Sarah Posner is a contributing writer for Religion Dispatches, writing on the intersections of religion and politics. She wrote this for the Washington Post.
Vice President Mike Pence is spending considerable time cultivating big-money Republican donors at small, private events, including hedge fund managers and executives from brokerage houses, chemical giants and defense contractors, Ken Vogel reports at the New York Times. Many of these events, whose participants are kept secret from the media and are omitted from Pence's public schedule, have been taking place at the vice presidential residence at the Naval Observatory, as well as other nongovernment venues.
While cultivating support from deep-pocketed business interests is nothing new in GOP politics, Pence's activities raise the question of whether he is doing this for Trump-Pence 2020 – or for himself. As Vogel's piece points out, Pence's intimate confabs with wealthy donors and conservative power brokers “have fueled speculation among Republican insiders that he is laying the foundation for his own political future, independent from Mr. Trump.”
All of this suggests something important about Trump. Despite Pence's protestations to the contrary, the vice president looks to be preparing for his own political future. Beyond this clear signal about his own political ambitions, Pence's actions raise the question of whether he has lost confidence in Trump's ability to come out of the Russia investigation unscathed.
This is not the first time that Pence, in his short tenure as Trump's vice president, has sparked chatter about his political ambitions – unyoked from Trump. In May, Pence filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission, forming his own political action committee, the Great America Committee, marking “the first time a sitting vice president has formed such a separate political arm,” NBC News reported at the time.
The Great America Committee is apparently not wasting any time. Vogel reports that last Thursday, it “held a reception for prospective donors at the Washington offices of the powerful lobbying firm BGR.”
In holding donor events, Great America Committee will do nothing to quell speculation about Pence's intentions. When he first launched the PAC in May, Pence aides attempted to play down the move by saying its resources will be used to support Republican congressional candidates in the 2018 midterms. But that characterization didn't diminish how unusual this was: Traditionally, vice presidents tap the resources of their party to support congressional candidates, rather than create their own fundraising organization.
It's highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for a first-term vice president to appear to separate his election activities, even if aimed at congressional races, from the president he serves. But the timing of Pence's formation of the Great America Committee suggests the move may have something to do with judgments about Trump's future, too.
Pence filed the paperwork on May 17, eight days after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, and the same day that Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein appointed Robert S. Mueller III to be special counsel in the Russia investigation. Indeed, the two weeks before Pence filed the Great America papers were rife with some of the most explosive news stories about the Russia scandal to date.
To review: On May 8, former acting attorney general Sally Yates testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee that the White House kept former national security adviser Michael Flynn for 18 days after she told the White House counsel that he was vulnerable to Russian blackmail. (Pence has always sought to distance himself from the Flynn affair: After Trump asked for Flynn's resignation in February, Pence maintained that Flynn misled him about the conversations he had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, playing the part of the duped, but loyal, soldier.)
Then, after that Yates testimony on May 8, Trump engaged in probably the most self-destructive sequence of actions of his presidency. On May 9, he fired Comey. The next day, he met with Kislyak and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in the Oval Office, telling them that firing the “real nut job” Comey had eased “great pressure” on him from the Russia investigation. And the day after that, Trump admitted on national television that he had fired Comey because of the “Russia thing.” Finally, on May 12, Trump posted his tweet hinting that he may have recorded his conversations with Comey. (He hadn't.)
One week later, Pence filed the Great America Committee papers, marking his break with the traditional arrangement for political fundraising between presidents and vice presidents.
The traditional arrangement is based on the expectation that the president and vice president will together run for re-election. But Pence's activities seem to signal doubts about whether there will even be a Trump-Pence ticket to run in 2020. We are not yet six months into Trump's term, and each new revelation in the burgeoning Russia investigation seems to heighten the possibility that Trump could either no longer be president, or at least no longer be a viable re-election candidate, in 2020.
Pence is perhaps preparing for just that potentiality. If he were confident that the Russia investigation is “fake news” or a “hoax,” as Trump has maintained, he would be hewing to the traditional vice-presidential path. Instead, he's making his own plans – which may show just how worried he is that the Russia investigation is going to come crashing down on his president.