On September 14th, the right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, who last year published a book titled “In Trump We Trust,” expressed what a growing number of Americans, including conservatives, have been feeling since the 2016 election. The previous day, President Trump had dined with Democratic leaders at the White House, and had impetuously agreed to a major policy reversal, granting provisional residency to undocumented immigrants who came to America as children. Republican legislators were blindsided. Within hours, Trump disavowed the deal, then reaffirmed it. Coulter tweeted, “At this point, who doesn’t want Trump impeached?” She soon added, “If we’re not getting a wall, I’d prefer President Pence.”
Trump’s swerve did the unthinkable—uniting Coulter and liberal commentators. After Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, Gail Collins, the Times columnist, praised Vice-President Mike Pence as someone who at least “seems less likely to get the planet blown up.” This summer, an opinion column by Dana Milbank, of the Washington Post, appeared under the headline “ ‘president pence’ is sounding better and better.”
Pence, who has dutifully stood by the President, mustering a devotional gaze rarely seen since the days of Nancy Reagan, serves as a daily reminder that the Constitution offers an alternative to Trump. The worse the President looks, the more desirable his understudy seems. The more Trump is mired in scandal, the more likely Pence’s elevation to the Oval Office becomes, unless he ends up legally entangled as well.
Pence’s odds of becoming President are long but not prohibitive. Of his forty-seven predecessors, nine eventually assumed the Presidency, because of a death or a resignation. After Lyndon Johnson decided to join the ticket with John F. Kennedy, he calculated his odds of ascension to be approximately one in four, and is said to have told Clare Boothe Luce, “I’m a gambling man, darling, and this is the only chance I’ve got.”
If the job is a gamble for Pence, he himself is something of a gamble for the country. During the tumultuous 2016 Presidential campaign, relatively little attention was paid to how Pence was chosen, or to his political record. And, with all the infighting in the new Administration, few have focussed on Pence’s power within the White House. Newt Gingrich told me recently that the three people with the most policy influence in the Administration are Trump, Chief of Staff John Kelly, and Pence. Gingrich went on, “Others have some influence, such as Jared Kushner and Gary Cohn. But look at the schedule. Pence has lunches with the President. He’s in the national-security briefings.” Moreover, and crucially, Pence is the only official in the White House who can’t be fired.
Pence, who declined requests for an interview, is also one of the few with whom Trump hasn’t overtly feuded. “The President considers him one of his best decisions,” Tony Fabrizio, a pollster for Trump, told me. Even so, they are almost comically mismatched. “You end up with an odd pair of throwbacks from fifties casting,” the former White House strategist Stephen Bannon joked, comparing them to Dean Martin, the bad boy of the Rat Pack, and “the dad on ‘Leave It to Beaver.’ ”
Trump and Pence are misaligned politically, too. Trump campaigned as an unorthodox outsider, but Pence is a doctrinaire ideologue. Kellyanne Conway, the White House counsellor, who became a pollster for Pence in 2009, describes him as “a full-spectrum conservative” on social, moral, economic, and defense issues. Pence leans so far to the right that he has occasionally echoed A.C.L.U. arguments against government overreach; he has, for instance, supported a federal shield law that would protect journalists from having to identify whistle-blowers. According to Bannon, Pence is “the outreach guy, the connective tissue” between the Trump Administration and the most conservative wing of the Republican establishment. “Trump’s got the populist nationalists,” Bannon said. “But Pence is the base. Without Pence, you don’t win.”
Pence has taken care to appear extraordinarily loyal to Trump, so much so that Joel K. Goldstein, a historian and an expert on Vice-Presidents who teaches law at St. Louis University, refers to him as the “Sycophant-in-Chief.” But Pence has the political experience, the connections, the discipline, and the ideological mooring that Trump lacks. He also has a close relationship with the conservative billionaire donors who have captured the Republican Party’s agenda in recent years.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump characterized the Republican Party’s big spenders as “highly sophisticated killers” whose donations allowed them to control politicians. When he declared his candidacy, he claimed that, because of his real-estate fortune, he did not need support from “rich donors,” and he denounced super pacs, their depositories of unlimited campaign contributions, as “corrupt.” Pence’s political career, though, has been sponsored at almost every turn by the donors whom Trump has assailed. Pence is the inside man of the conservative money machine.
On Election Night, the dissonance between Trump’s populist supporters and Pence’s billionaire sponsors was quietly evident. When Trump gave his acceptance speech, in the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel in midtown Manhattan, he vowed to serve “the forgotten men and women of our country,” and promised to “rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, and hospitals.” Upstairs, in a room reserved for Party élites, several of the richest and most conservative donors, all of whom support drastic reductions in government spending, were celebrating. Doug Deason, a Texas businessman and a political donor, recalled to me, “It was amazing. In the V.I.P. reception area, there was an even more V.I.P. room, and I counted at least eight or nine billionaires.”
Deason’s father, Darwin, founded a data-processing company, Affiliated Computer Services, and in 2010 he sold it to Xerox for $6.4 billion. A.C.S. was notorious for outsourcing U.S. office work to cheaper foreign-labor markets. Trump campaigned against outsourcing, but the Deasons became Trump backers nonetheless, donating a million dollars to his campaign. Doug Deason was enlisted, in part, by Pence, whom he had known and supported for years. “Mike and I are pretty good friends,” Deason said, adding, “He’s really the contact to the big donors.” Since the election, Deason has attended two dinners for wealthy backers at the Vice-Presidential residence.
Among the billionaires who gathered in the room at the Hilton, Deason recalled, were the financier Wilbur Ross, whom Trump later appointed his Secretary of Commerce; the corporate investor Carl Icahn, who became a top adviser to Trump but resigned eight months later, when allegations of financial impropriety were published by The New Yorker;Harold Hamm, the founder and chairman of Continental Resources, an Oklahoma-based oil-and-gas company that has made billions of dollars through fracking; and David Koch, the richest resident of New York City.
Koch’s presence was especially unexpected. He and his brother Charlesare libertarians who object to most government spending, including investments in infrastructure. They co-own virtually all of Koch Industries, the second-largest private company in the United States, and have long tapped their combined fortune—currently ninety billion dollars—to finance candidates, think tanks, pressure groups, and political operatives who support an anti-tax and anti-regulatory agenda, which dovetails with their financial interests.
During the campaign, Trump said that Republican rivals who attended secretive donor summits sponsored by the Kochs were “puppets.” The Kochs, along with several hundred allied donors, had amassed nearly nine hundred million dollars to spend on the Presidential election, but declined to support Trump’s candidacy. At one point, Charles Koch described the choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton as one between “cancer or heart attack.”
Marc Short, the head of legislative affairs in the Trump White House, credits Pence for the Kochs’ rapprochement with Trump. “The Kochs were very excited about the Vice-Presidential pick,” Short told me. “There are areas where they differ from the Administration, but now there are many areas they’re partnering with us on.” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, who has accused the Kochs of buying undue influence, particularly on environmental policy—Koch Industries has a long history of pollution—is less enthusiastic about their alliance with Pence. “If Pence were to become President for any reason, the government would be run by the Koch brothers—period. He’s been their tool for years,” he said. Bannon is equally alarmed at the prospect of a Pence Presidency. He told me, “I’m concerned he’d be a President that the Kochs would own.”
This summer, I visited Pence’s home town of Columbus, Indiana. Harry McCawley, a retired editor at the Republic, the local newspaper, told me, “Mike Pence wanted to be President practically since he popped out of the womb.” Pence exudes a low-key humility, but, McCawley told me, “he’s very ambitious, even calculating, about the steps he’ll take toward that goal.”
McCawley, who died, of cancer, in September, knew the Pence family well, in part because the Vice-President’s mother, Nancy Pence Fritsch, wrote a chatty column for the newspaper for several years (“memories blossom with arrival of spring”). Eighty-four and energetic, Fritsch met me for coffee this summer, along with her eldest son, Gregory, who is in the antiques business in the Columbus area. Like the Vice-President, they are good-looking, with chiselled features, and have an unpretentious, amiable manner. They ribbed each other as they reminisced about the years when the Pences’ six children lived with their parents in a series of modest houses. There was so little to do in the way of entertainment, Gregory Pence recalled, that “we sometimes got in the car with our parents on Friday nights and followed after the fire truck.” All the boys had nicknames. “My name was General Harassment,” Gregory said. “Michael’s was Bubbles, because he was chubby and funny.”
“Michael’s hilarious,” his mother agreed. “I attribute it to the Irish. We’re faith-filled, and have a good sense of humor.” The family identifies as Catholic, and Mike was an altar boy. “Religion is the most important thing in our lives,” she said. “But we don’t take it seriously. I don’t proselytize.”
Pence’s maternal grandfather was from Ireland, but his paternal grandfather, Edward Joseph Pence, Sr., came from a German family. Brief mentions of Edward in the press have described him as having worked in the Chicago stockyards, leaving the impression that he was poor. But Gregory told me that Edward was well off, with a seat on the Chicago Stock Exchange. “Grandfather Pence was a very hard man,” Gregory said. Edward refused to provide financial support when Gregory and Mike’s father, Edward, Jr., went to college; an aunt loaned him the tuition, but he had to leave law school when he ran out of money. “Grampa Pence was a gambler!” Fritsch chimed in. “He played cards and went to Las Vegas.”
Fritsch went to secretarial school. With a laugh, she recalled that she met her first husband “in a club—in other words, a tavern.” A Korean War veteran, Edward Pence, Jr., was in uniform that night. (He had won a Bronze Star, which the Vice-President keeps in his office.) In 1959, after leaving law school, he moved with Fritsch from Chicago to Columbus, where he sold fuel to gas stations, farms, and convenience stores. Shortly after their arrival, Michael Pence, the couple’s third child, was born.
Fritsch said of life in Indiana, “I hated it. I always looked forward to going back to Chicago.” But the family stayed, gradually moving into the upper middle class—Edward became part owner of an oil distributorship—and switching from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Fritsch had worshipped the Kennedys, but, she said, “I guess I became a Republican because my husband was one. I was a Stepford wife.”
“She was like the Scarecrow in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ” Gregory said at one point.
“You see what I have to put up with?” she shot back. Growing more serious, she explained that, until she went back to school, at sixty-five, to get a college degree in psychology, she “didn’t have much self-esteem.”
“That’s when she got her brain,” Gregory said.
Edward, Jr., like his father, was a tough disciplinarian. Gregory recalled, “If you lied to him, you’d be taken upstairs, have a conversation, and then he’d whack you with a belt.” He expected his children to stand up whenever an adult entered the room. “He’d grab you if you didn’t,” Gregory said. At dinner, the kids were forbidden to speak.
While Gregory was in college, he was sleeping late on a visit home when his father pulled the covers off him and told him to get up for church. “I said he couldn’t tell me what to do anymore, because he was only paying half my college tuition,” Gregory said. His father stopped paying his tuition altogether. “He was black and white,” Gregory said. “You were never confused where you stood. My brother’s a lot like him.”
Columbus, which has a population of forty-five thousand, was dominated by a major engine manufacturer, Cummins, and escaped the economic woes that afflicted many other parts of the region. But McCawley, the newspaper editor, told me that, while Pence was growing up, Columbus, “like many Indiana communities, still had vestiges of the Ku Klux Klan.” The group had ruled the state’s government in the twenties, and then gone underground. In Columbus, landlords refused to rent or sell homes to African-Americans until Cummins’s owners demanded that they do so. Gregory Pence insisted that the town “was not racist,” but contended that there had been anti-Catholic prejudice. Protestant kids had thrown stones at him, he recalled. “We were discriminated against,” Pence’s mother added.
The Pence children attended St. Columba Catholic School through eighth grade. Mike discovered a talent for public speaking that made him a favorite with the nuns. In fifth grade, he won a local oratory contest, defeating kids several years older. “When it came his turn, his voice just boomed out over the audience,” his mother told the newspaper. “He just blew everybody away.” In high school, Pence won third place in a national contest. When his mother recalled Mike as “a good student,” Gregory said, “Not a fabulous one. I don’t think he stood out. He was class president, but that wasn’t cool.” Nonetheless, by senior year, Mike was talking to classmates about becoming President of the United States.
Mike Pence attended Hanover College, a liberal-arts school in southeast Indiana. On a visit home, he told his father that he was thinking of either joining the priesthood or attending law school. His father suggested he start with law; he could always join the priesthood later. Shortly thereafter, to his family’s surprise, Pence became an evangelical Christian. His mother said that “college gave him a different viewpoint.” The story Pence tells is that he was in a fraternity, and when he admired another member’s gold cross he was told, “You have to wear it in your heart before you wear it around your neck.” Soon afterward, Pence has said, he attended a Christian music festival in Kentucky and “gave my life to Jesus.”
His conversion was part of a larger movement. In 1979, during Pence’s junior year in college, Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, to mobilize Christian voters as a political force. Pence voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980, but he soon joined the march of many Christians toward the Republican Party. The Moral Majority’s co-founder, Paul Weyrich, a Midwestern Catholic, established numerous institutions of the conservative movement, including the Heritage Foundation and the Republican Study Committee, a caucus of far-right congressional members, which Pence eventually led. Weyrich condemned homosexuality, feminism, abortion, and government-imposed racial integration, and he partnered with some controversial figures, including Laszlo Pasztor, a former member of a pro-Nazi party in Hungary. When Weyrich died, in 2008, Pence praised him as a “friend and mentor” and a “founding father of the modern conservative movement,” from whom he had “benefitted immeasurably.”
While in law school, at Indiana University, Pence met and married Karen Batten, a schoolteacher whom he had noticed playing guitar in a church service. A friend at the time, Dan LeClerc, told me, “He was head over heels.” Pence took her ice-skating; she made him taco salad for dinner. Soon, anticipating a proposal, she began carrying in her purse a gold cross with the inscription “Yes.” Eight months after they began dating, he asked her to marry him, having buried a ring box in a loaf of bread that he’d brought on a walk, ostensibly to feed ducks. They shellacked the loaf. Pence’s friends have called Karen his “prayer warrior.”
The couple became almost inseparable. One Christmas, she gave him an antique red phone, connected to a “hotline” whose number only she knew. As the Washington Post reported, he kept it on his office desk long after the advent of cell phones. At home, they worked out on twin treadmills. And, as Rolling Stone reported in January, he referred to her in front of guests as “Mother.” Pence’s office has disputed the account, but a former Indiana Democratic Party official told me, “I’ve heard him call her Mother myself.” Pence also began observing what’s known as the Billy Graham rule, meaning that he never dined alone with another woman, or attended an event in mixed company where alcohol was served unless his wife was present. Critics have argued that this approach reduces women to sexual temptresses and precludes men from working with women on an equal basis. A Trump campaign official said that he found the Pences’ dynamic “a little creepy.” But Kellyanne Conway defended him vigorously, telling me, “I’ve been a female top adviser of his for years, and never felt excluded or dismissed.” She went on, “Most wives would appreciate a loyal husband who puts them first. People are trying to bloody and muddy him, but talk about narrow-minded—to judge his marriage!”
In 1987, a year after Pence graduated from law school, LeClerc, his old friend, was asked by a mutual acquaintance, “Guess who’s running for Congress?” He drew a blank. Pence’s decision, at the age of twenty-nine, to challenge a popular incumbent Democratic congressman surprised many people, including his father, Edward, who thought that it was silly, given that Mike was a young newlywed with no steady job. But after Mike entered the race Edward became his biggest booster, helping him raise money and put up lawn signs. Then, just a few weeks before the Republican primary, Edward, who was fifty-eight, had a heart attack and died. Mike won the primary, but the Democratic incumbent, Phil Sharp, was reëlected.
In 1990, Pence tried and failed again to unseat Sharp, waging a campaign that is remembered as especially nasty. One ad featured an actor dressed in Middle Eastern garb and sunglasses, who accused Sharp, falsely, of being a tool of Arab oil interests. But Pence’s campaign foundered after the press revealed that he had used donations toward personal expenses, such as his mortgage and groceries. It wasn’t technically illegal, but it violated the trust of his supporters and sullied his pious image. “Mike burned a lot of bridges,” Gregory recalled. “He upset a lot of his backers. It was partly because of immaturity, but he really was kind of full of shit.”
The following year, Mike Pence wrote an essay, carried by local newspapers, titled “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner,” in which he said, “A campaign ought to demonstrate the basic human decency of the candidate.” He admitted to reporters that he had violated this standard, and said that he had no “interest in running for elected office in the foreseeable future,” but added that if he ever did he would not wage a negative campaign. “I think he realized he’d besmirched himself,” Sharp told me. “He comes across as Midwestern nice, but it was mean and shallow.” Sharp, who after two more terms joined the faculty at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and is now semi-retired, remains unimpressed by Pence. “This is not a person, in my limited exposure, about whom I’d ever say, ‘Wow, he should be President!’ ”
Pence took a job at a law firm in Indianapolis, where he handled mainly small-claims and family cases, and started each day by praying with colleagues. An Indiana attorney recalled, “He was a big, jocular, friendly guy who would put his arm around you at the local pub. He probably weighed a hundred pounds more than today.” There was a clear hierarchy in the Indianapolis legal world, and Pence was far from its top rungs, relying on referrals for work. “There were dozens of guys like that,” the lawyer said. “But the great American story is that a guy like Mike Pence is now Vice-President.”
Gregory said of his brother, “Law wasn’t really his thing,” adding, “He’s completely unmotivated by money. I don’t think he would think for one second about it, if it weren’t for Karen.”
“Service is his motivation,” Pence’s mother said.
“And, of course, popularity,” his brother added. “He had ambitions.”
Pence was thrown a lifeline in 1991, when he was offered a job as president of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, a tiny new think tank that promoted free-market policies. Pence joked that some people called the foundation “an old-folks home for unsuccessful candidates,” but it gave him a steady paycheck and valuable exposure to the burgeoning universe of business-funded conservative nonprofit groups. The foundation was part of the State Policy Network, a national web of organizations that had been launched at Ronald Reagan’s suggestion. It was designed to replicate at a more local level the Heritage Foundation’s successful promotion of conservative policies. One of the State Policy Network’s founders, Thomas Roe, a construction magnate with strong anti-union views, was said to have told a Heritage board member, “You capture the Soviet Union—I’m going to capture the states.”
In a 2008 speech, Pence described himself as “part of what we called the seed corn Heritage Foundation was spreading around the country in the state think-tank movement.” It isn’t fully clear whose money was behind the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, because think tanks, as nonprofits, don’t have to disclose their donors. But the early funders of the Heritage Foundation included some Fortune 500 companies, in fields such as oil, chemicals, and tobacco, that opposed health, safety, and environmental regulations.
Cecil Bohanon, one of two adjunct scholars at Pence’s think tank, had a history of financial ties to tobacco-company front groups, and in 2000 Pence echoed industry talking points in an essay that argued, “Smoking doesn’t kill. In fact, two out of every three smokers doesn’t die from a smoking-related illness.” A greater “scourge” than cigarettes, he argued, was “big government disguised as do-gooder, healthcare rhetoric.” Bohanon, who still writes for the think tank’s publication, also has ties to the Kochs. Last year, John Hardin, the head of university relations for the Charles Koch Foundation, told an Indiana newspaper that the Kochs had been funding Bohanon’s work as a professor of free-market economics at Ball State University “for years.”
Even as Pence argued for less government interference in business, he pushed for policies that intruded on people’s private lives. In the early nineties, he joined the board of the Indiana Family Institute, a far-right group that supported the criminalization of abortion and campaigned against equal rights for homosexuals. And, while Pence ran the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, it published an essay arguing that unmarried women should be denied access to birth control. “What these people are really after is contraceptives,” Vi Simpson, the former Democratic minority leader of the Indiana State Senate, told me. In 2012, after serving twenty-eight years in the legislature, she ran for lieutenant governor on a ticket with the gubernatorial candidate John R. Gregg, who lost the election to Pence. Simpson believes that Pence wants to reverse women’s economic and political advances. “He’s on a mission,” she said.
Pence’s true gift was not as a thinker but as a talker. In 1992, he became a host on conservative talk radio, which had been booming since the F.C.C., in 1987, repealed the Fairness Doctrine and stopped requiring broadcasters to provide all sides of controversial issues. At a time when bombastic, angry voices proliferated, Pence was different. Like Reagan, who had become his political hero, he could present even extreme positions in genial, nonthreatening terms. “I’m a conservative, but I’m not mad about it,” he liked to say. He welcomed guests of all political stripes, and called himself “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.”
“His radio career gave him great statewide name recognition,” Jeff Smulyan, the C.E.O. of Emmis Communications, on whose radio stations Pence’s program aired, said. “He’s likable, and a great self-promoter.” Smulyan, a Democrat, added, “I’m not sure how he’d fare in a detailed policy debate, but Mike knows what Mike believes.” In 1994, Pence was on eighteen Emmis stations, five days a week. By then, he’d lost weight and had three children; he’d also amassed a Rolodex full of conservative connections and established a national network of wealthy funders. In 2000, when a Republican congressman in northern Indiana vacated his seat, Pence ran as the Party favorite, on a platform that included a promise to oppose “any effort to recognize homosexuals as a discrete and insular minority entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws.” He won, by a twelve-point margin.
Once Pence got to Washington, Conway said, his background “in the think-tank-slash-media axis really equipped him to defend and explain an argument in a full-throated way.” Pence was in demand on the conservative speaking circuit, and frequently appeared on Sunday talk shows. “He was invited to Heritage, gun owners’ groups, property-rights groups, pro-life groups, and pro-Israel groups,” Conway recalled. “People started to see an authentic, affable conservative who was not in a bad mood about it.” Michael Leppert, a Democratic lobbyist in Indiana, saw Pence differently. “His politics were always way outside the mainstream,” Leppert said. “He just does it with a smile on his face instead of a snarl.”
Pence served twelve years in Congress, but never authored a single successful bill. His sights, according to Leppert, were always “on the national ticket.” He gained attention by challenging his own party’s leaders, both in Congress and in the George W. Bush Administration, from the right. He broke with the vast majority of his Republican peers by opposing Bush’s expansion of Medicaid coverage for prescription drugs, along with the No Child Left Behind initiative and the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the government’s emergency bailout of banks. Conway calls him “a rebel with a cause.” In 2004, the House’s most conservative members elected him to head their caucus, the Republican Study Committee. Pence joked that the group was so alien to the Party’s mainstream that running it was like leading a “Star Trek” convention. “He was as far right as you could go without falling off the earth,” Mike Lofgren, a former Republican congressional staff member, who has become a Trump critic, told me. “But he never really put a foot wrong politically. Beneath the Bible-thumping earnestness was a calculating and ambitious pol.”
In 2006, Pence boldly challenged the House Minority Leader at the time, John Boehner, a more centrist Republican from Ohio, for his post. Pence got wiped out, but in 2008 Boehner—perhaps trying to contain Pence’s ambition—asked him to serve as the Republican Conference chair, the Party’s third-highest-ranking post in the House. The chair presides over weekly meetings in which Republican House members discuss policy and legislative goals. Pence used the platform to set the Party’s message on a rightward course, raise money, and raise his profile.
After Barack Obama was elected President, Pence became an early voice of the Tea Party movement, which opposed taxes and government spending with an angry edge. Pence’s tone grew more militant, too. In 2011, he made the evening news by threatening to shut down the federal government unless it defunded Planned Parenthood. Some Hoosiers were unnerved to see footage of Pence standing amid rowdy protesters at a Tea Party rally and yelling, “Shut it down!” His radicalism, however, only boosted his national profile. Pence became best known for fiercely opposing abortion. He backed “personhood” legislation that would ban it under all circumstances, including rape and incest, unless a woman’s life was at stake. He sponsored an unsuccessful amendment to the Affordable Care Act that would have made it legal for government-funded hospitals to turn away a dying woman who needed an abortion. (Later, as governor of Indiana, he signed a bill barring women from aborting a physically abnormal fetus; the bill also required fetal burial or cremation, including after a miscarriage. A federal judge recently found the law unconstitutional.)
Pence’s close relationship with dozens of conservative groups, including Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’ top political organization, was crucial to his rise. A key link to these groups was provided by Marc Short, the current White House official, who in 2008 became Pence’s chief of staff at the Republican Conference. Short had grown up in moneyed conservative circles in Virginia, where his father had helped finance the growth of the Republican Party, and he had run a group for conservative students, Young America’s Foundation, and spent several years as a Republican Senate aide before joining Pence’s staff. His wife, as it happened, worked for the Charles Koch Foundation, and he admired the brothers’ anti-government ideology. A former White House colleague described Short to me as “a pod person” who “really delivered Pence to the Kochs.”
In June, 2009, Short brokered Pence’s first invitation to address a Koch “seminar,” as the brothers call their secretive semi-annual fund-raising sessions for top conservative donors. The theme of the gathering, in Aspen, Colorado, was “Understanding and Addressing Threats to American Free Enterprise and Prosperity.” Pence’s speech was a hit. Short told me, “I’ve never seen someone who can take a complex subject and distill it in a heartbeat like he can.” He’d also never seen “anyone who is as dedicated a public servant, and lives their faith as Mike does.” Short, who is a devout Christian, said, “People often profess faith that’s not lived out, but with him it’s lived out each and every day. It guides him. It’s his core.”
The Kochs, who are not religious, may have been focussed more on pocketbook issues than on Pence’s faith. According to Scott Peterson, the executive director of the Checks & Balances Project, a watchdog group that monitors attempts to influence environmental policy, Pence was invited to the Koch seminar only after he did the brothers a major political favor. By the spring of 2009, Koch Industries, like other fossil-fuel companies, felt threatened by growing support in Congress for curbing carbon emissions, the primary cause of climate change. Americans for Prosperity devised a “No Climate Tax” pledgefor candidates to sign, promising not to spend any government funds on limiting carbon pollution. At first, the campaign languished, attracting only fourteen signatures. The House, meanwhile, was moving toward passage of a “cap and trade” bill, which would charge companies for carbon pollution. If the bill were enacted, the costs could be catastrophic to Koch Industries, which releases some twenty-four million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere a year, and owns millions of acres of untapped oil reserves in Canada, plus coal-fired power plants and oil refineries.
Pence, who had called global warming “a myth” created by environmentalists in their “latest Chicken Little attempt to raise taxes,” took up the Kochs’ cause. He not only signed their pledge but urged others to do so as well. He gave speeches denouncing the cap-and-trade bill—which passed the House but got held up in the Senate—as a “declaration of war on the Midwest.” His language echoed that of the Koch groups. Americans for Prosperity called the bill “the largest excise tax in history,” and Pence called it “the largest tax increase in American history.” (Neither statement was true.) He used a map created by the Heritage Foundation, which the Kochs supported, to make his case, and he urged House Republicans to hold “energy summits” opposing the legislation in their districts, sending them home over the summer recess with kits to bolster their presentations.
According to the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, after Pence began promoting the Kochs’ pledge the number of signatories in the House soared, reaching a hundred and fifty-six. James Valvo, the policy director for Americans for Prosperity, who spearheaded the pledge, told the Reporting Workshop that support from Pence and other Republicans helped “a scrappy outlier” become “the established position.” The cap-and-trade bill died in the Senate.
Short said that he “didn’t recall the Kochs ever asking for help on the issue,” adding, “The Republican Conference believed it was a winning issue because of the impact that the bill would have had on jobs.” In any event, the pledge marked a pivotal turn in the climate-change debate, cementing Republican opposition to addressing the environmental crisis.
Peterson said that the Checks & Balances Project hadn’t detected “much money going from the Kochs to Pence before he promoted the ‘No Climate Tax’ pledge.” Afterward, “he was the Kochs’ guy, and they’ve been showering him with money ever since.” Peterson went on, “He could see a pathway to the Presidency with them behind him.”
Indeed, by 2011 Pence had reportedly become Charles Koch’s favorite potential candidate for President in 2012. Andrew Downs, a political scientist who directs the nonpartisan Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, in Fort Wayne, said, “People thought Pence was gearing up for a Presidential run.” Downs pointed out that when Pence was in Congress “he probably had a shot at becoming Speaker of the House.” Downs continued, “Instead, he spoke at a lot of engagements with a national focus, and visited places like Iowa and New Hampshire. Running for President isn’t an idea that just occurred to Mike Pence when he joined the ticket in 2016. It goes back a long way.”
But the House of Representatives is a tough platform from which to get elected President. And so, in 2012, after mulling over his national prospects, Pence ran instead for governor of Indiana. “The conventional wisdom is that he ran for governor so he could check that box, get some executive experience, and then run for President,” Downs said. Pence won the governor’s race, but with only forty-nine per cent of the vote. “He was scary to the center,” Bill Oesterle, a co-founder of Angie’s List, an Indiana company that collates user reviews of local contractors, said. Oesterle, a Republican, contributed a hundred and fifty thousand dollars to Pence’s campaign. David Koch contributed two hundred thousand dollars.
Pence’s commitment to the Kochs was now ironclad. Short, his former chief of staff, had become a top operative for the Kochs, earning upward of a million dollars a year as president of the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, the brothers’ Virginia-based membership group for big conservative donors. It served as a dark-money bank, enabling donors to stay anonymous while distributing funds to favored campaigns and political organizations. (During the past decade, the group has pooled an estimated billion and a half dollars in contributions.) The Kochs’ national political network, which had offices in nearly every state, became the most powerful and best-financed private political machine in the country. At least four other former Pence staffers followed Short’s lead and joined the Koch network, including Emily Seidel, who joined Freedom Partners, and Matt Lloyd, who became a Koch Industries spokesman. In 2014, a Republican strategist told Politico that “the whole Koch operation” had become “the shadow headquarters of Pence for President.”
Pence’s tenure as governor nearly destroyed his political career. He had promised Oesterle and other members of the state’s Republican business establishment that he would continue in the path of his predecessor, Mitch Daniels, a well-liked fiscal conservative who had called for a “truce” on divisive social issues. “Pence was very accommodating,” Oesterle said. But after he was elected he began taking controversial far-right stands that, critics believed, were geared more toward building his national profile than toward serving Indiana voters.
At first, Pence highlighted fiscal conservatism. In 2013, he proposed cutting the state income tax. An internal report by Americans for Prosperity described the proposal as an example of the Kochs’ “model states” program “in action.” Indiana Republicans, who had majorities in both legislative chambers, initially balked at the tax cut, deeming it irresponsible. But Americans for Prosperity acted as a force multiplier for Pence, much as it is now promising to do for Trump’s proposed federal tax cuts. The group mounted an expensive campaign that included fifty rallies, two six-figure television-ad blitzes, and phone-bank calls and door-to-door advocacy in fifty-three of Indiana’s ninety-two counties. Eventually, the legislature went along with what Pence often describes as “the largest income-tax cut in the state’s history,” even though Indiana already had one of the lowest income taxes in the country, and had cut it only once before. Trump has recently described Pence’s record as a template for the White House’s tax plan, saying, “Indiana is a tremendous example of the prosperity that is unleashed when we cut taxes.” But, in the view of Andrew Downs, the Indiana political scientist, “the tax cuts were fairly meaningless.” Residents earning fifty thousand dollars a year received a tax cut of about $3.50 per month. Pence claimed that the cut stimulated the economy, but John Zody, the chairman of the state’s Democratic Party, told me, “Our per-capita income is thirty-eighth in the nation, and not climbing.” The state recently had to increase its gas tax by ten cents per gallon, to repair its crumbling infrastructure.
In a few surprising instances, Pence veered from conservative orthodoxy. In 2014, he broke with many other Republican governors and agreed to expand Medicaid in Indiana. He declared that his proposal was “the kind of health-care reform that puts working Hoosiers in the driver’s seat.” He was no fan of Obamacare: when it passed, he likened the blow to 9/11. Nevertheless, Pence negotiated with the Obama Administration and established waivers that made the expansion acceptable to him. Among other things, all Indiana residents were required to demonstrate “personal responsibility” by paying something toward the cost of their medical services. Critics argued that such measures were needlessly punitive toward poor residents. Americans for Prosperity, which objects to any form of government health care, gently reproached Pence for “meeting Washington’s demands.” But the Medicaid-expansion plan was, and remains, popular in the state.
After this apostasy, Pence tilted back toward the right. At the last minute, he killed an application for an eighty-million-dollar federal grant to start a statewide preschool program. Education officials in Pence’s own administration favored the grant, but conservative opponents of secular public education had complained. When reporters asked Pence about his decision, he said only that the federal government had attached “too many strings.” But, as Matthew Tully, a columnist at the Indianapolis Star, wrote, “he could not name one.” Eventually, after widespread criticism, Pence reapplied for the grant. Tully concluded that Pence had a “fatal flaw”—he was “too political and ideological” to be a good governor. “His focus was on the next step up, not the job at hand,” Tully wrote.
Political handicappers noticed that Pence was spending a lot of time taking trips to states with important Presidential primaries and mingling with big out-of-state donors. In the summer of 2014, Pence spoke at an Americans for Prosperity summit in Dallas. At the event, he stood by Short’s side and declared himself “grateful to have enjoyed” David Koch’s support. That fall, Pence reached out to Nick Ayers, a young, sharp-elbowed political consultant, to see if he would help him in a 2016 Presidential run. Nothing came of it, but Pence clearly had White House ambitions.
In the spring of 2015, Pence signed a bill called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which he presented as innocuous. “He said it protected religious freedom, and who’s against that?” Oesterle recalled. But then a photograph of the closed signing session surfaced. It showed Pence surrounded by monks and nuns, along with three of the most virulently anti-gay activists in the state. The image went viral. Indiana residents began examining the law more closely, and discovered that it essentially legalized discrimination against homosexuals by businesses in the state.
“The No. 1 challenge we face in Indiana is the ability to attract and retain talented people,” Oesterle said. “If the state is seen as bigoted to certain members of the community, it makes the job monumentally harder.” The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Oesterle said, “was not an issue of Pence’s creation”—it had “gurgled out” of the far-right fringe of the Indiana legislature. But, he added, “there was a lack of leadership.” In his view, Pence should have prevented it and other extreme bills from moving forward. “You can see it happening in Washington now,” Oesterle said. “He’s not that effective a leader, or administrator. Extremists grabbed the initiative.”
The outcry over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was enormous. Gay-rights groups condemned the bill and urged boycotts of the state. Pete Buttigieg, the young gay mayor of South Bend, who is a rising figure in the Democratic Party, told me that he tried to talk to Pence about the legislation, which he felt would cause major economic damage to Indiana. “But he got this look in his eye,” Buttigieg recalled. “He just inhabits a different reality. It’s very difficult for him to lay aside the social agenda. He’s a zealot.”
In an effort to quell criticism, Pence consented, against the advice of his staff, to be interviewed by George Stephanopoulos on his Sunday-morning show on ABC. Stephanopoulos asked him five times if it was now legal in Indiana for businesses to discriminate against homosexuals, and each time Pence was evasive. Pence also sidestepped when Stephanopoulos asked him if he personally supported discrimination against gays. “What killed him was his unwillingness to take a clear position,” Oesterle said. “You saw the conflict between his ideology and his ambition. If he’d just said, ‘Look, I think people should have the right to fire gay people,’ he would have been labelled a rigid ideologue, but he wouldn’t have been mocked.”
Smulyan, the broadcasting executive, began getting calls from acquaintances all over the country, asking what was wrong with Indiana. The hashtag #BoycottIndiana appeared on Twitter’s list of trending topics, and remained there for days. Alarmed business executives from many of the state’s most prominent companies, including Cummins, Eli Lilly, Salesforce, and Anthem, joined civic leaders in expressing disapproval. Companies began cancelling conventions, and threatening to reverse plans to expand in the state. The Indiana business community foresaw millions of dollars in losses. When the N.C.A.A., which is based in Indianapolis, declared its opposition to the legislation, the pressure became intolerable. Even the Republican establishment turned on Pence. A headline in the Star, published the Tuesday after the Stephanopoulos interview, demanded, “fix this now.”
Within days, the legislature had pushed through a less discriminatory version of the bill, and Pence signed it, before hastily leaving town for the weekend. But he clearly had not anticipated the outrage he’d triggered, and then he had tried to save his career at the expense of his professed principles. Steve Deace, an influential conservative radio host, told me that Pence’s reversal was “almost the worst conservative betrayal I’ve witnessed in my career.” He added, “He had no chance at national office after that, other than getting on the Trump ticket.” Similarly, Michael Maurer, the owner of the Indianapolis Business Journal, who is a Republican but not a hard-line social conservative, said, “It just exploded in his face. His polls were terrible. I bet he’d never get elected again in Indiana. But he went from being a likely loser as an incumbent governor to Vice-President of the United States. We’re still reeling!”
Pence loyalists rushed in to help. Matt Lloyd, Pence’s former congressional staffer, left his communications job with Koch Industries to work with him in Indiana. Ayers, the political operative whom Pence had consulted in 2011 about a Presidential run, became an outside adviser. The state also signed a seven-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar contract with a public-relations firm, Porter Novelli, which proposed running ads featuring gay and lesbian couples posing in front of Indiana landmarks. But Pence’s mistake could not be airbrushed away. Lawn signs saying “Fire Pence!” began appearing across the state.
“His tenure in Indiana was characterized by a lot of missteps,” Buttigieg said. “He was always decent to me, but over all there was a sense that every few months something got bungled. He’s definitely not the mastermind behind the curtain that some people suspect.”
In 2015, Ed Clere, a Republican state legislator who chaired the House Committee on Public Health, became aware of a spike in the number of H.I.V. cases in southern Indiana. The problem appeared to be caused by the sharing of needles among opioid abusers in Scott County, which sits across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky. In a place like Scott County, Clere said, “typically you’d have no cases, or maybe one a year.” Now they were getting up to twenty a week. The area was poor, and woefully unprepared for a health crisis. (Pence’s campaign against Planned Parenthood had contributed to the closure of five clinics in the region; none had performed abortions, but all had offered H.I.V. testing.) That same year, the state health commissioner called Indiana’s H.I.V. outbreak a public-health
n 2015, Ed Clere, a Republican state legislator who chaired the House Committee on Public Health, became aware of a spike in the number of H.I.V. cases in southern Indiana. The problem appeared to be caused by the sharing of needles among opioid abusers in Scott County, which sits across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky. In a place like Scott County, Clere said, “typically you’d have no cases, or maybe one a year.” Now they were getting up to twenty a week. The area was poor, and woefully unprepared for a health crisis. (Pence’s campaign against Planned Parenthood had contributed to the closure of five clinics in the region; none had performed abortions, but all had offered H.I.V. testing.) That same year, the state health commissioner called Indiana’s H.I.V. outbreak a public-health emergency.
Clere came of age during the aids crisis, and had read Randy Shilts’s best-selling account, “And the Band Played On.” He tried to get the legislature to study the possibility of legalizing a syringe exchange, which he felt “was a matter of life and death,” and could “save lives quickly and inexpensively.”
But conservatives blocked the idea, and Pence threatened to veto any such legislation. “With Pence, you need to look at the framework, which is abstinence,” Clere said. “It’s the same as with giving teen-agers condoms. Conservatives think it promotes the behavior, even though it’s a scientifically proven harm-reduction strategy.” In March, 2015, Clere staged a huge public hearing, in which dozens of experts and sufferers testified about the crisis. Caught flat-footed, Pence scheduled his own event, where he announced that he would pray about the syringe-exchange issue. The next day, he said that he supported allowing an exchange program as an emergency measure, but only on a temporary basis and only in Scott County, with no state funding. Clere told me that he spent “every last dime of my political capital” to get the bill through. After Scott County implemented the syringe exchange, the number of new H.I.V. cases fell. But Republican leaders later stripped Clere of his committee chairmanship, a highly unusual event. “I commend Representative Clere for the efforts to help the state deal with this,” Kevin Burke, the health officer in neighboring Clark County, told me. “But he paid a price for it.”
Clere remains bitter about Pence. “It was all part of his pattern of political expediency,” he said. “He was stridently against it until it became politically expedient to support it.” Clere, a Christian who opposes abortion, told me that he now finds Pence’s piety hypocritical. “He says he’s ‘pro-life,’ ” Clere said. “But people were dying.” When Clere was asked whom he would rather have as President—Trump or Pence—he replied, “I’d take Trump every day of the week, and twice on Sunday.”
Pence likes to say of himself, “I am a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” But Clere is not alone in questioning Pence’s political purity. After the November, 2015, terrorist attacks in Paris, Pence, like several other U.S. governors, issued a controversial executive order barring the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the state. The Archdiocese of Indiana had long been deeply involved in resettling refugees, including Syrians, and was about to welcome a new Syrian family. In the hope of reversing Pence’s ban, Joseph Tobin, the bishop of Indianapolis, requested a meeting.
Tobin, who has since been elevated to cardinal and become the archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, told me that he emphasized to Pence that the Syrian family was fleeing violence and terror, and had been vetted for nearly two years while living in a Jordanian refugee camp. He also explained that the family had relatives in the area. Tobin brought along a former refugee who now had a good job at an Indiana hotel, as an example of how successful the resettlement process was. Tobin is revered in the Catholic community of Indiana in which Pence grew up. “I really think he thought it over,” Tobin said. “There was some anguish.” But in the end Pence told him, “I need to protect the people of the state.”
“I respect that,” Tobin replied. “But this isn’t a threat.” Pence didn’t change his mind. Later that week, the Syrian family was sent to Connecticut. Eventually, federal courts struck down Pence’s executive order as discriminatory. I asked Cardinal Tobin if there was a Christian argument in support of turning the refugees away. After a pause, he quietly said, “No.”
Pence has also been criticized for his treatment of Keith Cooper, a former resident of Elkhart, Indiana, who spent nine years in prison for an armed robbery that he didn’t commit. He was released in 2006, but on the condition that he admit guilt, which made it impossible for him to get a decent job. The prosecutor and the Indiana Parole Board, citing DNA evidence and victim recantations, urged Governor Pence to pardon him immediately. But Pence dragged out the process for years. “He didn’t do a thing to help me,” Cooper told me. Pence finally left the decision to his successor, Governor Eric Holcomb, who is also a Republican. Holcomb granted Cooper a pardon within weeks of taking office. It was the first time in Indiana that a pardon was granted on the basis of innocence, rather than clemency.
“It was all about Pence’s political career,” Cooper said. “As a Christian, he’s a hypocrite. He wouldn’t see me or speak with me. God doesn’t turn his back on the truth, but Pence just walked away from the truth. I couldn’t move forward in life. I was stuck in a dead-end job.” Cooper, who was operating a forklift at the time, now cares for his grandchildren. He has become friendly with the robbery victims who mistakenly identified him in a police lineup; they supported his bid for a pardon. “I forgive them,” he said. “They stood up for me.” He went on, “I forgive the prosecutor. He wrote a letter. And the parole board? They saw that justice happened. But I don’t forgive Mike Pence, and never will. He talks all this God stuff, but he’s biased. He hates Muslims, he hates gay people, and he hates minorities. He didn’t want to be the first white man in Indiana to pardon an innocent black man.”
A spokesman for Pence, who declined to be quoted, said Pence believed that Cooper needed to go back to court and face a retrial, instead of seeking a pardon.
Pence, seeing his poll numbers plummet, gave up on running for President, and decided to seek a second term as governor. Victory was far from assured. Once again, he faced John Gregg, a folksy Democratic lawyer. In the spring of 2016, polls showed the two in a dead heat.
The national election, meanwhile, was confounding expectations. As Trump picked up momentum in the Republican primaries, the Koch network became unexpectedly paralyzed. Marc Short pressed the brothers to dedicate their resources to stopping Trump and promoting his rivals. But executives at Koch Industries considered the strategy risky, and the brothers stayed out of the Presidential race. Frustrated, Short quit his job at Freedom Partners and signed on to Marco Rubio’s campaign.
The Indiana primary was on May 3rd. The previous month, Ted Cruz had trounced Trump in Wisconsin, but if Trump could win decisively in Indiana he was virtually certain to secure the nomination. The brain trust behind Trump’s Indiana campaign included people whose public images were very different from Pence’s. Among them were Roderick Ratcliff, the C.E.O. of Centaur Gaming, the state’s largest gaming-and-racetrack business, and Steve Hilbert, a flamboyant entrepreneur who had been a business partner of Trump’s. Hilbert had built an insurance empire, Conseco, which had been valued at fifty-two billion dollars before collapsing into bankruptcy. He is currently married to his sixth wife, and has denied reports that they met when she popped out of a cake, topless, at his stepson’s bachelor party. In 1998, Hilbert loaned Trump money to buy the General Motors Building, and they had remained friends. In 2013, when Hilbert needed cash, Trump bought Hilbert’s Caribbean estate, and Hilbert and Melania Trump made a deal to sell skin-care products.
Despite Pence’s straitlaced reputation, he had closer ties with these figures than most people knew. As governor, he proclaimed his opposition to any expansion of the gaming industry, but, though the state had banned political contributions from casino operators, cash had flowed generously to him from such sources, through indirect paths. The state’s gaming companies, including Centaur, routed donations to “soft money” groups like the Republican Governors Association, which then transferred the money to Pence and other candidates. Pence, meanwhile, used executive orders to quietly grant several of the gambling industry’s wishes, such as allowing riverboat casinos to expand onshore.
In 2016, the largest donor to Pence’s gubernatorial campaign was the Republican Governors Association, and some of its major donors were casino companies. An L.L.C. connected to Centaur contributed two hundred thousand dollars to the R.G.A. that year. The casino operator Sheldon Adelson contributed a million dollars. But the single largest donor to the R.G.A. in 2016 was Koch Industries, which contributed more than two million dollars. Nearly all this cash, and much more, was divided between just two gubernatorial races that year, one of which was Indiana’s. That spring, David Koch also invited Pence to be a featured guest at a fund-raiser at his Palm Beach mansion, attended by about seventy of the Republican Party’s biggest donors.
Trump handily won the Indiana primary. Pence, who had tepidly endorsed Ted Cruz, switched to Trump. Pence’s history with Trump, however, was strained. In 2011, Pence had gone to Trump Tower in Manhattan, seeking a campaign donation. Trump brought up some gossip—the wife of Mitch Daniels, the outgoing governor of Indiana, had reportedly left him for another man, then reunited with her husband. According to the Times, Trump announced that he’d never take back a wife who had been unfaithful. Pence reacted stiffly, and their conversation grew awkward. Trump gave Pence a small contribution, but the coarse New York billionaire and the prim Indiana evangelical appeared to be on different wavelengths.
Nevertheless, in 2016, political insiders in Indiana began hearing that Pence would welcome a spot on the Trump ticket. “There was no doubt he’d say yes,” Tony Samuel, the vice-chair of the Trump campaign in the state, who was a lobbyist for Centaur and other companies, told me. Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign chairman at that point, arranged for Trump to meet Pence, and urged Trump to pick him. Pence was seen as a bridge to Christian conservatives, an asset in the Midwest, and a connection to the powerful Koch network. Kellyanne Conway, who had done polling work for the Kochs, pushed for Pence, too, as did Stephen Bannon, although private e-mails recently obtained by BuzzFeed indicate that he considered the choice a Faustian bargain—“an unfortunate necessity.”
Still, Trump remained wary. According to a former campaign aide, he was disapproving when he learned how little money Pence had. In 2004, the oil firm that Pence’s father had partly owned had filed for bankruptcy. Mike Pence’s shares of the company’s stock, which he had valued at up to a quarter of a million dollars, became worthless. In 2016, according to a campaign-finance disclosure form, Pence had one bank account, which held less than fifteen thousand dollars.
But in July Pence found a way to please Trump when he played golf with him at Trump’s club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Recognizing that Trump was susceptible to flattery, he told the media that Trump “beat me like a drum.”
Yet, in a phone conversation that I had with Trump during this period, he told me that he was torn about the choice. He noted repeatedly that Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, had been “loyal” to him. When I asked Trump if he shared Pence’s deeply conservative social views, he became uncharacteristically silent.
Trump came closer to picking Christie than is generally known. On July 11th, Christie appeared at a campaign event with Trump. Afterward, the Trump campaign informed him that the choice was down to him or Pence, so he needed to “get ready.” The next day, Trump flew to Indiana to do a campaign event with Pence. A tire on Trump’s plane developed a flat, so he and his son Eric, who had accompanied him, decided to stay the night. They joined the Pences for dinner at an Indianapolis restaurant. The foursome emerged looking happy. (Samuel, who was at the restaurant, told me that Trump tipped the chef a couple hundred dollars.)
At dawn on July 13th, Ivanka and Don, Jr., flew to Indianapolis to join their father for breakfast with the Pences at the governor’s mansion. The Times soon reported that Trump had asked Pence if he would accept the job, and that Pence had responded, “In a heartbeat.”
But the next night, according to someone familiar with the details, Trump called Christie and said, “I’ve got a question for you. Are you ready?”
“Ready for what?” Christie responded.
“Ready to do this with me,” Trump said.
“Are you offering?” Christie said.
“I’m asking you—but you’ve got to make sure you’re ready,” Trump said.
“I’m as tough as they come,” Christie said.
“O.K.,” Trump said. “I’m making the decision tomorrow. Stay by your phone.”
But Christie was left hanging for the next three days. He suspected that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner had intervened and turned Trump against him, because years earlier, as a U.S. Attorney, he had prosecuted Kushner’s father for tax fraud and other crimes. Conway told me that this theory was wrong, but acknowledged, “It truly was a tie—almost a jump ball.”
Hoping to break the tie, Christie’s detractors made the case that he was politically toxic because of the Bridgegate scandal, in which officials had caused traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge in an act of reprisal against the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey. Trump began leaning toward Pence. “I wouldn’t say Trump was pushed into it,” a top Trump campaign aide told me. “He was led into it. Pence was made the most palatable choice by those around him.”
Before Pence’s trip to Bedminster, he had asked his brother Gregory to meet him at a Burger King. “He said, ‘Donald Trump wants to talk to me,’ ” Gregory recalled. They both knew what it was about. “I told him, ‘You have to go, you have no choice,’ ” Gregory said. As he saw it, his brother also had no choice about saying yes, if picked: “When your party’s nominee asks you to be the running mate, you have to do it.” But it was a gamble. As Gregory put it to me, “If he lost, he had no money, and he had three kids in college. He took out student loans for the kids. He’s got a retirement account, but I was afraid he’d run out of money in just a couple of weeks. He’d have to get a job. He was rolling the dice.” Some politicians in Indiana were surprised that Trump wanted to pick Pence, who was flailing as governor, and that Pence wanted to run with Trump. “The one thing you could count on with Pence was interpersonal decency, which made it strange that he joined the Trump ticket, the most indecent ticket any party’s ever put together,” Pete Buttigieg said. “But, really, he had nowhere else to go. His chances of getting reëlected were fifty-fifty at best.”
By July 14th, Trump’s aides had leaked that he was about to pick Pence, who had flown to New York for the announcement. But that night, as CNN reported, Trump called his aides to see if he could back out of his decision. The next morning, Trump called Christie and said, “They’re telling me I have to pick him. It’s central casting. He looks like a Vice-President.” A few hours later, Trump announced Pence as his running mate.
Several days later, at the Republican National Convention, Newt Gingrich, who had also been passed over for the Vice-Presidency, found himself backstage next to Trump while Pence was giving his acceptance speech. “Isn’t he just perfect?” Trump asked Gingrich. “Straight from central casting.”
The awkwardness between Pence and Trump didn’t entirely dissipate. When the “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced, revealing Trump’s boast about grabbing women “by the pussy,” Karen Pence was horrified. According to a former campaign aide, Pence refused to take Trump’s calls and sent him a letter saying that he and Karen, as Christians, were deeply offended by his actions and needed to make an “assessment” about whether to remain with the campaign. They urged Trump to pray. When Trump and Pence finally did talk, Pence told him that his wife still had “huge problems” with his behavior. But in public Pence was forgiving, saying, “I am grateful that he has expressed remorse and apologized to the American people.” (A Pence spokesman has denied that there was any friction over the incident.)
Pence exceeded expectations in the Vice-Presidential debate, and traversed the Midwest tirelessly. “He did an amazing job,” Bannon said. “Lots of conservative groups had questions about Trump. He answered those questions.” The Kochs were delighted that one of their favorite politicians had joined the ticket, although, because of Trump’s stance against wealthy donors, Pence and the Kochs agreed to cancel a speech that he had been scheduled to give at their donor summit that August. The Kochs continued to withhold financial support from Trump, but Short, the former Koch operative, became a top adviser to Pence on the campaign. Some billionaires in the Kochs’ donor network—such as the hedge-fund manager Robert Mercer, who has also financed Bannon’s ventures—began backing Trump.
The Koch network gained even further sway after Trump won the Presidency. Three days after the election, Trump pushed aside Christie, who had been overseeing his transition team, and put Pence in charge, with Short as a top deputy. Trump had promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington, but he had no experience governing, and few political contacts. He was also superstitious, and during his campaign he had deflected discussions about post-election staffing, fearing that it would bring bad luck. Christie’s team had been quietly gathering résumés and making plans for months, but Pence’s team threw out the research, dumping thirty binders of material into the trash. “Donald Trump ran against the establishment, but there was a vacuum,” a member of the earlier transition team said. “Movement conservatives jumped in. There was strong think-tank participation from Heritage and others who saw the opportunity.”
Trump began to appoint an extraordinary number of officials with ties to the Kochs and to Pence, especially in positions that affected Koch Industries financially, such as those dealing with regulatory, environmental, and fiscal policy. Short, who a few months earlier had tried to enlist the Kochs to stop Trump, joined the White House as its director of legislative affairs. Scott Pruitt, the militantly anti-regulatory attorney general of Oklahoma, who had been heavily supported by the Kochs, was appointed director of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt, in turn, placed Patrick Traylor, a lawyer for Koch Industries and other fossil-fuel companies, in charge of the E.P.A.’s enforcement of key anti-pollution laws. As the Times has reported, a document called “A Roadmap to Repeal,” written by Koch operatives, has guided the E.P.A.’s reversal of Obama Administration clean-air and climate regulations. Don McGahn, who had done legal work for Freedom Partners, became White House counsel. Betsy DeVos, a billionaire heiress, who had been a major member of the Kochs’ donor network and a supporter of Pence, was named Secretary of Education. The new director of the C.I.A. was Mike Pompeo, the congressman who represented Charles Koch’s district, in Wichita, Kansas; before Pompeo ran for office, the Kochs had invested in his aerospace business. Pompeo, the former transition-team member said, “wasn’t even on Trump’s radar, but he was brought in to meet him and got appointed, like, the next day.” A recent analysis by the Checks & Balances Project found that sixteen high-ranking officials in the Trump White House had ties to the Kochs. The pattern continued among lower-level political appointees, including in Pence’s office, which was stocked with Koch alumni. Pence reportedly consulted with Charles Koch before hiring his speechwriter, Stephen Ford, who previously worked at Freedom Partners.
Senator Whitehouse, the Rhode Island Democrat, believes that the Kochs “will stick one hundred of their own people into the government—and Trump will never notice.” As a result, he said, “the signs of a rapprochement are everywhere.” Whitehouse continued, “One by one, all the things that Trump campaigned on that annoyed the Koch brothers are being thrown overboard. And one by one the Koch brothers’ priorities are moving up the list.” Trump’s populist, nationalist agenda has largely been replaced by the agenda of the corporate right. Trump has made little effort at infrastructure reform, and he abandoned his support for a “border-adjustment tax” after the Koch network spent months campaigning against it, and after Pence and Short discussed it privately with Charles Koch at a meeting in Colorado Springs this summer. Bannon’s proposal to create a higher tax bracket for citizens earning upward of five million dollars was dropped. The Kochs enthusiastically support the White House’s proposed tax-cut package, which, according to most nonpartisan analyses, will disproportionately benefit the super-rich. (The proposed elimination of the estate tax alone would give the Koch brothers’ heirs a windfall of billions of dollars.)
Americans for Prosperity recently announced plans to spend four and a half million dollars on ads that will press three Democratic senators in red states to support the tax cuts. On September 25th, Trump dined at the White House with Tim Phillips, the head of Americans for Prosperity, along with Short and a handful of other conservative activists. After keeping a careful distance from one another during the campaign, Pence and the Kochs reunited openly for the first time on October 13th, when Pence attended a summit of Koch donors in New York. “They’re aligned on tax reform,” Bannon said. “The Kochs are a hundred per cent with you, so long as it means cutting taxes for the Kochs. Anything that will help the middle-class people? Forget it.”
This article appears in other versions of the October 23, 2017, issue, with the headline “The President Pence Delusion.”
Another consequence of Trump’s choice for Vice-President may be the widening federal investigation into possible connections between his campaign and the Russian government. Before Pence took over the transition team, Christie had warned Trump not to give a high-level job to the retired general Michael Flynn, whose financial ties to foreign interests triggered the investigation. Flynn, whom Obama had fired as the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, was not on any of the original transition team’s long lists for government appointments. Christie considered him too risky.
On November 11, 2016, Christie was chairing a transition meeting, when, according to four sources, Flynn walked in with an ally, General Keith Kellogg. “Gentlemen, can I help you?” Christie asked. Ivanka Trump, who was a member of the transition team’s executive council, announced that she had invited them. Christie tried to reclaim control of the meeting, but Ivanka took over. Praising Flynn’s “amazing loyalty to my father,” she turned to him and asked, “General, what job do you want?” A participant at the meeting said, “It was like Princess Ivanka had laid the sword on Flynn’s shoulders and said, ‘Rise and go forth.’ ” (A source close to Ivanka didn’t deny the account, but said that it exaggerated her role, and that she was merely trying to show appreciation for Flynn’s support.)
Flynn expressed interest in becoming Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense. Eric Trump, who was also on the team, asked Flynn if he had been out of uniform long enough to head the Pentagon. Flynn said that he could probably get a congressional waiver, but if not he’d settle for national-security adviser.
A few hours later, Christie was deposed. Kushner, he felt, had humiliated him a second time. Bannon, who was given the job of dismissing him, admitted to Christie that Kushner had been against him all along, for personal reasons. In any event, when Pence replaced Christie, the door of the White House was opened to Flynn. On November 17th, after little vetting, Flynn was named Trump’s national-security adviser, one of the most sensitive posts in the U.S. government. There is no indication that Pence raised any objections about Flynn to Trump, even after Representative Elijah Cummings, the ranking member on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent Pence a letter warning him about Flynn’s questionable ethics: Flynn had failed to disclose that, during the campaign, he had done paid lobbying work for Turkish interests. A member of the original transition team told me, “Pence left his backbone in Indiana, if he ever had one.”
When reporters later asked Pence why he hadn’t heeded Cummings’s letter, he said that he’d never seen it. But Cummings produced an e-mail from the transition staff acknowledging his letter and promising to review it carefully. “Either he read it and ignored our warnings or someone on his team did so,” Cummings told me. “Either way, the outcome was horrendous, because President Trump should never have given General Flynn access to our nation’s most sensitive and classified information.”
It undoubtedly would have cost Pence to take a political stand against the worst instincts of Trump and his family. But had Pence stopped Flynn’s appointment Trump might not have become the object of a sprawling special investigation. Phil Sharp, the former Indiana representative, said, “There’s a leadership test here. There are real issues, and a failure to do something he was legally, ethically, and politically responsible for.” Sharp added, “It also failed the basic Washington litmus test of self-preservation.”
Pence soon delivered a series of misleading statements about Flynn. On January 15th, as questions about Russian manipulation of the election were mounting, Pence went on CBS and assured the public that, during the transition, Flynn had not discussed the topic of sanctions with the Russian Ambassador. But then the Washington Post reported that the Justice Department had wiretaps of Flynn doing just that. The Justice Department had informed the White House counsel about this well before Pence made his statement. On February 13th, Trump fired Flynn, ostensibly for deceiving Pence, who looked like either a liar or a chump.
Three months later, Trump fired James Comey, the F.B.I. director, who had opened the federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russian ties. Pence declared that Comey’s firing had nothing to do with Trump’s displeasure at the Russia investigation. Trump, he said, had merely followed the Justice Department’s recommendation. But Trump contradicted Pence within hours, telling NBC’s Lester Holt that his anger over the Russia probe led him to dismiss Comey. Further damaging Pence’s credibility, the Times revealed that, before Comey’s dismissal, Pence had attended a White House meeting where Trump discussed his intention to fire Comey and devised a plan to get the Justice Department to support the move.
Several law professors have argued that the Vice-President could be vulnerable to charges of obstructing justice, or “misprision of a felony,” for participating in a meeting about shutting down the federal investigation and then providing a false cover story to the public. Pence has hired an outside lawyer, Richard Cullen, and has further strengthened his political armor by hiring Nick Ayers as his chief of staff. Laurence Tribe, a law professor at Harvard, tweeted, “The VP appears to me to be in what we lawyers have been known to call deep doo-doo.”
Unlike most Vice-Presidents, Pence has been given no particular portfolio of issues or projects. He’s continued to serve as the key contact for conservative groups and campaign donors, and he has tried to help Trump contend with Congress. But Pence was publicly humiliated in July when John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona, stood on the floor of the Senate, where Pence had been pleading for his vote, and gave a thumbs-down, killing Trump’s health-care plan. White House officials had miscalculated, believing that McCain was on their side.
“What’s Pence doing?” Walter Mondale, who served as Vice-President to Jimmy Carter, asked me recently. “I ask myself that every day.” Before taking the job, Mondale got Carter to agree, in writing, that he could attend every meeting and see every memo that the President did. Mondale also requested that his office be moved from the Old Executive Office Building to the West Wing. Subsequent Vice-Presidents have inherited these upgrades, but Mondale felt that all Pence was doing was “trying not to make an enemy of the President.” Trump is known to humiliate subordinates, and Mondale noted that Trump often asks Pence to act as a master of ceremonies and introduce him at events, which Mondale finds demeaning. Dan Quayle, who was Vice-President in George H. W. Bush’s Administration, praised Pence, whom he has known for many years, for fulfilling the two major duties of a Vice-President: to be supportive and to be prepared. But when I asked Quayle if President Bush had ever asked him to leave the room—as Trump reportedly asked Pence to do, so that he could privately ask Comey to ease up on Flynn—he said, “Never.”
Mark Knoller, who has covered the White House for CBS since Gerald Ford’s Presidency, said of Pence, “He’s the most publicly deferential to his President of any V.P. I can remember.” At Trump’s first full Cabinet meeting, Pence said, “This is the greatest privilege of my life, to serve as Vice-President to a President who’s keeping his word to the American people.” Pence readily complied when Trump asked him to stage a protest at an N.F.L. game in Indianapolis on October 8th, by leaving the stadium when some players refused to stand for the national anthem. (Pence’s trip reportedly cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.)
In private, however, Pence has become a back channel for government figures who are frustrated by the impulsiveness and inattention of a President who won’t read more than a page or two of bullet points. Erick Erickson, a conservative commentator who admires Pence, told me, “Everyone knows that Mike Pence can get the job done, and the President can’t, but no one can say it.” According to NBC, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently became so enraged by the President’s incompetence that he called him “a fucking moron” in front of others, and threatened to quit. In an effort to calm Tillerson, and prevent yet another high-level resignation, Pence reportedly “counselled” the Secretary of State on how to manage Trump, suggesting that he criticize him only privately.
“Trump thinks Pence is great,” Bannon told me. But, according to a longtime associate, Trump also likes to “let Pence know who’s boss.” A staff member from Trump’s campaign recalls him mocking Pence’s religiosity. He said that, when people met with Trump after stopping by Pence’s office, Trump would ask them, “Did Mike make you pray?” Two sources also recalled Trump needling Pence about his views on abortion and homosexuality. During a meeting with a legal scholar, Trump belittled Pence’s determination to overturn Roe v. Wade. The legal scholar had said that, if the Supreme Court did so, many states would likely legalize abortion on their own. “You see?” Trump asked Pence. “You’ve wasted all this time and energy on it, and it’s not going to end abortion anyway.” When the conversation turned to gay rights, Trump motioned toward Pence and joked, “Don’t ask that guy—he wants to hang them all!”
There have been other evangelical Christians in the White House, including Carter and George W. Bush, but Pence’s fundamentalism exceeds theirs. In 2002, he declared that “educators around America must teach evolution not as fact but as theory,” alongside such theories as intelligent design, which argues that life on Earth is too complex to have emerged through random mutation. Pence has described intelligent design as the only “remotely rational explanation for the known universe.” At the White House, Pence has been hosting a Bible-study group for Cabinet officers, led by an evangelical pastor named Ralph Drollinger. In 2004, Drollinger, whose organization, Capitol Ministries, specializes in proselytizing to elected officials, stirred protests from female legislators in California, where he was then preaching, after he wrote, “Women with children at home, who either serve in public office, or are employed on the outside, pursue a path that contradicts God’s revealed design for them. It is a sin.” Drollinger describes Catholicism as “a false religion,” calls homosexuality “a sin,” and believes that a wife must “submit” to her husband. Several Trump Cabinet officials have reportedly attended the Bible-study group, including DeVos, Pompeo, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In a recent interview with the Christian Broadcast Network, Drollinger said that Pence “has uncompromising Biblical tenacity” and “brings real value to the head of the nation.”
Many Americans have debated whether the country would be better off with Pence as President. From a purely partisan viewpoint, Harold Ickes, a longtime Democratic operative, argues that—putting aside the fear that Trump might start a nuclear war—“Democrats should hope Trump stays in office,” because he makes a better foil, and because Pence might work more effectively with Congress and be more successful at advancing the far right’s agenda. Newt Gingrich predicts that Pence will probably get a chance to do so. “I think he’s the most likely Republican nominee in 2024,” he said. Ron Klain, who was chief of staff to the former Vice-President Joe Biden, is skeptical of this, given Trump’s accumulating baggage. “There is no success for Mike Pence unless Trump works—he cannot run far enough or fast enough to not get hit by the falling tree,” Klain said. “But he may think he can.” Evidently, the next chapter is on Pence’s mind. Over the fireplace in the Vice-President’s residence, he has hung a plaque with a passage from the Bible: “ ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the lord, ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ ” ♦
An earlier version of this article misstated the date, in October, 2017, when Pence attended a summit of Koch donors.
Jane Mayer has been a New Yorker staff writer since 1995.