Pence Puzzle: How to Bargain When No One Speaks for Trump
Progress made, said one. Not so, said the other. We'll meet again, said one.
Waste of time, said the other.
Such has been the life lately of Mike Pence, the loyal soldier dispatched by President Donald Trump to lead negotiations over the partial government shutdown.
The vice president has been one of the administration's most visible emissaries during the shutdown fight, meeting with lawmakers, sitting for interviews and leading staff-level talks. But he's been repeatedly — and very publicly — undermined and contradicted by his boss, who's demanding billions from Congress to build a wall along the southern border.
Lawmakers and aides in both parties say it's become increasingly clear that, in this White House, no one speaks for the president but himself, leaving Pence in an all-but-impossible position as he tries to negotiate on Trump's behalf.
"He doesn't really have the authority to make a deal,'' said Republican Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, who worked alongside Pence when Pence was a member of Congress. He said legislators respect the vice president even if he is just "the messenger.'' But he added: "Trump is the one who's going to say 'yes' or 'no.' ''
Even before the shutdown began, Pence was in an awkward spot in the wall debate — quite literally. When Trump hosted then-incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer at a heated Oval Office meeting in December that ended with the president saying he'd be "proud'' to own a government shutdown, a stone-faced Pence sat by, speechless in his chair, drawing quips on social media comparing him to a statue or the "Elf on the Shelf.''
Trump later sent Pence to lead a weekend of budget talks with staff for Republican and Democratic congressional leaders, an effort that Democrats dismissed as little more than a public relations effort by the White House to give the impression it was working to end the impasse. Some also saw Pence's meetings with legislative staffers as unbefitting of his title.
When the first negotiation session ended that Saturday, Pence tweeted: "Productive discussion.''
An hour later, Trump countered: "Not much headway made.''
The next morning, as Pence was set to return to the negotiating table, Trump again threw cold water on the effort.
"I don't expect to have anything happen at that meeting … nor does the vice president,'' Trump told reporters. "Ultimately, it's going to be solved by the principals.''
Allies of the vice president minimized the significance of the comments, and the White House denied any friction.
"The vice president has been very effective in communicating on behalf of the administration,'' said White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders. "He has been in lock step with the president throughout the entire process.''
Pence, too, rejected the idea that he'd been undermined by the president or had difficulty building trust on Capitol Hill because of Trump's tendency to change his mind.
Offer to Schumer
He described to reporters an offer he took to Schumer from the president on the Saturday before Christmas to try to cut a deal.
"I didn't have any impression that whole week that they doubted that it was a legitimate offer,'' said Pence. He would not confirm the details, but it was understood to have lowered the president's demand for $5.7 billion to build the wall to $2.5 billion.
Democrats panned the offer.
Days later, Trump rejected it, too,
"No, not 2.5,'' Trump told reporters. "We're asking for 5.6. And, you know, somebody said 2.5. No.''
With negotiations now at a standstill, Pence has been a frequent visitor to the Capitol, focused on trying to keep jittery Republicans from breaking with Trump.
The vice president is well-known in Congress, having climbed the ladder as the leader of a conservative faction to serve as chairman of the House GOP conference before running for governor of Indiana. That background was among the reasons Trump, who arrived in Washington with no government experience, chose Pence as his running mate.
Marc Lotter, a former Pence spokesman who remains an outside adviser, said Pence "often gets called in if we're getting close to the finish line to see if we can bring in a couple of last votes'' or hold on to those who may be wavering. He recalled Pence, during a health care fight, "working back and forth, taking ideas and trying to find areas where there could be agreement, looking for areas where there could be compromise.''
While Pence lacks the personal relationships with Schumer and Pelosi that some of his predecessors had with opposition leaders — notably Vice President Joe Biden's relationship with Senate Republicans — Lotter said Pence meets regularly with members of both parties and both chambers, hosting lawmakers at his residence for regular dinners.
Marc Short, the former White House director of legislative affairs who previously served as Pence's chief of staff, said the vice president's measured manner has been a "complement'' to Trump's very different style.
He pointed to efforts during the "Obamacare'' repeal effort to sway Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, known for taking her time to weigh decisions. Pence worked patiently to answer her questions.
Indeed, "listener'' was a word that came up often when lawmakers were asked to describe Pence.
"He's a good listener,'' said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. "Which is a rare quality around here.''
"He tells us exactly what he thinks,'' said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. "He's a good listener. He takes our messages back to the president.''
But Simpson questioned whether that's what is needed.
Pence, said the Idaho Republican, is "a relayer. We need to have a negotiator … someone who has the authority to go in and negotiate. And then someone who has the ability to go to Trump and say this is the best we can do.''