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For Pence, Coronavirus Task Force Is A High-Profile Assignment With Political Risk

While President Trump takes questions, boasts, and often goes on tangents during task force briefings, Vice President Mike Pence stands aside, keeping his composure.
Mandel Ngan
AFP via Getty Images
While President Trump takes questions, boasts, and often goes on tangents during task force briefings, Vice President Mike Pence stands aside, keeping his composure.

When President Trump tapped Vice President Mike Pence to lead the coronavirus task force in late February, it was a moment of growing pressure. Stocks were tanking, and Trump needed to show he was elevating the federal response to the pandemic.

A former Trump White House aide 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.

It was the first truly high-profile ongoing assignment Pence had taken on for Trump. And it represents both an opportunity and a risk for the former Indiana governor.

"It makes sense to have somebody like Pence involved, but it does present risks for any vice president with this kind of problem," said Joel Goldstein, a vice presidential scholar. "And it has particular risks when, you know, your president operates the way Trump does."

A big across-government coordination is the very kind of task vice presidents have been asked to take on in past administrations. This one has higher stakes. It's a global pandemic, and nearly 60,000 Americans are already 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, who's low-key and methodical, leads the near-daily task force meetings, has supply chain meetings, and does phone calls with governors and other constituent groups.

"The Trump show"

For a time, Pence was the public face of the administration's response. The press briefings started out as a way for the vice president to give an update on what had been discussed in the task force meetings, and he often stepped back and let the medical experts on the team take the questions.

But before long, Trump started attending the briefings too — and dominating them.

A tally from the data analytics site factba.se finds that since Pence was put in charge of the task force, he's had a little over eight hours of talk time at the briefings, while Trump has spoken for more than 30 hours.

"It's very much the Trump show," Goldstein said.


Don't see the graphic above? Click here.

While Trump takes questions, boasts, and often goes on tangents, Pence stands aside, keeping his composure. He sticks to the script, ticking through progress updates, reminding the public to take social distancing seriously, thanking them for their sacrifices, and always pausing to mark the loss of life to COVID-19.

The briefings have displayed the role Pence has long played: of Trump translator, sanding off the rough edges and, at times, even attributing quotations and ideas to Trump that the president hasn't expressed publicly.

Take the day Trump said he had "total" authority to tell states when to reopen. Pence was careful not to openly contradict Trump, saying he supported "the president's leadership," and then in his trademark even tone added, "We're going to give [the states] guidance and, as the president's indicated, we'll continue to respect the leadership and partnership that we forge with every governor in America."

An earlier, notable example of Pence doing this was during the uproar over the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. Trump's initial reaction was to condemn "hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides."

Pence made his own statement, polishing up the president's criticized remarks.

"President Trump clearly and unambiguously condemned the bigotry, violence and hatred which took place on the streets of Charlottesville," Pence said.

As Trump recently said, his vice president is less controversial than he is.

Relationships with governors

Pence speaks about the administration's social distancing guidelines on March 24.
Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Pence speaks about the administration's social distancing guidelines on March 24.

In his role as head of the coronavirus task force, Pence has maintained working relationships with governors — even the ones sometimes fighting with Trump.

"I say, 'Mike, don't call the governor of Washington. You're wasting your time with him. Don't call the woman in Michigan,' " Trump recounted at a recent briefing.

Both are Democratic governors in states hit hard by the coronavirus.

"He's a different type of person. He'll call quietly anyway," Trump said.

And Pence did call. Along the individual check-ins, the former Indiana governor has had more than a dozen conference calls with state leaders since late February.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, says it's a credit to Pence that the calls are candid, open and nonpolitical.

"If you didn't have a scorecard, you wouldn't have known who was a Republican, who was a Democrat," DeWine said. "The vice president was engaged."

DeWine said Pence couldn't single-handedly fix nationwide supply shortages, which persist. But DeWine said Pence was able to clear bureaucratic jams at critical moments.

One came right after the state shut down schools. DeWine says Ohio still wanted to provide food to children who were dependent on school lunches.

"We had to get a waiver. And the vice president jumped in, we got a waiver within less than 24 hours," DeWine said. "So they have been there when I've got a specific request."

Trump has called Washington Gov. Jay Inslee a "snake." But the Democrat Inslee said he as a "really good working relationship" with Pence, unaffected by any running commentary from the president.

"He has responded to my questions in a timely fashion. He's called me. We've had quite a number of conversations," Inslee said. "And I think that he's been very helpful to the process. Now, he's not been able to solve all of our concerns, obviously."

The state still doesn't have enough tests to properly trace and contain the virus. Like many states, Washington has pressed for federal help to break loose supply chain problems and shortages of testing supplies. The White House insists that isn't the federal role and states should take the lead on testing, with the federal government only being there as a backup of last resort.

In early March, Pence talked up the availability of tests for the coronavirus in a way that made it seem like testing shortages would be a thing of the past.

"Over a million tests have been distributed," Pence said at a March 9 White House briefing. "Before the end of this week, another 4 million tests will be distributed."

The United States only just recently hit the threshold of 5 million tests completed. When pressed on it, Pence said everyone earlier misunderstood "the difference between having a test versus the ability to actually process the test."

In fact, at the time, the administration faced a lot of pushback about whether the numbers of tests they were promoting truly represented the number of people who would be tested.

Pence out in the country

Pence has won praise from Trump himself.

"Mike Pence, I don't even think he sleeps anymore," Trump said at a recent briefing.

But Pence's role may be receding as the White House tries to turn the focus to economic recovery rather than the public health crisis. On Tuesday, Pence traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to highlight its coronavirus research and work to increase testing capacity. While everyone else there wore a mask as required by Mayo Clinic policy, Pence did not, saying he wanted to look people in the eyes and thank them.

Meanwhile back in Washington, Trump held a press conference with small-business owners who have gotten loans to offset losses caused by the coronavirus. He also took questions from reporters.

This sort of split screen will likely repeat itself as Pence is expected to travel more in the weeks ahead and will be spending less time in the briefing room. Vice presidents rarely make more news than presidents, especially if that president is Donald Trump.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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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