on move as steady­ing force in Trump tur­moil.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - KEN THOMAS AND STEVE PEOPLES

WASHINGTON — Shut­tling across the coun­try aboard Air Force Two, Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence has been a loyal mes­sen­ger for Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. At the same time, he has been carv­ing out his own po­lit­i­cal iden­tity as the pres­i­dent’s steady un­der­study.

The Repub­li­can vice pres­i­dent has raised more than $1 mil­lion in re­cent months for his po­lit­i­cal com­mit­tee, head­lined GOP events in such key states as Iowa and Ohio, and hosted Repub­li­can VIPs for din­ner at his for­mal res­i­dence in Washington. Pence also is pre­par­ing to take his fourth over­seas trip in the past six months, a sched­ule that has re­moved him from the Trump White House’s daily palace in­trigue and the spe­cial coun­sel’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ties with Rus­sia.

The vice pres­i­dent’s push-and-pull with Trump was re­flected in his of­fice’s vig­or­ous re­sponse to a New York Times re­port that sug­gested he might be tak­ing steps to po­si­tion him­self for a 2020 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Pence said in a lengthy state­ment Sun­day that the re­port was “cat­e­gor­i­cally false.” The vice pres­i­dent’s spokesman made mul­ti­ple ap­pear­ances on ca­ble net­works Mon­day to push back against the story.

“The po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties of the vice pres­i­dent are 150 per­cent in sup­port of the pres­i­dent’s agenda. Any­one who as­serts oth­er­wise is un­in­formed,” said Phil Musser, a long­time Pence ad­viser.

Few Repub­li­can op­er­a­tives be­lieve that Pence would chal­lenge Trump in the 2020 Repub­li­can pri­mary elec­tion. But at the same time, Repub­li­cans pri­vately con­cede that Trump could be the first pres­i­dent since Richard Nixon to leave of­fice at midterm or not to seek re-elec­tion — ei­ther for po­lit­i­cal or per­sonal rea­sons. Pence would be ill-ad­vised not to pre­pare for an early Trump exit, as un­likely as it may be, they say.

“I think that Pence is try­ing to help pre­pare for the ticket to be re-elected in four years,” said for­mer GOP con­gress­man Vin We­ber, who keeps in reg­u­lar touch with ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials. “But it’s ridicu­lous to say that it never crosses your mind that the pres­i­dent might not be on the bal­lot for what­ever rea­son, be it health or po­lit­i­cal.”

Beyond his fre­quent travel, the vice pres­i­dent has sought to sep­a­rate him­self from spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into ties be­tween the Trump cam­paign and Rus­sian of­fi­cials.

When ques­tions arose about Trump’s el­dest son, Don­ald Trump Jr., and other Trump of­fi­cials meet­ing with a Rus­sian at­tor­ney in June 2016, Pence’s of­fice is­sued a state­ment not­ing that it took place be­fore he joined the Trump ticket. His spokesman later added that Pence did not meet with any Rus­sians dur­ing the cam­paign.

Pence also has trav­eled to nine coun­tries as vice pres­i­dent so far and plans to make a four-na­tion trip to South Amer­ica next week, cre­at­ing space be­tween his of­fice and the churn of sto­ries about White House shake-ups or the pres­i­dent’s daily tweets.

But he has loy­ally backed Trump’s poli­cies and agenda. Pence, who served in Congress for a dozen years, rarely be­gins a speech without pass­ing along the pres­i­dent’s greet­ings and has acted as Trump’s chief lob­by­ist on Capi­tol Hill, con­ven­ing weekly din­ners with Repub­li­can law­mak­ers and busi­ness lead­ers at his res­i­dence at the Naval Ob­ser­va­tory. Even in pri­vate meet­ings, Pence doesn’t de­vi­ate from his ef­fu­sive Trump praise.

“He’s an ex­pe­ri­enced leg­is­la­tor who can help bridge gaps be­tween mem­bers of our con­fer­ence or be­tween the Congress and the pres­i­dent,” said Sen. Tom Cot­ton, R-Ark., who at­tended a din­ner in late June.

Pence stoked dis­cus­sions about his po­lit­i­cal fu­ture when he formed his Great Amer­ica Com­mit­tee in May, al­low­ing him to raise money to sup­port Repub­li­can can­di­dates and fund po­lit­i­cal travel.

Pence also re­mains an im­por­tant li­ai­son to Trump’s con­ser­va­tive base. His public sched­ule has in­cluded ad­dresses to Chris­tian lead­ers who have stuck with Trump de­spite his lag­ging ap­proval rat­ings, groups like Fo­cus on the Fam­ily and the World Sum­mit in De­fense of Per­se­cuted Chris­tians, which was or­ga­nized by Franklin Gra­ham.

“He’s a known quan­tity. We all trust Mike,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.

“The po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties of the vice pres­i­dent are 150 per­cent in sup­port of the pres­i­dent’s agenda. Any­one who as­serts oth­er­wise is un­in­formed.”

— Phil Musser, a long­time Pence ad­viser

The New York Times/TOM BREN­NER

Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence waits for Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to speak on the health care law at an event on July 24 at the White House.

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