How US Vice President Mike Pence is walking a tightrope over persistent Trump scandals
As the troubles of his boss grow deeper by the day, experts say he remains forced to stand by his man – at least for now
Mike Pence is the loyal wingman, the 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 high wire.
The 58-year-old former governor of Indiana is currently the man closest to the US presidency.
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 forced to stand by his man – at least for now.
“Pence is in a very difficult position,” said Joel Goldstein, expert on the vice-presidency at Saint Louis University School of Law.
“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 health care bill, it is Pence who has been shuttling between the White House and Congress in a behind-the-scenes effort to rescue the imperilled 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.
Pence offered a glimpse on Wednesday of what it’s like on the Trump roller coaster, 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 students at American University. “Pull the roll bar down, because you just got to hang on.”
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 Jnr 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.
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 adviser his job.
And having flatly denied any Trump campaign contacts with Russia, Pence’s credibility is shaken with each new revelation.
Pence’s defence will look increasingly questionable, especially if Trump’s troubles worsen.
“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,” Goldstein said.
Striking the balance between loyalty to an embattled leader and avoiding getting caught up in the scandals plaguing them is a fierce challenge. Pence has “juggled” this 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.”