Mike Pence is adding staffers for his brand-new office in downtown Washington – inching closer to a possible White House run even as his standing worsens with former President Donald Trump and his base of supporters.
The former vice president’s ramp-up comes as Trump appears to be making good on his declaration to Pence that “I don’t want to be your friend anymore.” That quote, first reported this week, is attributed to Trump in a forthcoming book by journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.
The last conversation between the two Republican leaders was a phone call from Trump in April, Republican sources tell CNN, wishing Pence well as the former vice president recovered from heart surgery.
Pence isn’t waiting to make up with his former running mate – nor is he waiting for the former President to make up his own mind about his political future. People around Pence rejected the idea that he would hold off on his 2024 planning until Trump announces whether he’ll run.
“Mike is going to look at this and say, ‘Where am I being called to serve?’ ” said one person close to Pence. “That’s not going to be thwarted by any man or woman.”
“If he feels called to do this,” the adviser went on, “it’s not going to be because of who else is in the race.”
Top aides to Pence told CNN this week that the Indiana Republican has doubled his team to about 20 people this summer. He’s also added a top Republican fundraiser, John Fogarty, and new office space for his non-profit group, Advancing American Freedom.
At the moment, most other potential GOP contenders are tiptoeing around Trump, either suggesting they won’t run if he does or, like former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, blatantly saying so publicly.
That’s not so with Pence. Though aides are reluctant to spell out his plan, some parts of it seem evident in the way he has been expanding his operation and adding to his schedule – all amid headlines that don’t exactly improve his appeal to the Trump faithful.
But while Trump is preoccupied with litigating the 2020 election and settling scores, often with his fellow Republicans, Pence is attempting to forge a path independent of the ex-President.
He is crisscrossing the country to help out Republican candidates and causes, assisting with everything from fundraising to lending his top aides to their campaigns. Aides say Pence is particularly focused on helping the GOP win the majority in the House and more governor’s seats in the midterm elections next year.
He’s also making more plans to visit three of the early presidential primary states – Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina – in the coming months.
But some Republicans say despite his efforts to assume a role as de facto party leader, Pence remains a supporting actor in the Trump show.
“He’s the most uniquely connected to Trump of anyone in the field, in ways both helpful and unhelpful,” said David Kochel, an Iowa-based Republican campaign strategist. “Nobody would be more affected by a Trump comment than Pence, and nobody more vulnerable to a Trump run.”
Setting himself apart
Although the GOP remains Trump’s party, those around Pence see his distinctions from Trump as an asset.
Pence’s forward-looking approach and emphasis on party unity, they hope, will in time look better to Republican voters than Trump’s vindictiveness and refusal to rise to the moment.
Last weekend, one person close to Pence noted, Trump met briefly with police and firefighters in New York – skipping the official commemorations of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 attended by other former presidents. Trump then spent that evening calling a series of pay-per-view boxing matches in Florida.
Aides pointed to a different schedule for Pence, starting with a rededication of Indiana’s 9/11 memorial. The same weekend, Pence met with the family of Daegan Page, a Marine who was one of the 13 US service members who died in a bombing during the withdrawal from Afghanistan, during a trip to Omaha.
While in Omaha, Pence also attended two political events. He spoke at Nebraska Gov. Pete Rickett’s annual steak fry alongside two other potential 2024 candidates, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. And he attended a fundraiser for Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican House member in a vulnerable district that voted for Joe Biden in 2020.
Trump has focused his political energies this year on taking on House Republicans who voted to impeach him and getting involved in competitive Senate primaries. Pence is taking a different tack – one designed to build up and upon relationships that will be useful down the road.
“Pence is going to go about trying to help the party win seats, not foment division,” said the person close to the former vice president.
On the fundraising circuit this summer, Pence raised money for everyone from the Republican National Committee to individual House candidates like Bacon and South Carolina’s Rep. Nancy Mace. He’s held two fundraisers for Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin and even loaned out a trusted communications aide, Devin O’Malley, to help Youngkin’s campaign.
He also has upcoming fundraisers for the Indiana congressional delegation and the Republican Governors Association, according to his advisers.
Pence remains a popular draw for Republican donors. One person who attended the RNC’s summer donor retreat in Southern California said the audience was “maxed out” for Pence’s remarks.
‘I think Pence is doing what he can’
Pence advisers want to build a case that he was and remains a source of steady conservative leadership where Trump, implicitly, has not been.
Sometimes that means giving policy-focused speeches, such as his July speech on China at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank where Pence is a “distinguished visiting fellow.” There are plans for him to deliver a similar speech on law enforcement policy in the coming weeks.
At other times, it means reaffirming his actions on January 6, as he did in June at the Ronald Reagan presidential library. In that speech, Pence rebuked Trump and called the push to overturn the 2020 election “un-American.”
But Pence is also careful to direct his more overt criticism at the Biden administration. In an appearance last week on “Fox & Friends,” he went after President Biden’s announcement that employees at medium-size and large businesses would be required to get vaccinated for the coronavirus.
“I mean, to have the President of the United States say that he has been patient but his patience is wearing thin? That’s not how the American people expect to be spoken to by our elected leaders,” Pence said.
Instead, he called on government leaders to encourage Americans to get the vaccine and to “lead by example.” In doing so, Pence positioned himself on a sort of middle ground for Republicans: supportive of the vaccine while critical of the Democratic administration’s policy.
For some Republican observers, the moves show Pence is so far playing well the hand he was dealt after the fallout from the 2020 election.
“I think Pence is doing what he can: saying the right things, defining himself as himself and not as Trump’s surrogate, and helping others,” said Erick Erickson, an Atlanta-based conservative radio host. “But he’s kind of like a jet trying to land with a storm over the airport. He’s in a holding pattern until Trump decides.”