WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 steady understudy to a mercurial president.
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 is also preparing to take his fourth overseas trip in the last 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.
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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 mid-term 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.”
As Trump’s approval ratings sag, Pence is bound by a delicate political reality: His fate is likely tied to Trump’s. A successful Trump presidency could help position the 58-year-old Pence to run for president in 2024. A failed Trump presidency, by contrast, could forever stain Pence’s political future.
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 terse statement noting that it took place before he…