On Thursday, the vice president traveled to a Minneapolis business that manufactures N95 respirators, a type of face mask that can protect health care workers from coronavirus patients, and visit Washington state, where coronavirus deaths reached double digits this week, to meet with Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and other local officials. Prior to departing the White House for a televised town hall in Pennsylvania, Trump spent his day tweeting more than a dozen times about 2020 Democrats, his approval rating, Super Tuesday results and so-called sanctuary cities.
The side-by-side view was magnified by Pence’s daily updates from the White House briefing room, where he and a team of infectious disease experts and Cabinet personnel calmly responded to questions about containment efforts, test-kit availability and the overall threat of the virus.
“Those of us paying attention saw two things on TV this week: Mike Pence doing his best to provide answers and reassurance, and Donald Trump sharing his ‘hunch’ about the severity of this virus,” said one person close to the White House, referring to a comment Trump made during a Wednesday night interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity.
Other presidents have assigned plenty of thorny challenges to their vice presidents — such as foreign trips and task-force assignments — but few have been as critical domestic threats as the latest one.
Pence allies insisted the two men are totally comfortable with each other’s roles, noting they speak several times a day and are both devoted to protecting Americans’ health and safety.
Still, the vice president has made a habit of showering his boss with effusive praise during his task force updates, in addition to mentioning items he knows Trump pays attention to — suggesting Pence is keenly aware of the president’s sensitivities.
“I’m going to stay focused on the task the president gave me — and I promise you it’s what the president is focused on — and that’s the health and safety of the American people. We had a big day on Wall Street yesterday. I think it set a record,” Pence told reporters on Tuesday.
One former White House official said the vice president quickly learned that Trump responds well to flattery and now incorporates it nearly every time he speaks.
“If you look at Pence’s remarks — and it doesn’t matter if he’s speaking on something big or small — one of the first things he always does is to highlight the president’s actions and the president’s leadership,” the official said.
Much of the deference Pence has shown — on coronavirus, China, North American trade and other aspects of the president’s agenda that Trump has added to his portfolio — stems from an understanding that the president generally distrusts those around him, not including family members who work inside the West Wing.
In many ways, Pence’s unflinching loyalty has been the glue that holds his relationship with Trump intact.
When Trump was asked to name his closest friend in Washington during a Fox News town hall Thursday, for example, the only name he offered was Pence’s.
“Well, I get along great with our vice president. I keep hearing I’m replacing him. … every day I hear, ‘He’s going to put this one and that one [on the 2020 ticket].’ But if I did that, it would be a great act of disloyalty,” Trump said.
The confidence Trump maintains in Pence has also meant he trusts him to handle key issues and to conduct crisis management when things go awry.
When the president abruptly announced a troop withdrawal from Syria last fall, causing the region to spiral into chaos, Pence was one of the first U.S. officials dispatched to Iraq to meet with the leader of the Kurdish region.
On Wednesday, Pence was dispatched to Capitol Hill to assure lawmakers — some of whom have criticized the administration for being slow to respond to coronavirus — that the administration has the outbreak under control.
“I am glad Vice President Pence was there to say, ‘I am taking control,’ surrounded by scientists and health care officials — that’s what you are supposed to do,” Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) told CNN following the vice president’s visit.
While Pence has taken the lead on the administration’s efforts to combat coronavirus, Trump has made a point to talk about the virus in less conventional ways — including on Twitter and in a phone interview with Hannity — all while his regular schedule continues. He promoted his economic and trade agenda at a gathering of Hispanic business groups on Wednesday and participated in the Fox News town hall in Scranton, Pa., the hometown of former Vice President Joe Biden, one of his chief 2020 rivals.
When he arrives in Florida late Friday, Trump is expected to address members of the Republican National Committee’s finance team at the party’s spring meeting, according to a person familiar with the meeting. He will also headline a series of fundraisers throughout the weekend for his reelection effort, including a donor breakfast on Sunday with Sampat Shivangi, an Indian American physician from Mississippi who will serve as a delegate for Trump at the GOP convention in July.
Pence is also expected to speak to the RNC Finance Committee, but a person familiar with the meeting schedule said the vice president may cancel or perhaps stop by but not speak.
“The president has got his own mind,” said Hossein Khorram, a Trump Victory Finance committeeman, who will be in South Florida to attend events for those who have raised more than $100,000. “He doesn’t listen to what anyone else thinks.”
Khorram, who lives in Washington state, where coronavirus deaths reached double digits this week, said Trump shouldn’t cancel his events because it wouldn’t make much of a difference to state and local governments who are the ones currently battling coronavirus: “They’re the ones really in charge.”
But Trump has made minor adjustments to his upcoming travel plans. He was scheduled to speak at a huge global health technology conference in Orlando on Monday — but the event was canceled because of coronavirus concerns. (Trump remains scheduled to headline a fundraiser at the Orlando home of businessman Bob Dello Russo that day, according to a person familiar with his schedule.)
The president will also travel to the Nashville, Tenn., area on Friday to meet with local officials following a series of deadly tornadoes that ravaged Music City and its suburbs earlier this week. Still, Trump is slated to spend three nights this weekend at his South Florida retreat, Mar-a-Lago, where he is known to socialize with club members and their guests and golf at his nearby club.
Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant who runs a firm in California, which is also being shaken by coronavirus cases, said Trump currently faces his own optics challenge as he campaigns across the country. Whereas Pence must avoid overshadowing the president, who is notoriously sensitive about his own brand, Trump can’t afford to appear lackadaisical in the midst of a public health crisis — much less, one that could have long-lasting effects on the U.S. economy and psyche.
“A big part of his responsibility will be to ensure an effective public health response while mitigating damage to the economy. This is a difficult balance, but maintaining a normal schedule conveys the same to Americans and keeps the economy moving,” Stutzman said. “And for now … continuing with rallies and fundraising seems appropriate given the full tilt of the Democrat campaigns.”
And throughout his term, Trump often has proved immune to threats that would’ve knocked down other presidents — as Trump himself likes to say with his resilient poll numbers.
“The challenge with Trump is virtually nothing hurts him at all,” said Eric Dezenhall, a crisis management consultant who worked in the Reagan White House. “You can’t judge him the way you judge other presidents. He really can do whatever he wants.”
Trump’s allies added that he doesn’t need to halt his schedule because he has received praise for putting Pence in charge. Though congressional Democrats and 2020 hopefuls criticized the move based on Pence’s handling of an HIV outbreak in Indiana during his time as governor, the president was commended for adding Ambassador-at-large Debbie Birx, a widely respected AIDS expert, to the coronavirus task force.
“He’s getting marks over the last few days,” said a Republican who speaks to the president. “If you tell everyone to keep a normal life then he should keep a normal life.”