Understanding Mike Pence And His Relationship To Trump: 'His Public Role Is Fawning'

Originally published on October 19, 2017 1:46 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Many of President Trump's critics are hoping he won't serve his full term, but what kind of president would Mike Pence make? That's one of the questions Jane Mayer sets out to answer in her new article about Pence titled "The President Pence Delusion." It's published in the current issue of The New Yorker.

She writes about how Pence became an evangelical Christian and how he became a favored candidate of billionaire backers, most especially the Koch brothers. She traces how religion and money shaped his ideology. She investigates how Pence became Trump's running mate and how much power he has in the White House and how he's used it.

Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker. She's also the author of the bestseller about the Koch Brothers titled "Dark Money: The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right." Last March in The New Yorker, she profiled another billionaire funder of right-wing causes, Robert Mercer, who she says has become a major force behind the Trump presidency.

Jane Mayer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So I feel like I don't see Mike Pence very much, and I often wonder if he's a power behind the scenes or if he really doesn't matter that much within the Trump administration. So what's your impression?

JANE MAYER: Well, it's really hard to tell. He is - as Joel Goldstein, a specialist in the vice presidency, told me, he calls him the sycophant in chief because when you do see him, he's usually acting as an emcee to Trump or kind of echoing Trump and praising Trump. So his public role is really fawning. Behind the scenes, though, according to Newt Gingrich, he's 1 of the 3 people who have the most power in the Trump administration along with the chief of staff, John Kelly, and Trump himself.

GROSS: What are the signs that he's that powerful?

MAYER: Well, (laughter) that's a good question - because I think he acts as the connective tissue between the Trump administration and Congress, between the Trump administration and the - kind of the socially conservative base of the party. And most importantly, he is the connector between the Trump administration and the billionaire donors in the Republican Party. He is the guy who does most of the fundraising and outreach to the money.

GROSS: And the money includes the Koch brothers and Robert Mercer.

MAYER: It does. And one of the interesting things to me in writing about Pence is it poses such a juxtaposition between the way that Trump ran, which was as a populist outsider who was attacking the big-money forces in the Republican Party as corrupt and saying that they were puppeteers trying to control the candidates as puppets. And Trump made a huge point of saying, I'm my own man; I'm so rich; no one controls me. Yet as his vice president, he chose Mike Pence. And you could hardly find a candidate in the American political scene who has closer ties to the big donors and particularly the Koch brothers. He's been sponsored by them for years.

GROSS: So how do the Kochs first start backing Mike Pence?

MAYER: So this was when Pence was in Congress in 2009. He really did the Kochs a big favor. There was legislation pending that might have put a tax on carbon pollution, and it would have been terrible for Koch Industries. And Pence took up the cause and tried to help defeat that legislation and specifically carried around a pledge that the Kochs had created, trying to get people to sign it. And after he was successful in that, the Kochs invited him to come to their secret donor summits. And at that point on, they started showering him in money. So it was - it's really became a working relationship then. And I hadn't realized that until recently.

GROSS: One of the things you say Mike Pence is responsible for is bringing the Kochs and Donald Trump together. The Kochs didn't support Trump's candidacy. Charles Koch described the choice between Trump and Hillary as one between cancer or a heart attack. (Laughter) So what did Pence do to bring the Kochs and Trump together?

MAYER: Well, so this is what was interesting to me - is that Pence has been very close with the Kochs, and they have just showered money on his campaigns. And he's kind of act as a peacemaker between the Kochs and Trump. And but in that process, what interested me most was that I really do think that Trump ran as a different kind of Republican. He ran against the big-donors orthodoxy and kind of libertarian vision of people like the Kochs. He said he was going to deliver something for the little guys and build infrastructure all across the country and use the government in various ways that the Kochs disapprove of.

And what you've seen with Pence is that in many ways, Pence has brought in a ton of people who are allied with the Kochs into the government, and he's brought a lot of their policies in - so whether it's on environmental issues or tax policy now where the Kochs are working very closely with the Trump White House on the Trump tax plan. And it is a tax plan that the Kochs love, and it's a tax plan that's going to help the super-rich according to many nonpartisan analyses and not do very much for the middle class. So you're beginning to kind of see the government moving in the direction of the Kochs.

GROSS: You say 16 high-ranking officials in the Trump White House have ties to the Koch brothers.

MAYER: Well, and that's according to a study by a group called the Checks And Balances Program. And you can count them. You can see it online. They're - that's in the White House. There are also many, many people who've worked for the Kochs in the government at large, in the cabinet, in the other departments. And a tremendous number of people who work with and for Pence have gone in and out of working for the Kochs to the point that you had Politico saying - they quoted a Republican operative saying that the Koch operation really was the shadow campaign for Pence for president.

And chief among them really has been Pence's former chief of staff, Marc Short, who went - after working for Pence in Congress, he went to run the Koch's political operation, Freedom Partners. And then when Pence was chosen as vice president on the ticket, Marc Short came back, worked with Pence in the campaign and is now the head of Congressional Liaison in the Trump White House. So the man that actually ran the Koch's political operation is a key player inside the Trump White House.

It's just a - you would never have predicted this from the language during the campaign when you had supposedly the Kochs at war with Trump and vice versa, but there's this huge rapprochement going on. And as Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democratic senator from Rhode Island, said to me, what you see then is the sort of the agenda items of the Kochs are moving up one by one. And the things they complained about about Trump are being jettisoned.

GROSS: Is one of the things they complained about about Trump nationalism?

MAYER: Yes. I mean, and so in particular, some of the trade deals they were against. And in particular, one of the things that they objected to most strenuously was an idea that the Trump administration was pushing early on along with Paul Ryan, which was to impose a border adjustment tax. This was going to be a tax on items that are imported into America, and the aim of it was to try to get Americans to buy more American goods and try to get American companies to - manufacturers to use American-produced, you know, items.

And what happened was the Kochs just attacked it with their entire machinery. They have a great political machine in 36 states. And they went at it. And eventually Trump abandoned it. And so that border adjustment tax is gone. And in its place, we've got this new kind of tax reform proposal which since it doesn't include new taxes such as the border adjustment taxes, it instead is projecting a tremendous deficit - $1-and-a-half trillion over the next 10 years.

GROSS: Did the Koch brothers have a role in pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord?

MAYER: Yes, of course. They've been pushing very hard on that. The thing you have to remember about them is that they - OK, they've got the second-largest private company in the country, and it is very much engaged in the fossil fuel business. They've got 4,000 miles of oil pipelines. They've got a coal company. They've got coal-powered power plants. They've got coal up in Canada. And so their whole business plan relies on stay - keeping America on fossil fuels. And so they've thrown a tremendous amount of weight behind stopping anything that would get - put a tax on carbon or push America towards some kind of agreement on climate change that might tax carbon pollution.

GROSS: So do you know what kind of influence they might have directly exerted on President Trump to get him to withdraw from the accord?

MAYER: What they have been doing is working with Pence's office to a large extent. And to back up just a little bit, Terry, one of the things that happened was once President Trump was elected, he put Pence in charge of the transition towards the new government, which gave him a lot of power over personnel. And one of the most important decisions that was made that affected climate policy was the choice of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA.

And so in that choice, you can sort of see that the Kochs pushed very hard for Pruitt. They funded him in the past. One of their allies Harold Hamm, who is a billionaire who's made a fortune from fracking, was also very closely involved in choosing Pruitt and advising Pence and the transition. So the choice of personnel during that transition on environmental issues is where you can see the influence of the Kochs.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer. She writes about Washington for The New Yorker, and her new article is called "The President Pence Delusion: Trump's Critics Yearn For His Exit, But Mike Pence, The Corporate Right's Inside Man, Poses His Own Dangers." We'll be back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT ULERY'S "GAVE PROOF")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer. She's a Washington correspondent for The New Yorker magazine. Her new article is called "The President Pence Delusion," and it's all about Vice President Pence, how he entered politics, what his policies have been, what his ideology is and what kind of vice president he is and how influential he is in the White House.

So among the people you spoke with for this article is Mike Pence's mother and brother, and they told you about Mike Pence's strict upbringing. What were some of the rules for children in Pence's house when he was growing up?

MAYER: You know, this kind of amazed me. He had - there were six kids in the family - four boys and two girls. And the rule at the dinner table was that the children were forbidden from speaking. So the parents would have the conversation and the kids could only basically say things like pass the butter please and thank you. And the children were also told that whenever an adult entered the room, they needed to stand up, and if they didn't abide by these rules in the family, the father Pence was a strict disciplinarian and would hit them with a belt, give them a talking to and hit them with a belt.

GROSS: When and how did Mike Pence become an evangelical Christian?

MAYER: So he was raised as Roman Catholic and was an altar boy, as were all the Pence boys. And when he went off to Hanover College in Indiana, which wasn't that far from his home of Columbus, he converted to evangelical Christianity. And his mom and his - the rest of his siblings are still very Catholic. And I really enjoyed talking to his mom. She was - one of the things that's sort of surprising about Pence and I think explains some of his success as a politician is his mom is - has a great sense of humor and is very charming, and his brother was quite funny, too. The two of them were ribbing each other over coffee as I was interviewing them.

And Pence apparently has a very good sense of humor, too. I was sorry he didn't - he didn't grant an interview with me, but people describe him as, you know, despite his kind of severe views of things, very affable, very likable. And, you know, he often talks about how I'm a conservative, but I'm not in a bad mood about it.

GROSS: In law school, Mike Pence met and married Karen, who became his wife. She too was in law school at Indiana University. And you write that when she started to expect that he was going to propose to her, she began carrying in her purse a gold cross with the inscription I do, which I assume she presented to him after he proposed.

MAYER: (Laughter) Actually, it was inscribed with the words yes.

GROSS: I mean, yes. OK, right.

(LAUGHTER)

MAYER: And yeah, she was - she was ready for him. And so, you know, it was - it was I think an eight- or nine-month courtship, and they have been interestingly, I mean, sort of notably inseparable ever since. And people talk about it a lot because she is at his side almost in every event you see. I mean, if you saw recently during the hurricane coverage, she would be standing there holding the loudspeaker in front of his mouth as he spoke.

And so they've - she's given him a special phone, a kind of a hotline that he keeps on his desk and only she has the number. And they have twin treadmills they work out on. And he follows something called the Billy Graham rule, which is that he will not go out to dinner with any woman other than his wife, and he also will not go to any kind of cocktail party or any place where they're serving alcohol and there's mixed company unless she is there at his side.

GROSS: As a woman, what do you find maybe objectionable about that?

MAYER: Well, I mean, you know, I quote Kellyanne Conway saying she thinks it's narrow-minded to criticize other people's marriages. And, you know, I'm sympathetic to some extent about that. I try not to (laughter) cast stones at other people's arrangements, but I think that the problem is it tips over into the workplace in a way that could cause serious problems. If you are a female professional and you're working for a male boss and he won't meet with you alone, it's going to constrict the ability of women to work in his office. And Kellyanne Conway, who has worked with him for a long time, says she's never had a problem with it. It's never gotten in her way, but it's easy to see how something like that could get in the way of women in the workplace.

GROSS: It just also - I think it makes a lot of women wonder, does Mike Pence have the kind of self-control issues where if he is with a woman and not drinking himself but there's alcohol around that somehow he won't be able to control himself unless his wife is there?

MAYER: I know. It almost makes her out to be his chaperon, and what's interesting if you step back is it's true of a number of fundamentalist religions that there's this notion of women as temptresses and that they need to be separated, segregated, sit separately, be in a different place because they're just - the temptation is too great for the men. And, you know, in a way, I think it's quite insulting to males as well as females.

GROSS: So have women in the administration spoken to you about feeling that they've been left out of certain things because of that rule that Mike Pence follows?

MAYER: They haven't, but I have to say one of the things that I found particularly alarming was that Mike Pence has also become the host of a Bible study group that meets in the White House. It's only for members of the Cabinet in the Trump administration. And the pastor that he has invited to run this Bible study group, whose name is Ralph Drollinger, is someone who has gotten in trouble in the past for preaching that it's sinful for women to work if they have children at home. And, I mean, these are really antediluvian points of view that are so anti-female that I think it's, I mean, to me, a bit alarming that they would be, you know, in currency in this White House.

GROSS: Do you think the Pence rule had anything to do with his declining to let you interview him, or do you think he just didn't want to be interviewed for the piece?

MAYER: I think he really didn't want to be interviewed for the piece no matter what. It's - they've given very few interviews to anyone working on profiles. And they actually kind of went out of their way in the case of me to sort of block my access to them. I literally at one point became the pool reporter for the White House press association so that I could follow him on one of his trips where - on Air Force Two. And his office went to great lengths to try to see if they could block me from being the pool reporter that day. It was kind of extraordinary. It's never - I've been covering the White House on and off since the Reagan era, and I've never had anyone try to object to me being the pool reporter before. So they were keeping him very much under wraps.

GROSS: What do you think that's about? Do you think that has anything to do with you having written critically about the Koch brothers?

MAYER: I think probably so. I mean, I think that they realized this was a vulnerability. You've got a vice president who is as close to these big billionaire interests as any politician in America. And he's side by side with a president who said he was going to take on those same billionaire interests. It's - you know, it's a contradiction, and it's hanging right out there. And if anyone is going to see it, it's going to be me because I've written "Dark Money," a book about the Koch brothers, so I'm sure that they had that in mind.

GROSS: My guest is Jane Mayer. Her new New Yorker article is titled "The President Pence Delusion." After a break, we'll talk about how Pence won the support of billionaire funders and what he did in return and how his faith has led him to support legislation many considered extreme and how that backfired when he was governor of Indiana. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jane Mayer, a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her new article is titled "The President Pence Delusion." The premise of the article is many of President Trump's critics are hoping he won't serve his full term, but what kind of president would Mike Pence make? She writes about his political career and how it's been influenced by his faith as an evangelical Christian and by billionaire Republican funders like the Koch brothers. Her best-seller, "Dark Money," is about the Koch brothers.

So let's talk about how Mike Pence got into politics. He ran for Congress for the first time in 1987 when he was 29. He won the primary, lost the general, then lost again in 1990. And I think it was during this time that the press found that he'd used donations - campaign donations - toward personal expenses like mortgage payments and groceries. So how did that affect his political career?

MAYER: Oh, it killed it right then. Those campaigns, especially the second one, were eye-catchingly negative for Indiana, where you're, you know, they like to be Midwestern nice. And, you know, I interviewed his brother about the campaign and was surprised about how frank he was about it. He said, you know, it was partly immaturity. But he said of Mike Pence, he was full of [expletive]. And - which was a surprising thing to be able to quote but it's in the article. Pence, you know, he disappointed many of his backers by using his campaign funds to pay off his household expenses. It wasn't illegal, but it just didn't look proper.

And the other thing that he did was he waged an extraordinarily negative campaign against the Democrat, whose name was Phil Sharp, and sort of put on these hokey ads that accused Sharp of being a tool of Arab oil interests. And they had some actor dressed up as an Arab sheik in sunglasses, you know, saying that he'd bought off Phil Sharp. And it wasn't true. Anyway, altogether, it was kind of a fiasco. And at the end of the whole thing, Pence did something interesting though. He wrote an essay after that 1990 campaign. And he - it's called "Confessions Of A Negative Campaigner." And he said he didn't have any intention of going back into politics at that point, but if he ever did, he would never run a negative campaign again. He felt that it kind of besmirched himself.

GROSS: So he goes to work at a law firm. What gets him back into politics is he becomes the president of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, a new small think tank that you say promoted free market policies. What was the importance of this think tank in his political career?

MAYER: So this is the beginning of his sponsorship by the corporate right. And, again, what I found so interesting about his career is almost from the start, really right from when he was washed up after his first congressional campaigns, he's rescued by the corporate right. It was the - and what I mean by that is their - sort of this movement towards corporations funding think tanks in Washington during that period - this is the '80s. And you've got the Heritage Foundation in Washington. And it's funded by all these Fortune 500 companies.

And what they started doing was setting up satellites all across the country. It was something called the State Policy Network. And it's just a sort of a web of pro-corporate, anti-tax, anti-regulatory think tanks that's spreading across the country. And it was actually Reagan's idea to do this. And there was one particular funder named Thomas Rowe at the Heritage Foundation who said famously, you take the Soviet Union, I'm taking over the states. And so there's sort of this corporate-funded right-wing movement in the early '80s to take over the states. And that's the group that bails out Pence. He's looking for what to do with his life. His law practice is nothing special. I talked to lawyers about him. He's sort of doing really kind of crummy little cases.

And he goes to work at this think tank, and he kind of gets oriented into their ideology. And he gets a steady paycheck from them and then soon discovers his true gift in life, which is to take those policies and sell them to the public on radio. You've got the burgeoning then of sort of right-wing talk radio. And it turns out, Mike Pence is a great talker. He's been giving speeches since he was a kid in elementary school and winning speaking competitions. And he's really good at talking. And so this becomes the thing that kind of boosts Mike Pence in Indiana. And he's been a loser when he first runs for office. Ten years later, after being on talk radio for 10 years, he's on the radio all over the state. He's got big name recognition. He's got a Rolodex full of connections. And this time, he wins and gets to Congress.

GROSS: So some of his talking points, you say, come from some of the corporate sponsors of that Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Like, I think tobacco - the tobacco lobby was one of the sponsors. And one of his top - one of Pence's talking points was that smoking doesn't kill. In fact, 2 out of every 3 three smokers don't die from a smoking-related illness, that a greater scourge was big government disguised as do-gooder health care rhetoric.

MAYER: Well, there you have it. It's just - in a nutshell, what you see is that in many ways, these think tanks which were taking tobacco money are a form of lobbying, corporate lobbying, an almost sort of advertisement for the companies that are funding them. And then you've got Mike Pence becoming kind of the mouth piece for these sentiments. So there he is saying that smoking doesn't kill. And in many other ways, many of the other sort of positions he took were the positions that were kind of being handed down from the Heritage Foundation. He called himself sort of part of a - I think it was like the seed farm that was being spread by The Heritage Foundation.

GROSS: So he runs for Congress. He actually gets elected to Congress in what year?

MAYER: He gets elected in 2000.

GROSS: And what were his accomplishments in Congress?

MAYER: Well, so interestingly, he never had a single bill that he sponsored that passed. So he obviously was not a major legislator. But he did do something else that was kind of remarkable, which was he quickly climbed into the top of the - or near the top of the Republican leadership. He became the head of something called the Republican Study Group, which was the sort of clique of right-wingers in Congress. And he challenged the leadership of the speaker of the House, who was John Boehner. And then soon after, he became the number three person in the House. Boehner put him in charge of the Republican Congress.

So again, he's using the skill he's got as a talker. He's great at messaging. He is very much far to the right of the mainstream Republicans at that point, but he's big on the circuit of all the big funders - the NRA, The Heritage Foundation, all the various donor groups, pro-Israel groups. He's out there speaking at the banquets. And he is helping set the message for the Republican Party in the House.

GROSS: And he becomes a voice of the Tea Party in the Tea Party era.

MAYER: Very early as the Tea Party opposition to Obama was brewing, what you've got is Mike Pence out there. He had a reputation for being kind of more soft-spoken than many Republicans and for being kind of, as I said earlier, more affable. But when the Tea Party rises, he really finds a more aggressive voice. And he's out there at their rallies yelling that the government should be shut down unless Planned Parenthood is defunded.

GROSS: Abortion has been one of his really big issues over the years.

MAYER: Absolutely.

GROSS: What are some of the bills he has backed?

MAYER: Well, so he is probably as stridently anti-abortion as anybody in American politics. And there was a bill passed actually in Indiana when he was governor there - which is where he went after being in Congress - that really defined the most kind of far-out anti-abortion legislation in the country. It was a bill that said that when women have abortions, they have to bury the fetus in a full burial. The state requires it. And if they have a miscarriage, they have to have a full burial for that. And it also banned the ability of women to have an abortion if the fetus had some kind of developmental anomaly, so something like, you know, Down syndrome or something else, something even worse. It was a bill that was so intrusive on women's rights that women took up a protest effort against it in Indiana.

And they started a movement called Periods For Pence. And they started calling his office and saying, I just thought the governor would like to know I have my period today because they thought that he was so intrusive into their lives to be able to sort of tell them what to do if they had a miscarriage and whether they needed to bury it or not. Anyway, the courts eventually overturned the legislation, and it was struck down. But...

GROSS: And the legislation you're talking about was when he was governor?

MAYER: This is when he was governor. He has tried, you know, consistently to defund Planned Parenthood. It's resulted in shutting down many, many clinics in Indiana, which has actually become a tremendous health problem in Indiana because Indiana, like so many other states, is dealing with an opioid crisis. And one of the things that those health clinics did was testing for HIV.

And with the sharing of needles in the opioid crisis, there's also been an HIV crisis. There actually was an epidemic in Indiana but - where it was breaking out. Five clinics had already been closed down in Indiana that had been Planned Parenthood clinics. And there was really, you know, no place ready to deal with the testing or the rest of the health problems.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer. And she is a Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. Her new article is called "The President Pence Delusion," and it's all about Mike Pence. We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer. She's a Washington correspondent for The New Yorker magazine. Her new article is about Vice President Mike Pence and his political background, his ideology and his place in the White House today. The article is called "The President Pence Delusion." And it's titled that because it's about, well, what kind of president would Mike Pence make if, for some reason, President Trump left office?

So Mike Pence runs for governor with the backing of the Koch brothers. He takes office in January of 2013. And one of his accomplishments as governor is signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. What's that act, and what was its importance?

MAYER: So, as you say, he runs for governor. People who I interviewed said that very much in the back of Mike Pence's mind, he wanted to be president. I mean, he's wanted - he's talked about wanting to be president since he was in high school. So he's coming from the House of Representatives. And it's very hard to run for the presidency as a congressman. So his thought was, according to people working with him and also people - opponents in politics who I've talked to, was that he would go become governor, check that box, learn some - show some executive experience and be a big success in Indiana.

But instead what happened was he nearly killed his own career there by signing this legislation you're talking about, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. And what it was was it was presented as a bill that would protect religious freedom, which sounds like a great thing, but when in the fine print what it meant in practice was that people who felt for religious reasons that homosexuality offended them would be able to bar homosexuals from their businesses if they wanted to.

So if they ran a restaurant and they felt that they were religious and that their views were anti-gay, they could say to gay customers, I'm sorry, you can't eat here. And when that bill passed, there was just a political explosion in Indiana. And it backfired hugely on Pence. He had signed the legislation, backed it. And people hadn't paid that much attention until they looked at the signing ceremony. And there in a closed ceremony, a picture sort of leaked out that showed Pence standing there with the most virulently anti-gay activists in the state.

And people began to take a closer look at it, and they realized the implications of this bill. And what was so interesting to me was among the opponents, it wasn't just the gay rights activists, though they were, of course, very involved. And it wasn't just sort of civil libertarians. And it wasn't just Democrats. It was the Republican business establishment in Indiana just was in an uproar because this legislation was so reactionary and so discriminatory that it began to give Indiana a black eye all cross the country.

There was trending on the Internet sort of boycott Indiana as a meme. And these businesses began to fear that people would cancel conventions there, that they wouldn't be able to recruit employees there. And, you know, I spoke with a number of business people, and they're all quoted on the record in the story. Many of them were Republicans. And many had been supporters of Pence. And they were just in a state of outrage over this whole thing. So Pence went too far.

GROSS: What impact did that have on his political career?

MAYER: Well, it really hurt him. I mean, and it hurt him in so many directions at once that it - because what happened was finally when this uproar burst and even the Indiana newspaper, the Indianapolis Star - which is a pretty conservative newspaper - just had a huge headline on the front page that just said "Fix It Now" (ph).

Pence retreated. He then signed new legislation that was less discriminatory, but when he did that, his original backers on the far right were furious with him for folding. So you have people like Steve Deace, who's a far-right and social conservative in Iowa, who's on the radio. He's a talk show host who just looked at Pence as having stabbed the movement in the back.

But meanwhile, you've got all these other people - moderate Republicans, and Democrats and civil libertarians - who were furious with him for ever having signed it in the first place. And his popularity just plummeted. And signs popped up all over Indiana saying, fire Mike Pence. He had hoped to run for president. He looked at it very closely in 2012 and decided instead to run for governor, and he was hoping and gearing up to run in 2016.

But he was so unpopular and this was such a mess that his advisers and he realized that he'd have to give up on that and instead just try to run for re-election. And that is where he was when he became recruited to become vice president.

GROSS: So Mike Pence has a very difficult time in Indiana, in part because of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It hurts his career politically, and then he becomes vice president. How has he chosen to run with Donald Trump on the ticket?

MAYER: It happened with so little consultation, really. What happened was that it was a very shallow pool that Trump advisers were picking from. They were trying to find someone to become vice president on the ticket, and it really came down to Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, or Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana.

And Trump really didn't know Mike Pence very well, and he knew Chris Christie very well, and he really liked Chris Christie very much. They had known each other for years. And I actually talked to Trump about it during this period when he was trying to make up his mind. And he seemed to be sort of leaning towards Christie and saying, you know, he's been so loyal, and we've been friends for so long, but everybody's telling me I need to pick someone who has good relationships with Congress.

And so Pence, on paper, brought a lot. He brought a - he - the experience in Congress, the connection to the religious right and the social conservatives in the party who had many questions about Trump and were sort of on the sidelines, not backing Trump yet. And, of course, Pence had connections to the Kochs, who run the most powerful private political machine in the country. They're billionaires, who - the two brothers together are worth about $90 billion. So they bring incredible financial resources. And so basically, all the people around Trump pushed him to try to get him to pick Pence.

GROSS: All right, if you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer, and she's a Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. Her piece - her new piece is called "The President Pence Delusion." Going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer. She's a Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. Her new article is called "The President Pence Delusion," and it's subtitled, "Trump's Critics Yearn For His Exit. But Mike Pence, The Corporate Right's Inside Man, Poses His Own Dangers."

It's such an unusual marriage, so to speak, between Pence and Trump. You know, Trump has been accused of sexual harassment. Trump is on the record as having talked about grabbing women on those "Access Hollywood" tapes. Mike Pence won't even have dinner with a woman if there's alcohol served unless his wife is accompanying him. You know, he's a right-wing, evangelical Christian, and Trump does not seem driven by any kind of, like, religious creed. It's just hard to imagine them having any chemistry together.

MAYER: Well, they actually had a slightly strained history together. Pence had gone to ask for a campaign donation from Trump at Trump Tower, and this is a few years earlier. And Trump had started gossiping with Pence about the marriage of the current governor of Indiana at the time, Mitch Daniels, and there was sort of - a lot of sort of gossip going on about his rocky marriage. And Pence sort of stiffened and was very kind of prim about it, and they were not on the same wavelength whatsoever.

And there's actually a funny quote from Steve Bannon, of all people, in the story where he describes - he says they're sort of like this mismatched pair of throwbacks from the 1950s. You've got President Trump as kind of like Dean Martin, one of the bad boys from the Rat Pack. And he's allied and sort of married to Pence, who is like the dad on "Leave It To Beaver," Ward Cleaver. You know, they're just - they're almost comically mismatched, and their politics is very mismatched.

But there they were together, and I have to say, you know, this Faustian bargain idea, it goes two ways. It may've been strange for Trump to pick Pence. It's very strange for Pence to say yes because he is supposed to be someone who, as you say, is so puritanical and such a social conservative.

But what an awful lot of people said to me when I was interviewing them in Indiana was, Pence had nowhere else to go. It was very likely he would not have been re-elected as governor of Indiana. He was kind of - his back was against the wall, and this was a rescue plan for him. I mean, this was a way up and out, and there weren't really any others. So this was a kind of a - pretty soon, people in Indiana began to hear that Pence would like to be picked. He was in the midst of running for re-election as governor, but he was eager to link up with Trump.

GROSS: So, Jane, the title of your new New Yorker piece is "The President Pence Delusion," and the premise of the piece is a lot of people on the left are hoping that President Trump will have to exit office, either because of investigations into his ethics and into his campaigns, possible collusion with Russia or because he's impeached because of mental health issues or whatever scenario. So the question you're raising is, say that happened, what kind of president would Mike Pence make if Mike Pence took over for Trump? So my question is, is Pence vulnerable? Are there investigations that could leave him vulnerable, charges of obstructing justice? What are you talking about there?

MAYER: So in the investigation into the Trump administration's and the Trump campaign's relationship with Russia, inevitably Pence has been in the room in some complicated spots that could be compromising for him and is - has some potential legal liability. He - I think probably if you talk to lawyers, which I did, the thing that he was involved in that may be most threatening for him was - when President Trump fired James Comey, Mike Pence came out and kind of spouted the administration's company line on it.

He said the reason James Comey, who'd been the FBI director and was conducting an investigation, was fired had nothing to do with the Russia investigation. He said that Comey was fired simply because the Justice Department had suggested it would be a good idea. But what's come out since is that Pence as vice president was actually in a planning session earlier with Trump where Trump said I want to fire him because of the Russia investigation, and they worked out a plan - that is, Trump did - to get the Justice Department to support this.

So it seems that Pence was in the room and knew better and that when he came out and gave that misleading statement to the public that it could be construed as a cover-up, and it could be construed that he was involved in some kind of obstruction of justice for participating in a meeting about firing Comey because of the investigation.

So that is his greatest vulnerability legally. And, you know, I'm not a lawyer. It's hard for me to assess, but I quote in the story Larry Tribe, who is a professor at Harvard Law School, who says technically Pence is in what we in the legal profession call deep doo-doo.

GROSS: Do you know if Mike Pence is actually being investigated?

MAYER: I know he has a lawyer, and I do not know for sure, but I would assume that because he was in that meeting, his actions will certainly be looked at closely.

GROSS: Does Mike Pence have a specific set of duties within the White House now?

MAYER: So he doesn't. It's interesting. I kept asking his office, you know, does he have a portfolio? And they were waving me off that they said, no, he doesn't have a particular portfolio. He is sort of just general counselor to the president in many, many different areas.

He goes to lunch with the president on a regular basis. He attends many of the national security meetings, the Principals Committee. He's done a lot of foreign policy travel, but he doesn't have a portfolio, and some of the previous vice presidents who I spoke to were kind of baffled about the way he's conducting the job.

GROSS: All right. Well, Jane Mayer, thank you for your reporting. Thank you for coming back on FRESH AIR.

MAYER: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Jane Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her new article, "The President Pence Delusion," is in the current issue of The New Yorker. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be John Green. His phenomenally popular young adult novel "The Fault In Our Stars" about a relationship between two teenagers with cancer was adapted into a film. The main character of his new novel, "Turtles All The Way," is a teenage girl with OCD whose intrusive thoughts get in the way of her life. Those are things Green has to deal with, too. I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.