risks when, you know, your president operates the way Trump does.

KEITH: It's a global pandemic. More than 55,000 Americans are dead. If Pence were to run for president in 2024, this time will loom large. It's also a chance for him to show he can manage in a crisis. Pence leads a daily task force meeting, which, according to one aide, always has an agenda and is generally a structured discussion. The press briefing started out as a way for Pence to give an update on what had been discussed.


MIKE PENCE: This president has said we're ready for anything. But this is an all-hands-on-deck effort.

KEITH: But before long, President Trump started attending the briefings, too, and dominating them. A tally from the data analytics site Factbase finds that, as of Friday, Pence had a little over eight hours of talk time at the briefings, while President Trump had spoken for more than 30 hours. Goldstein says it was inevitable.

GOLDSTEIN: Trump comes in. And then, you know, you sort of see Pence standing there quietly and picking up the papers off the podium and walking off. But it's very much the Trump show.

KEITH: The briefings have put on display the role Pence has long played of Trump translator, sanding off the rough edges, at times even attributing quotes and ideas to Trump that the president hasn't expressed publicly. Take the day that President Trump said he had total authority to tell the states when to reopen. This is how Pence put it.


PENCE: We're going to give them guidance. And as the president's indicated, we'll continue to respect the leadership and partnership that we forge with every governor in America.

KEITH: The partnership he describes is real based on interviews with governors from both sides of the aisle. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, says it's a credit to Pence for leading calls that are candid and nonpolitical.

MIKE DEWINE: If you didn't have a scorecard, you wouldn't have known who was Republican, who was Democrats. The vice president was engaged.

KEITH: DeWine says Pence couldn't singlehandedly fix nationwide shortages. But he was able to clear bureaucratic jams at critical moments.

DEWINE: Right after we closed the schools, we wanted to be able to feed kids. And we had to get a waiver. And the vice president jumped in. We got a waiver, you know, within less than 24 hours.

KEITH: Pence has even won praise - for now, at least - from Trump, himself.


TRUMP: These people are - they're working 24 hours a day. Mike Pence - I mean, Mike Pence, I don't think he sleeps anymore.

KEITH: But as the White House tries to transition to focus on economic recovery, Pence will be traveling more and spending less time in the briefing room.

Tamara Keith. NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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