When former Vice President Dick Cheney charged this weekend that Donald Trump treats American foreign policy like a “New York real estate deal,” he demanded an answer not from the president but from Trump’s mild-mannered vice president, Mike Pence.
To the audience of Republican insiders gathered in Sea Island, Ga., Cheney’s grilling of Pence about Trump’s governing style — as well as Pence’s totally on-message defense of the president — may have appeared awkward.
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But Pence had been there before. In recent months, Pence has repeatedly found himself an even-tempered target for prominent Republicans needing to vent about Trump’s unorthodox style.
“When he comes up here, unfortunately for him, he gets to be kind of the person that people take out some of their frustrations out on,” said John Thune (R-S.D.), the Senate’s No. 2 leader. “But that’s a part of the job.”
That has become more and more true of late. In multiple encounters with Republicans on Capitol Hill, on issues ranging from Syria to the government shutdown, Pence has swallowed his personal views, which have historically been far more in line with the GOP establishment than Trump’s.
“To some extent, that’s part of the job of being vice president. You’re a political soft target,” said Mike Feldman, who served as a policy aide to Vice President Al Gore. “You surrender your own agenda, to some extent your own political operation, your own self-identity, and you become a spokesperson for and implementer of somebody else’s agenda, and part of your job is to defend all that when it’s not all yours.”
But while it’s routine for vice presidents to defend their bosses, none in memory have worked for a president as willing as Trump to turn on his top officials. Pence seems to understand that survival in the Trump administration means showing no daylight with the president, even in the face of Republican lawmakers fuming over what Feldman referred to as the unique “political spasms of the commander in chief.”
Nor have any recent vice presidents had to endure so much criticism from within their own party ranks.
This week, the complaints of Republican lawmakers are likely to turn into a veto battle with the president. Several GOP lawmakers are preparing to vote to block the president’s decision to declare a national emergency on the U.S.-Mexico border, and Pence is once again absorbing Republican frustration.
On Tuesday, he met privately with a quintet of Republican senators troubled by the emergency declaration. Pence listened intently as Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Rob Portman of Ohio, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Thom Tillis of North Carolina pushed for changes to the National Emergency Act. Pence promised to take those concerns to the president, but made no other commitments, according to people familiar with the meeting. Senators were happy to feel heard, said one attendee, but believe reaching a deal with Trump via Pence will be “tough to achieve.”
While most of the confrontations between Pence and his fellow Republicans have taken place behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, the confrontation with Cheney at Sea Island exposed the dynamic to an audience of Republican donors, business leaders and intellectuals.
There, Pence pushed back on Cheney’s concern that the president’s preoccupation with the “checkbook” — that is, the cost of stationing American troops overseas — is undermining American alliances.
“The president really doesn’t see them as two different things,” Pence said. “And I have to tell you, I’ve been in a lot of these conversations with a lot of these leaders, and they get it. They get it. I mean, he just — he looks at them and says, ‘Look, we’re living up to our commitment and then some.’”
Like many battles in the Trump era, the conflict divided Republicans on Capitol Hill who are split between Cheney’s old-school hawkishness and Trump’s more libertarian-friendly world view. It has also created a set of constantly shifting alliances among Republicans themselves.
Calling Cheney “part of the warmonger caucus” in the GOP, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — who is poised to vote against the president on the forthcoming resolution disapproving of his national emergency declaration — said the former vice president was “attacking [Pence] because of Trump’s position.”
But another Republican lawmaker present for the verbal tussle, which appeared to surprise Pence, “appreciated Cheney asking the hard questions. Somebody needed to.”
Pence‘s allies say he and the president are virtually always of a single mind, and that they agree on a message before Pence shuttles across town to take it to his fellow Republicans. They also say GOP senators have exaggerated their disagreements with the White House, and unfairly cast Pence’s rebuttals as ineffective in conversations with reporters.
“I think for a lot of senators and congressman it’s good sport to come out in front of cameras and make it seem like they were very tough,” said Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff, who served as the administration’s congressional liaison for the first two years of the Trump presidency.
On Capitol Hill, where Pence has regularly attended the Senate Republicans’ Tuesday policy lunches, GOP lawmakers have routinely vented their mounting frustrations to his face.
In December, Pence’s mission was to soothe the concerns of Republican lawmakers after Trump abruptly announced on Twitter that he was withdrawing American troops from Syria after defeating “100% of the Caliphate.”
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) warned Pence that the Trump administration would come to regret its decision the moment “an American citizen is burned in a cage by ISIS,” according to a source familiar with the remark.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Pence he was “personally offended” that he learned about the withdrawal from Syria in the news rather than from the administration, an affront given Graham’s role as one of the president’s staunchest defenders.
“When he came and talked about Syria it just didn’t go over well because people disagree with the policies,” Graham said. “He’s very loyal to the president. His job is to help the president and give him advice, but once the decision is made: to be a good soldier.”
He is not always rewarded. At the same lunch at which he defended the president on Syria, Pence essentially assured Senate Republicans that Trump would sign a spending bill in December that shorted the border wall of the billions he was seeking — only to see Trump change his mind.
Whatever their frustrations, Republican lawmakers are unanimous about one thing: Pence, who told donors in Sea Island that he continues to pray over policy decisions, stays civil when confronted with their complaints. It might not change Republicans’ minds about their areas of disagreement, senators said, but at least they feel heard.
“He is answering for the president,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). “But he can express it in a different way than the president does.”