When people talk about the office the vice president of the United States, it’s almost inevitable that someone reaches back into history toward FDR’s two-term second-in-command, John Nance Garner, who memorably described the office as being “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” The remark is said to have made Roosevelt laugh out loud when it was conveyed to him and it’s been passed down as the conventional wisdom about the office ever since. It was hammered home by Garner’s statement in retirement -- that accepting the nomination had been “the worst damn fool mistake I ever made.”
But for the past 16 years or more, the job of the vice president has been very different from the one Nance despised. Joe Biden in the Obama White House and Dick Cheney under George W. Bush were both deeply engaged in formulating administration policy and marshaling support in Congress. At critical times in both administrations, both Cheney and Biden were deputized to negotiate with lawmakers and to strike deals that both sides understood the president would honor.
Given the current turmoil in the Trump White House, though, the office may be reverting back to “warm piss” status.
It’s unclear just what role Vice President Mike Pence is playing in the administration, how empowered he will be with regard to politics and policymaking, and, frankly, how much weight his word will carry on Capitol Hill. That’s because this week it became clear that the vice president is not in President Trump’s inner circle.
In January, with rumors swirling about his alleged contacts with Russian officials before Trump took office, now former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn told Pence that he had not discussed lifting economic sanctions imposed by the Obama administration. Pence then went on national television to repeat Flynn’s claims.
On January 26, the Justice Department informed the White House that Flynn had apparently misled Pence and other members of the administration. According to multiple reports, wiretap intelligence indicated that he had discussed sanctions with the Russian Ambassador.
Remarkably, even though White House Counsel Don McGahn and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus informed the president immediately, Pence was kept in the dark until February 9. Worse, according to his spokesperson’s comment to The Washington Post, he learned about it not from the president but from media reports.
At this point, absent some sort of public statement from Trump that affirmatively asserts that Pence has authority within the administration, it’s hard to see how the vice president can claim to speak for the White House on matters of policy. Members of Congress, business leaders, interest groups and others sitting across the table from Pence could and will ask themselves whether what he’s telling them really reflects the thinking of the president and his closest advisers.
Of course, this was always a danger in a Trump presidency, as Pence knew, or should have known when he accepted the vice presidential nomination. When a man as mercurial as Trump has revealed himself to be is sitting in the Oval Office, there would always be the possibility that policies articulated in good faith by his surrogates would be subject to change without notice.
However, when the evidence that Pence was treated with manifest disrespect during the Flynn affair was added to the mix, the vice president’s ability to act as the voice of the administration has presumably been badly damaged.
In truth, Trump and Pence were always an unlikely match. Pence, the former Indiana governor, describes himself as a “born-again evangelical Catholic” and has long been a fixture in the conservative movement, especially with respect to culture war issues, including gay rights and abortion. These are areas in which Trump expressed little interest except when it became politically necessary for him to do so.
Trump’s selection of Pence was part of what made his deeply unconventional presidential campaign palatable to many conservatives. The assumption was that Pence would have a seat at the table, and would be able to steer the Trump administration toward more traditionally conservative positions.
The silver lining for the vice president is that, given the direction things are heading for the Trump administration, he might not even want to be close to the center of power at this point. By Wednesday morning, the reports of a Russian connection to Trump’s presidential campaign had expanded well beyond Flynn, with both The New York Times and CNN reporting that aides and associates of the president were in frequent contact with Russian officials, including intelligence agents, during the 2016 presidential election.
As calls for Congressional investigations multiplied, Trump himself took to Twitter to spout two seemingly contradictory complaints. The stories about his campaign’s connections to Russia, he said, are “fake news” and “conspiracy theories” driven by the media’s “blind hatred” of the president. But in practically the same breath, Trump denounced the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, claiming that they were responsible for leaking classified information, seemingly a tacit admission that the reports are accurate.
“The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!” he wrote.
Worries about the stability of the leadership structure in the executive branch have begun seeping into the military. On Tuesday, the four-star Army General in charge of Special Operations Command expressed concern about the “unbelievable turmoil” in the White House, adding “I hope they sort it out soon because we’re a nation at war.”
Amidst the uncertainty, talk of impeachment or Trump’s eventual resignation has started to be taken very seriously by longtime observers of Washington. And as a result, how Pence handles himself in the coming weeks will be very closely watched.
“No question, Pence has to be embarrassed by this turn of events,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “But his major mistake so far has been getting entirely too close to Trump and parroting some of the silly things Trump and his inner circle have been saying.”
He added, “It is far from inconceivable that Pence will be president during the current term, and his ability to govern may well depend on whether enough people see him as somewhat independent. To use a historical parallel, Pence wants to be Gerald Ford to Trump's Richard Nixon. So having some distance could be a very good thing for a vice president who has seemed sycophantic so far.”