At least 35 Republican senators would vote to remove President Trump from office in an impeachment trial, former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said Thursday — if the vote were anonymous. Flake is hardly the only one to suggest something like this; reports abound that GOP lawmakers privately despise the president but feel publicly obliged to support him to curry favor with their voter base.
For many of those Republicans, ousting Trump would be made all the more attractive by the prospect of the elevation of Vice President Mike Pence to the Oval Office. Ironically, as impeachment proceedings swell around him, that's exactly why tying himself to Pence may be Trump's best chance at staying afloat.
Pence's addition to the 2016 ticket was always a sort of safeguard. In theory, anyway, he balanced Trump's aberrations from Bush- and Obama-era GOP orthodoxy on policy and personality alike. Where Trump was pro-choice until 2011, Pence has a long pro-life record backed by years in Catholic and evangelical churches. His foreign policy was more traditionally interventionist than Trump's (Pence supported the war in Iraq where Trump critiqued it) but less blatantly militaristic (his is a tasteful war-making, equally violent but less visibly delighted about it). While Trump bellowed about anti-trade populism, Pence talked up free markets and cuts to federal spending.
Likewise, in his private life, Pence's temperance and fidelity diverged sharply from Trump's loudmouthed, adulterous hedonism. Trump is brazenly ignorant of the Bible; Pence can quote it chapter and verse. While Trump was busy cheating on his third wife in a gold-plated penthouse, Pence called his wife "Mother" and followed the Billy Graham rule. If the Trump experiment threatened to sink the GOP, these contrasts communicated, Republicans could rest assured Pence — safe, normal, stodgy Pence — would come to the rescue.
The vice president is still functioning as a safety device, but now the deliverance he offers is for Trump himself. If the president is removed from office, the vice president takes his place. But if the vice president is also gone, the next presidential successor is speaker of the House. And the speaker of the House, at least for the next 16 months, is Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who after Hillary Clinton alone may be the very last person on Earth the GOP wants to have as president.
That makes Pence into Trump's very best life jacket. If Trump can successfully lash Pence's political fate to his own, he will give Senate Republicans a strong incentive to acquit him no matter what they may privately prefer. If Trump can ensure Pence will go down with him, he just may survive this storm.
Pence himself is undoubtedly aware of the danger of his position. While impeachment drama roiled in Washington on Thursday, he went to Indianapolis and talked about trade. "He's always in asbestos underwear. He's close to the fire but never gets burned," a GOP strategist told The Washington Post of Pence. "He's done an incredible job always being out front as a loyal soldier to the president, without ever taking a bullet himself." In this case, however, that distance may be more difficult to maintain. Pence's own comments to a reporter earlier this month about his conversations with the president of Ukraine would fit well into a Pence incrimination narrative should Trump choose to craft it.
Whether Trump himself realizes this is not clear. Though he sometimes displays a certain cunning and salesmanship, the president is hardly a master strategist. He is easily irked and displays little in the way of self-control or the ability to delay gratification. As Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, has argued, Trump seems to function "in a very small window of time," unable to relate constructively to the past or future and to plan his behavior accordingly.
And yet there is reason to think Trump has realized Pence's preservative value. "I think you should ask for Vice President Pence's conversation, because he had a couple of conversations also," he said Wednesday, implying Pence is entangled in the Ukraine-Biden scandal that precipitated this impeachment inquiry.
"I could save you a lot of time," Trump continued. "[Pence's calls] were all perfect. Nothing was mentioned of any import other than congratulations." If done knowingly, this is a clever stroke, at once roping Pence in and allowing Trump to deny attempting to spread the blame. Should Trump continue to mention Pence in connection to Ukraine in the days and weeks to come, we'll know for sure this is his plan.