Vice President Mike Pence has stood by President Donald Trump for three chaotic years, even as dozens of top administration officials have resigned or been fired. Pence does not appear to ever cross the president or rein him in, leading critics to assume that he doesn’t exert much power in the administration.
PIETY & POWER: Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House, veteran journalist Tom LoBionco tells a different story. LoBionco views Pence as a savvy political operator who got on the 2016 ticket thinking Trump would lose, but that the race would catapult him to a position to run for president in 2020. LoBionco believes that Pence plans to run in 2024.
Raw Story spoke with LoBionco about Pence’s life, political trajectory, his plans for 2024 and how he got on the 2016 ticket in the first place (in true Trumpian fashion it all starts with a billionaire who shilled tanning products and met his third wife when she jumped out of a cake).
Raw Story: Let’s start with 2024. Can you explain to our readers why Pence is eyeing the presidency in 2024.
Tom LoBionco: One of the things you have to understand about him — and this gets into 2016 — how he was selected for the ticket, how he decides not to push Trump off the ticket during the Access Hollywood weekend.
Pence is really bitten by the presidential bug. It started in 2008. By the time we’re in 2016, Pence being selected by Trump seems almost miraculous to his backers because it resurrects his political career. And it puts him at a place to run in 2020. At this point, keep in mind that nobody thinks that Trump is going to win the White House. In the run-up to the 2016 election, Pence’s staff and his advisors are going around preparing for a White House run for 2020.
I’d heard chatter about this, but once I had some time to work on the book I nailed it down. I was shocked. I guess now I’m not shocked. I was surprised at the time, because this seemed like more ambition than I’d ascribed to him previously. But now, I can tell… he wants to win the White House. And he’s a canny political operator with a canny political team with him.
So what’s happening in 2016, before the election, is they’re going around trying to line up mega donors for a 2020 run. Politically it makes total sense, because you assume Trump is going to lose. The idea is that they can try to grab a hold of Trump’s base. They can pitch him as the loyal running mate, the one who never ran from him in 2016 when other people like Chris Christie, for instance, ditched Trump. Their message was basically ‘Get on board the Pence train now, and you’ll have better access for when he does win the Republican nomination in 2020.'”
Raw Story: So is this banking on this alternative universe where Trump loses and President Hillary Clinton is deeply unpopular? Because I keep thinking, how does Mike Pence think that enough Americans would vote him into the White House? He’s totally backwards on issues there’s been a lot of progress on, like gay rights. Why does Mike Pence think he can be president?
LoBionco: It starts after the 2008 election, where Obama whomps the Republicans, Democrats shore up the House and take the Senate. The Democrats look like they have a firm grip on Washington, much in the same way that in 2016 the Republicans did.
The movement conservatives, people like the Heritage Foundation, the anti-abortion groups, get together under an umbrella group called the Council for National Policy, that was started in the early 1980s by a televangelist named Tim LaHaye. He was a Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson character. And they get together and at this point they already know that it looks like Mitt Romney will be the nominee by 2012. And they say ‘No we can’t do this. We need a movement conservative.'” And they think the reason they lost is that conservatives stayed home and didn’t vote because they weren’t inspired by McCain.
And so, somebody floats Mike Pence’s name. He’s a good communicator. He’s on the right on all the issues that matter to conservatives: a full-spectrum conservative. They meet with him and they’re super impressed.
I think this is where he starts to think he can be president. These powerful people, including people who used to be part of the Reagan administration — Ed Meese is a part of this group — a lot of Christian Right folks are coming to him and saying “We think you should run for president.”
So it’s really heady stuff. It’s like if the New York Times and Washington Post were to approach you and say “Tana! We want you to run for president!”
Raw Story: I’d say ‘no’ because I’m not a psychotic narcissist!
LoBionco: Exactly! Like, “I don’t know if I have the skill set.” But it’s very heady when you get into the psychology of it. This is the moment in Pence’s career where Pence and his people start thinking “Wow, maybe I should run for president.”
He brings in people like Marc Short [Pence’s chief of staff]. Kellyanne Conway. He brought Conway on in 2009.
In that moment 2009, is also when John Boehner recruits Pence into the House Republican leadership. So these two things are happening at once. He is being pulled under John Boehner’s wing. In Mike Pence’s world, this is incredible. This guy, just eight years ago was a radio show host in Indiana.
In eight years he’s risen to where people are talking about him running for president. They want him to represent the Republicans on all the cable networks. It’s very heady stuff. So this is when he gets bitten by the White House ambition bug. And everything from that point is positioning in the long game to run for president.
So why does he think he can beat Hillary Clinton? First of all, he genuinely believes in conservative ideology. And you know how it is with politicians, everyone lives inside their own bubble. So the thinking is become the Republican nominee… and as you saw, in 2016, Trump was able to flip these Rust Belt states, places that had been solid blue for decades. And this is one of the reasons Pence was picked for the ticket because he had credibility with Rust Belt with midwest voters as a midwest governor.
However, LGBT stuff, that’s a huge problem for him. You can see him struggling politically. There’s still fallout from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Pence signed as governor, allowing discrimination by businesses against gays and lesbians. And then you have a terrible interview on George Stephanopoulos where basically he just becomes the face of anti-gay bigotry in the country.
His people say that’s not fair, but politically that’s what happened and he’s still trying to shake off that image.
Raw Story: Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between Pence and Trump?
LoBionco: I’ll start with something funny that’ll help explain their relationship. First we have to start with the relationship between Trump and another Indiana native, Stephen Hilbert. Hilbert is responsible for two things in Donald Trump’s life. Hilbert is a billionaire, a former insurance magnate, who was big in the 90s. Much like Trump, he meets his third wife when she jumps topless out of a paper mâché cake at the bachelor party of the stepson from his second wife.
Trump and him are friends from the 90s in Indiana when Trump is trying to build casinos and Hilbert runs a company called Australian Gold, which sells tanning products. Trump enjoys using those, which turns you sometimes orange.
Trump actually has the Hilberts on Celebrity Apprentice as a favor, because they’ve gone bankrupt at this point. And Gary Busey and LaToya Jackson help try to come up with a marketing plan for Australian Gold: “Live the gold life.” This is the primary relationship Trump has to Indiana.
By 2016, in the middle of the election, Trump has no relationship with Mike Pence. He doesn’t exist. That’s really crucial to understanding how they get matched up.
In June 2016, Pence gets a text message from Stephen Hilbert. He’s not close to Hilbert–he’s into the gambling industry, Pence does not like gambling.
“If the Trump campaign considered you as a running mate, would you say yes?”
Mike and Karen Pence pray about it and they say yes.
Trump flies out to Indianapolis on July 12th. It’s down to three people at this point: Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich and Mike Pence. Christie is not at the top of the list. Pence is not either. The person at the top of the list is Newt Gingrich, who is being pushed by Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.
So July 12th, they fly in to Indiana. Trump’s campaign people in Indiana and Hilbert had set up this fundraiser months before. This was something they put together to shake down some Indiana funders. But what happens is, they land in Indiana and pop a flat tire. So Trump gets stuck there. In an instant this takes the entire campaign’s center of gravity and puts it in Indianapolis in Pence’s home court.
Trump did not like Pence before this. He thought this guy is a loser. He’s kind of weird with the religion. A Bible-thumper. When that plane breaks down, it’s like a shotgun marriage, forcing them to spend time together.
This is what starts to seal it. They’re meeting in the Governor’s mansion. They have breakfast, they’re in the basement, and Trump says … “OK look. I need killers. You see this? Christie calls me all the time. He’s a killer. Are you a killer?”
And Pence looks at him and says, “To be honest with you sir, I’m not a killer and I’m not going to be a killer. That’s not who I am. However. I can help you govern, I can help you lobby, I can help you fundraise. I can help you with evangelicals, I can help you with conservatives, I can help win the Rust Belt. But I’m not a killer. If you want a killer, I can support you and whoever that is, because I think that you’re the right change for America. But I don’t need this. I’m going to win re-election and spend four more years a Governor.”
And Trump is just astonished by this. The other two guys are just dying to get on the ticket and Pence is acting like he doesn’t care.
Trump wonders, “Why don’t you want this? Christie calls me all the time.” And Pence says “Well to be fair, you’re sitting here in my home. Your family is here. The feeling must be mutual. Why do you want me?” Trump is gobsmacked by this.
That ultimately leads Trump six hours later to call up Pence and offer him the running mate position. And so when I was reporting the book. The first draft…that’s the moment I thought sealed it for Pence. But I went back over my notes and I realized something important. This is not… he doesn’t have the nomination at that point. The next day, Thursday, July 14th, 2016, Christie finds out that they’re going to pick Pence.
The reports start trickling out. A flight manifest has the Governor of Indiana flying into New Jersey. Christie gets tipped off and he calls Trump and says “Donald what is this? Just tell me.”
And Trump hates confrontation, this is the irony of it, he talks a big game but he doesn’t like confrontation. So he backs off and says “Oh no no Chris don’t worry about it. Nothing’s final, don’t worry about it. You and Mary Pat, be ready.”
He says, “Watch television tonight. That’s how you’ll know.” Thursday, Pence has already flown out to Manhattan. They’re supposed to do the announcement that night and Pence is supposed to get off the ticket for re-election for governor of Indiana by Friday, because he has to remove himself running for Governor to run for Vice President.
Pence’s people pick up that Trump is starting to back out. And Trump goes on Greta van Sustern, says he hasn’t made up his mind. And Pence’s people think they’re going to force Trump’s hand. So they threaten Trump. They say, “Look, if you’re not going to stick with Mike and if you won’t announce this thing publicly before this deadline, noon on July 15th, we’re pulling him back out and we’re running him for Governor because the Pences need jobs.”
And that’s how Trump tweeted at 11 on that Friday that Pence was his nominee for running mate. They forced his hand.