On Sunday afternoon, Vice President Mike Pence walked out of an NFL game after several San Francisco 49ers players knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality. This “spontaneous” move had been planned in advance. Shortly after Pence’s walkout, NBC News’ Vaughn Hillyard reported that the vice president’s press pool had been told ahead of time that he might leave early. President Donald Trump then confirmed via Twitter that he had directed Pence to walk out “if any players kneeled, disrespecting our country.” Given that players from the 49ers, Colin Kaepernick’s favorite team, have kneeled before every game this year, this entire incident appears to have been a pricey, pre-planned stunt designed to fuel the flames of Trump’s crusade against the NFL.
It’s not surprising that Trump would seek to prolong a racially charged dispute in which he believes he holds the upper hand. It is more startling to see him deploy his vice president as a pawn in a culture war of his own creation. Pence did not take this job to perform demeaning tasks for the pleasure of his boss; he was expected to use his ties to the GOP establishment to help push Trump’s agenda through Congress. But following the administration’s failure to repeal and replace Obamacare, Trump seems to be repurposing Pence—and, in the process, testing the limits of his loyalty.
The bond between Trump and Pence has never been especially strong. Trump resisted choosing the former Indiana governor and congressman as his running mate, finally assenting to his selection at the behest of then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort. (Remember that guy?) Even then, Trump tried to drop Pence after he’d been offered the position. Pence performed ably in the role of generic Republican, shoring up support among those who doubted Trump’s GOP bona fides. After the election, Pence fulfilled an important role, leading a presidential transition team that included future national security adviser Mike Flynn.
It’s still not clear whether Pence knew at the time that Flynn had spoken to the Russian ambassador about the possibility that the U.S. might ease sanctions against Vladimir Putin et al. Pence first denied the sanctions conversation had occurred, then claimed Flynn had misled him. In reality, Trump also misled his veep; the president knew Flynn had lied to Pence, but didn’t inform his vice president for weeks. Although he kept quiet in public, Pence was reportedly furious that Trump had kept him in the dark and had allowed him to state a falsehood on TV. Basically, he was mad that Trump had used him.
Since assuming office, Pence has performed three primary duties: representing Trump overseas, fundraising, and lobbying Congress. It’s this last job Trump cares about the most. It’s also the area where Pence has had the least success. Yes, the vice president has cast several tie-breaking votes in the Senate, including one to confirm Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and another to let states defund Planned Parenthood. But Pence was also supposed to secure votes for Obamacare repeal, serving as the Trump administration’s man on the hill during negotiations.
He had some success early on, persuading a majority of the House Freedom Caucus to vote in favor of the American Health Care Act. But his efforts quickly sputtered in the Senate. Pence attended almost every closed-door Tuesday lunch with GOP senators to reassure agnostic moderates that repeal would not decimate their states’ Medicaid programs. He held a dinner with conservative hard-liners to assuage their concerns about the wisdom of repeal-and-replace; he gave a speech at the Ohio Republican Party state dinner that was clearly designed to push Sen. Rob Portman into the yes column; and he attended a meeting of the National Governors Association to pressure Republican governors into supporting the Senate’s repeal plan. When Ohio Gov. John Kasich refused to budge, Pence attacked him with two blatant falsehoods. The vice president went through this whole process again in September, stumping for Graham-Cassidy in purple states and bashing Republican defectors, including Sen. John McCain, as Obamacare supporters.
This role was not a comfortable one for the vice president. Pence is not, by nature, a team player or a glad-hander. He spent his 12 years in the House of Representatives playing up his Christian conservative credentials by introducing symbolic bills and resolutions that went nowhere. Having failed to accomplish anything independently, he then bucked his own party on major votes like Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, and the 2008 bank bailout. Pence ran for governor in 2012 because he realized his path to the White House would not run through the House. He then spent four years mostly signing legislation handed to him by a Republican state legislature. Michael Leppert, an Indiana lobbyist, told me Pence rarely “drove through agenda items of his own. He was very much trying to stay out of trouble. And he didn’t do that very well.” To that end, Leppert mentioned a draconian anti-abortion measure, signed by Pence, which was later struck down as unconstitutional.
“He could have worked with the legislature to make the bill less extreme,” Leppert said. “Instead, he sat back, let it come to him, and signed it—then took all the abuse for a bill that wasn’t really his. He didn’t manage the legislature, and he let ideology trump pragmatism.”
Pence vied for the vice presidency not because he was eager to serve Trump, but because he was poised to lose reelection. By 2016, he was quite unpopular in Indiana; his defense of an anti-LGBTQ “religious liberty” law was especially ignominious to the state. He faced a rematch with centrist Democrat John Gregg, who nearly beat him in 2012. Gregg and Pence were virtually tied in the months before Trump plucked Pence out of the race. In May, Gregg—an old friend and law school classmate of Pence—told me the vice president likely felt embarrassed by Trump. Pence knew, however, that running alongside the reality TV personality would bring him to the national stage, and would transform him into an early 2020 frontrunner if Trump lost.
When Trump won, he understandably expected Pence to prove his usefulness by securing congressional victories. Pence has certainly served as a loyal foot soldier, refusing to speak a cross word about his boss and vigorously supporting his legislative priorities. But he also over-promised and under-delivered, particularly on health care. Publicly, Trump has never reprimanded Pence for his botched role in the Obamacare debacle. But it’s difficult to believe the president was not infuriated by Pence’s obvious ineffectiveness. What, after all, is Pence good for if he cannot secure Republican votes on the Hill?
We now have one possible answer to that question. On Sunday, Trump used Pence for the undignified purpose of reigniting his NFL flame war, a publicity stunt the vice president would never have come up with on his own. Pence is a reactionary, to be sure, but not an easily triggered provocateur like Trump; when theatergoers booed him at a performance of Hamilton, he defended their right to do so. Now, however, Trump is auditioning his second-in-command for a new role as a prop in the grudges he fosters to keep his white-working class base satiated. Trump may be punishing Pence for his past failures, or demanding proof of loyalty, or both. Regardless, Sunday’s charade is surely a new low point for the vice president. Pence teamed up with Trump to gain power and prestige in Washington. Less than nine months into his tenure, he is humiliating himself for the entertainment of a crowd that never much cared for him to begin with.