Pence walks high wire over Trump scan­dals

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Mike Pence is the loyal wing­man, the ever-dis­creet fig­ure who rises above the Wash­ing­ton fray. But as the Rus­sia scan­dal en­croaches ever fur­ther on Don­ald Trump’s White House, the vice pres­i­dent is also walk­ing a po­lit­i­cal tightrope. The 58-year-old for­mer gover­nor of In­di­ana is cur­rently the man clos­est to the US pres­i­dency - ei­ther as Trump’s im­me­di­ate suc­ces­sor should his term end pre­ma­turely, or as his heir ap­par­ent in 2020 or 2024 elec­tions, de­pend­ing on how many terms Trump serves.

As the trou­bles of his boss grow deeper by the day, en­snared in a widen­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion into his cam­paign ties to Rus­sia, ex­perts say the 48th US vice pres­i­dent re­mains com­pelled to stand by his man - at least for now. “Pence is in a very dif­fi­cult po­si­tion,” Joel Gold­stein, an ex­pert on the vice pres­i­dency at Saint Louis Univer­sity School of Law, told AFP. “A vice pres­i­dent is ex­pected to be loyal to the pres­i­dent, but Pres­i­dent Trump im­poses a heavy bur­den on his sub­or­di­nates by say­ing and do­ing things that of­ten are hard to de­fend.”

The two men could hardly be more dif­fer­ent: Where Trump likes to blur ide­o­log­i­cal lines, Pence is a com­mit­ted Chris­tian con­ser­va­tive, as stiff and dis­ci­plined as his boss is ex­u­ber­ant and un­pre­dictable. While Trump tweets about a high-stakes health­care bill, it is Pence who has been shut­tling be­tween the White House and Congress in a be­hind-the-scenes ef­fort to res­cue the im­per­iled leg­is­la­tion. In Trump’s tur­bu­lent Wash­ing­ton, Pence is seen as the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s steady­ing force, the “axe be­hind the glass you’re sup­posed to break in case of emer­gency,” as The Daily Beast news web­site put it re­cently.

‘Hang on’

Pence of­fered a glimpse Wed­nes­day of what it’s like on the Trump roller­coaster, as num­ber two to ar­guably the most con­tro­ver­sial US leader in mod­ern times. “You need to keep your arms and legs in the ride at all times,” he told stu­dent lead­ers at Amer­i­can Univer­sity.

“Pull the roll bar down, be­cause you just got to hang on.” Yet Pence has taken lowkey steps that sug­gest he could be lay­ing the ground­work for his po­lit­i­cal fu­ture. In an un­usual move, two close ad­vi­sors to Pence have founded a po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee, The New York Times re­ported. He has also be­gun host­ing Repub­li­can megadonors at his Wash­ing­ton res­i­dence, ac­cord­ing to the daily.

Next pres­i­dent?

As fed­eral and con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors dig deeper into al­le­ga­tions that Trump’s camp col­luded with Rus­sia to tilt the 2016 elec­tion, a hand­ful of Democrats are now call­ing openly for the pres­i­dent to be im­peached. How­ever re­mote the prospect of im­peach­ment by the Repub­li­can-con­trolled Congress, the Rus­sia cloud stub­bornly re­fuses to dis­si­pate. Should Trump even­tu­ally be forced from of­fice, Pence would be­come the 10th US vice pres­i­dent to as­sume the pres­i­dency with­out be­ing elected - the first since Ger­ald Ford suc­ceeded Richard Nixon fol­low­ing the Water­gate scan­dal in 1974.

When Don­ald Trump Jr re­cently ac­knowl­edged that he and cam­paign aides met a Rus­sian lawyer last year in hope of ob­tain­ing dirt on Trump’s Demo­cratic ri­val Hil­lary Clin­ton, Pence dis­tanced him­self from the snow­balling scan­dal. “He is not fo­cused on sto­ries about the cam­paign, par­tic­u­larly sto­ries about the time be­fore he joined the ticket,” said a state­ment from Pence’s of­fice.

But the vice pres­i­dent has not emerged en­tirely un­scathed so far. As head of Trump’s tran­si­tion team, he pub­licly backed Michael Flynn dur­ing the up­roar about con­tacts with the Rus­sian am­bas­sador which cost the newly-minted na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor his job. And hav­ing flatly de­nied any Trump cam­paign con­tacts with Rus­sia, Pence’s cred­i­bil­ity is fur­ther rocked with each new rev­e­la­tion.

‘Los­ing cred­i­bil­ity’

Pence’s de­fense will look in­creas­ingly ques­tion­able, es­pe­cially if Trump’s trou­bles worsen. But it is sur­viv­able, said Michael Munger, di­rec­tor of the pol­i­tics pro­gram at Duke Univer­sity. “Pence was prob­a­bly not ly­ing. He was lied to, and he took the party line and then kept his mouth shut when they cut him off at the knees,” the pro­fes­sor said. “He is los­ing cred­i­bil­ity, I sup­pose, but he gets ex­tra points for do­ing his job.”

Yet Pence’s close ties to the pres­i­dent - as re­cently as last month he said serv­ing with Trump has been “the great­est priv­i­lege of my life” - may yet prove an al­ba­tross around his neck. “None of the last seven vice pres­i­dents have been so will­ing to be so syco­phan­tic in their praise and have said so many sig­nif­i­cant things that later turned out to be un­true,” the ex­pert Gold­stein said.

Strik­ing the bal­ance be­tween loy­alty to an em­bat­tled leader and avoid­ing get­ting caught up in scan­dal is a fierce chal­lenge. Pence has “jug­gled” well, said Paul Beck of Ohio State Univer­sity. “But if this Rus­sia con­tro­versy re­ally gets the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion into deep, deep trou­ble... then Pence is kind of trapped out there as one of the team.” — AFP

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