The Trump administration is pushing back against a New York Times report that claims numerous Republicans are gearing up for the 2020 race “as if the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue weren’t involved.” The paper says Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Vice President Mike Pence are all quietly exploring the possibility of a presidential run.
Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns talked to 75 Republicans “at every level of the party” and explain how and why such an unprecedented situation has emerged:
The would-be candidates are cultivating some of the party’s most prominent donors, courting conservative interest groups and carefully enhancing their profiles. Mr. Trump has given no indication that he will decline to seek a second term.
But the sheer disarray surrounding this presidency — the intensifying investigation by the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and the plain uncertainty about what Mr. Trump will do in the next week, let alone in the next election — have prompted Republican officeholders to take political steps unheard-of so soon into a new administration.
“They see weakness in this president,” said Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. “Look, it’s not a nice business we’re in.”
The White House denied the report with Pence allies taking the lead because the Times said Pence was attending so many political events “Republicans joke that he is acting more like a second-term vice president hoping to clear the field than a No. 2 sworn in a little over six months ago.” Pence’s press secretary quickly took to Twitter to call the story “ridiculous” and say the Times was involved in “wishful thinking.”
Pence himself shot down the report on Sunday, calling it "disgraceful and offensive to me, my family, and our entire team." The vice president added that "the American people know that I could not be more honored to be working side by side with a president who is making America great again" and insisted "my entire team will continue to focus all our efforts to advance the President's agenda and see him re-elected in 2020. Any suggestion otherwise is both laughable and absurd."
Some Republicans, however, are not hiding the fact that they would rather have Pence leading the party. “For some, it is for ideological reasons, and for others it is for stylistic reasons,” Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania said. The lawmaker specifically noted the “exhausting” amount of “instability, chaos and dysfunction” surrounding the president in his first months in office.
The White House, however, insisted Trump is planning to run for a second term. “The president says privately and publicly, often, George that he'll be president for seven and a half more years, so he plans on being a two term president,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Sunday. Conway said that Pence “is getting ready for 2020” but to run for his second term as vice president, adding that any claims otherwise are “complete fiction, complete fabrication.”
The Times is hardly the first to bring up the possibility of a competitive GOP primary for the 2020 race. "It's completely feasible that there will be long, drawn-out Republican primary for Trump to be renominated," Repubican consultant Rob Stutzman said at a conference recently. In response, CNN wrote up a list of five Republicans who could challenge Trump: Senators Ted Cruz, Jeff Flake, Ben Sasse and Governors Jon Kasich and Scott Walker.
*This post has been updated with a statement from Vice President Mike Pence since it was first published.