WASHINGTON — On March 6, as the pace of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. appeared to be accelerating, President Trump toured the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta. While there, he promised that “anybody that needs a test gets a test.” The assertion was flatly untrue. To a degree, it remains untrue to this day.
Later that same day, Vice President Mike Pence, who was helming the coronavirus task force, took to the podium at the White House. Without contradicting Trump directly, he made clear that the assertion had been wrong in Atlanta. Tests would be “broadly available,” he said, but only in a “matter of weeks.”
Pence’s navigation of the complex White House crosscurrents will face intense scrutiny when he debates Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris on Wednesday night. Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, have endlessly assailed Trump’s pandemic response. Pence, however, could prove an elusive target, because although he is associated with the administration’s much-criticized response to the pandemic, he ultimately answers to a domineering micromanager of a boss who offers subordinates little independence.
Americans have generally trusted Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading member of the White House coronavirus task force, to deliver sound public health advice. Trust in Trump, meanwhile, has remained low. Pence has been in the middle of the pack when it comes to pandemic trustworthiness: Though he may be tainted by the unending stream of Trump’s deceptions and obfuscations, he has also tried — as he did on the day of Trump’s visit to the CDC — to offer necessary correctives to the president’s relentless and often delusive optimism.
Pence often attempted to “curb the president,” says Olivia Troye, a former top aide to the vice president on the coronavirus task force. The task could be frustrating, says Troye, who has become a critic of Trump since leaving the White House, because the president “is impossible to keep on message.”
Troye says that Pence sought to make sure he never purveyed false information himself. “There were times when I worried he would get sick from just plain exhaustion,” she says of helping to prepare the vice president for task force briefings.
A current Pence aide says that “the vice president and the president are in lockstep” when it comes to the pandemic. Yet Pence has carefully kept his distance. He has never advocated for drinking bleach or exposing internal organs to ultraviolet light, two of Trump’s more controversial assertions about treatment for the coronavirus. He has also sometimes tried to blunt some of Trump’s personal attacks, a perilous exercise for those who attempt it. Pence is among the rare officials who succeeded.
When, for example, Trump feuded with Democratic governors of Michigan and Washington state throughout the spring over supplies provided by the federal government, it was Pence who worked behind the scenes to contain any fallout from the spat.
Trump mocked his conciliatory role. “Mike, don’t call the governor of Washington, you’re wasting your time with him; don’t call the woman in Michigan — it doesn’t make any difference what happens,” he said at one coronavirus task force briefing. But he also praised Pence, if just a little grudgingly.
“He’s a different type of person,” the president said. “He’ll call quietly anyway.”
Harris will likely argue that he is, in fact, not all that different.
It was Pence, after all, who authored the now notorious Wall Street Journal op-ed “There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave’” that seemed to mock the very scientists the vice president had been working with and praising. The op-ed was published on June 16, just as the nation was heading for a devastating summer of illness, death and persistent unemployment.
Over the summer, Pence shifted away from the prior months’ more careful messaging to a deeper embrace of Trump’s tone and approach. The same Pence who was helping Democrats in March was criticizing them in August, warning them that no “blank check” was coming from the federal government.
As someone who has consistently praised Trump’s leadership, Pence will have to explain how more than 200,000 Americans have died and millions are unemployed.
“We protected our most vulnerable citizens,” insists the vice president’s aide, who says the coronavirus task force continues to meet once a week.
Harris may lambaste Pence for the tone of his boss, but it is a tone that Pence himself has never adopted. At the same time, as the leader of the White House coronavirus task force, he never broke with the president, even if doing so would have perhaps helped him with his own political future.
Trying to make the best of Trump’s confusions and contradictions has always been a thankless, difficult task for Pence, something that Harris will almost certainly try to expose and exploit. Troye, the former Pence aide, says the vice president could only do so much when confronted with a mercurial boss suspicious of science.
“How do you counter that narrative,” she wonders, “when it’s coming from the very top?”
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