How Much Is Mike Pence to Blame?

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S1: So, Diane Dimond, you are health reporter, so they tell me Diane Dimond works over at Politico, I have to ask you, as someone who’s an expert, as someone who’s been following the coronavirus, do you think this vice presidential debate should take place tonight?

S2: I think it should take place because Americans need to hear from current leaders as well as the potential future ones.

S3: But if the question is, should it take place in person that I don’t know when tonight’s debate in Salt Lake City was originally scheduled, it was supposed to feel collegial with the candidates positioned around a table as if they were having a friendly chat after the White House found itself in the center of a coronavirus cluster, the plans started changing. As of the time we recorded this, the candidates were supposed to be 12 feet apart, but they were still fighting over whether they were going to be surrounded by plexiglass shields. Reportedly, the Trump campaign didn’t want it to look like Vice President Mike Pence was in a plastic box.

S2: I think there’s some evidence that Plexiglas alone isn’t going to protect against all of the public health risks of being in the same room with someone who may have been exposed to coronavirus. But in some ways, I think, Mary, there’s there’s almost a metaphor here, like Pence himself is in a box when it comes to how he’s handled coronavirus. He’s the guy caught in the middle going into tonight.

S1: Dan’s been thinking about Mike Pence a lot. He thinks it’s worth remembering Pence was supposed to be the guy protecting the country from the coronavirus. I mean, the thing I can’t stop thinking about is that Vice President Pence has been leading the coronavirus task force for the past six months. So he knows the risks of getting in the same room with people who may or may not be infected better than anyone, I would hope.

S2: Well, he might know these things and say these things, but how he and top officials have internalized those lessons and acted on their own.

S3: It’s essentially do as we say sometimes, not do as we do so is what you’re saying that this debate tonight, it makes the kind of sense if you’ve looked back like the last few months of how pences led this group? I think that’s a fair way to put it.

S1: Today on the show, with Mike Pence scheduled to take the stage in Salt Lake City and a cluster of covid cases circling the White House, we’re going to look back at the weeks and months leading up to this moment.

S4: They raise tough questions. It remains to be seen whether those questions will be asked at this debate. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: Your reporting on pences time leading the coronavirus task force had a pretty blunt headline, How Mike Pence slowed down the coronavirus response.

S2: I’m wondering when it became clear that that was your take away when my colleague Adam Khankan and I started reporting on Mike Pence a few months ago, it seemed pretty clear that the coronavirus task force was going to rise and fall. In large part, they’re not entirely based on his leadership. He got installed at the end of February, early March, and that was a frantic time. Health Secretary Alex Azar had been leading the task force for about a month. Pence came in and almost immediately things slowed down. So if you’re asking when we knew that things were going to be slowed under Mike Pence, we knew that within a couple of days there were a few decisions that Health Secretary Aizer and his team had been moving full steam ahead on and essentially put the brakes on.

S1: I mean, you mentioned that Pence took over the task force from Alex Azar. I wonder if it’s worth comparing the way these two men led the group to understand Pence’s approach a little bit better.

S2: Alex Azara, the health secretary for Donald Trump, had been a top health official during the George W. Bush administration. And while there he had worked on pandemic plans after 9/11, there was an effort across the Bush administration to be ready for a public health emergency, potentially one instigated by terrorism. But at the same idea holds whether it’s accidental or on purpose, protecting Americans from a biohazard that was spreading. So as part of that, Alix’s are spent quite a fair amount of time figuring out what the response should look like if there was an uncontrollable contagion rampaging across the United States. Now, my understanding, Mary, is that when this virus first was emerging in China at the end of last year into this year, Azar and his team were alarmed and worried. And there has been a fair amount of reporting, not just in Politico, about efforts to warn the president. With that, said Azer, and trying to steer the early response ran into a lot of roadblocks. He was not widely liked in the administration. We’ve reported on a lot of these internal fights in Politico, not just a czar in the White House fighting, but Azarian and his own deputies were often at war. And that meant that in trying to marshal a response and lead this effort, he had very few allies. And rather than just fight the virus, he was fighting other officials. So by the time Mike Pence came in at the end of February, abruptly installed by Donald Trump with very little heads up time, Pence was walking into a response that had been often consumed with infighting and also had been hampered by Donald Trump’s own unwillingness to move quickly to fight covid February was largely a lost month. It’s hard to put that on Mike Pence because he wasn’t involved in covid-19 response. Hmm. When Pence came in, there was a reassessment, a need to figure out from the vice president and his team what had been done when needed to be done. And the challenge of doing that, Mary, is we were in the middle of what we now know was a silently spreading outbreak. And those days and weeks that Pence and his team needed to make some big decisions that FDR seemed set to make at the end of February, those were costly delays. And I think we saw over the subsequent weeks and months after Pence took over, yes, the task force ran generally more smoothly. He’s one of the only people in the administration, probably the only one outside of President Trump who can be at the head of a table with all of these powerful figures and get them all to be quiet and listen to him. But he’s also not the kind of guy who is going to make big, bold decisions. And when facing a historic outbreak, those big and bold decisions were probably needed, and especially in those early days when he just wasn’t ready to make them.

S1: Yeah, I mean, you talk a lot about Pence’s ability to get people around a table and drive consensus. And it’s interesting because you talk about it as both a good and a bad thing where it was good and that when Alex Azar was leading, you know, that wasn’t his strength and he could maybe have ambitions to move quickly, but he couldn’t get everyone else to go along with him. So Pence was maybe a little bit better at that. But then at the same time, it had its own challenges where people from all points of the administration were coming in and were weighing in on the coronavirus where maybe they weren’t the people who should be weighing in. Like I’m thinking, for instance, about masks, whether we should wear them, whether we should in it’s a little bit difficult to remember. But back in March, there was an active debate about whether all of us should be wearing masks.

S2: Right. Right. The thought was we were staring down this historic outbreak. Our frontline health workers were under equipped and they were the ones who needed as much protection as possible, and I remember turning on the TV and seeing clips of nurses wearing trash bags or being told to tie bandanas around their faces. So clearly there was a supply shortage. And the idea that the federal government would tell every American to go out and get a mask in the middle of that, I understand why people like Tony Fauci, the infectious disease expert, or Surgeon General Jerome Adams, thought they were doing good by saying, don’t go out and get a mask. You’re taking it away from people who might need them at the same time across March. And at this point, Pense has been installed as the leader of this task force. There was increasing evidence that, yes, masks were necessary to prevent transmission of this virus. And there were some officials, like a guy named Bob Koblick, who was in charge of emergency response at the health department, who were not only believers in the need for masks, but had started laying the groundwork for all Americans to get masks, to have them sent through the mail, to have a supply of cloth masks that could be worn, reused. And the thinking behind that plan was if Americans were getting masks from the government, they’d understand the importance and they’d also have protection when need to go out and shop, you’d have these masks at your doorstep. That plan was shot down in coronavirus task force meetings. Why? Well, the argument against it was it was too early that the outbreak was limited only to a few parts of America, that it was going to be expensive to send masks to everybody and that it was going to send the wrong signal. It would it would alarm Americans. But again, this is the kind of thing where, in retrospect, the unpopular decision to maybe spend a little bit more money up front and lord knows the government spent tens of billions of dollars already to spend more money up front and to make Americans more concerned about the threat of the virus early on. That almost certainly would have paid dividends and perhaps we wouldn’t have. The issue that we still have today were mask wearing is more partisan than it needs to be if the Republican administration had sent out masks to everybody. How can Donald Trump then tell people that masks aren’t necessary when his own administration has effectively endorsed them? So I think that’s another case of a lost opportunity under his watch. Hmm.

S1: The question I kept asking myself was, what’s the difference between being a moderating force and being an enabler? Because Pence was never quite able to fix the relationships, he maybe just made them feel better.

S2: That’s such a good point. I think Pence is someone who would send off Donald Trump’s rough edges but couldn’t change the policy. He could make decisions or come to a conclusion. But he’s not the kind of guy who is going to break with Donald Trump in private often or definitely in public. And what that meant was this response that Pence was technically overseeing Donald Trump really made it about himself. Pence and his team could come to conclusions. But if Donald Trump didn’t sign off on them when he was looped in, that made Pence’s job essentially supplemental to what the president wanted. Now, maybe that’s part of being vice president. You’re not number one, your number two, but he is not a VP who is going to boldly chart his own course and make corrections on his own. He’s much more subtle. And with Donald Trump, that subtlety can get railroaded in a hurry. And I take the point that Mike Pence, while trying to build bridges, those bridges fell down as soon as Donald Trump unleashed himself again.

S1: And there are also things that Pence just got dead wrong. Like in June, he wrote an op ed for The Wall Street Journal arguing that there was no second wave of coronavirus. And all the while, a second wave was kind of reaching a swell. It seems like a different problem than the consensus building. I wonder what you learned about that op ed and what it what it sort of told you about pences leadership.

S2: So Pence did write this op ed in The Wall Street Journal in June, effectively taking a victory lap. I believe the headline being there isn’t a coronavirus, quote, second wave. Now, as you and I know, Mariusz reporters, sometimes the writer can’t control the headline, but that that op ed wasn’t just the headline. The story talks about hitting goals like twenty thousand new cases per day. That’s a benchmark that we’ve since left far behind. Rather than coronavirus cases stay at that level in June, we’re now at about 40000 new cases per day. So Pence and his team were wrong. They were wrong to plant a flag declaring victory. I think what’s important to remember is the White House had seen some positive signs, it seemed by Memorial Day that the U.S. was maybe moving past the worst of it. And Pence and the White House wanted to get back out on the campaign trail. It’s an election year. They wanted to put a lot of this behind them. There were people involved in the task force who had started to disassociate. And the task force itself went from a daily affair to I think in June. They were only meeting two times a week, maybe three times a week. So that was the backdrop for Pence and his team wanting to move past the virus. But the virus wasn’t ready to be passed. And I think within days we saw surges in places like Texas and Georgia and states in the south that had moved quickly to reopen and very much made that Wall Street Journal op ed an artifact of a brief, hopeful time in a time that clearly was not what the US was facing.

S1: What’s the most charitable way to see how Mike Pence steered the federal response to the coronavirus?

S2: The most charitable interpretation is that he came in in the middle of a once in a century pandemic and organized more parts of the government to fight it. He brought in people who had been sidelined and eventually played a major role in the response. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who’d worked with Mike Pence, an Indiana surgeon general. Adams has been a major voice on TV and public service announcements trying to inform Americans that was a Pence decision. Medicaid chief Seema Vermeij, Pence protege, has played a big role in rolling out funding to hospitals and boosting telehealth during the pandemic, which has been incredibly important. Those were Pence decisions, and anyone facing this kind of crisis would have measured up short in numerous ways how Pence would have done versus someone else. We only have this case study to look at and there were a lot of things that any leader would have struggled with.

S5: I’ll be back with more Dan Diamond in a minute.

S1: Does the task force still exist?

S2: It still does, but I think it’s an artifact of the earlier response. There’s an effort called Operation Warp Speed that is working to speed a coronavirus vaccine, coronavirus treatments. That’s where a lot of the energy and enthusiasm is now in the government. It’s been set up more rigorously than the task force. The task force was this ad hoc body in many respects, with people from the economic branch of the government, from the national security branch, from the health branch, people who oversaw the border, which was also a controversial part of pences tenure. All of these different officials around the table getting equal voice. It’s clear that that wasn’t the best way to respond to this virus operation. Warp speed, meanwhile, is much more regimented. It’s clear who’s in charge of which part of developing a vaccine, of developing treatments. And that’s where a lot of energy and focus now lies. But it’s hard to get rid of a coronavirus task force in the middle of a coronavirus outbreak, partly because of the threat of saying we’re winding down the task force. So it still meets it’s still used as a forum to perhaps communicate within the government about these issues. But it is not the going concern it was at the beginning of the year.

S1: Yeah, I mean, the funny thing is I feel like we’re in this moment where the president is sick and we need the guidance of this kind of task force maybe more than ever. And yet we’re getting all of these indications that the White House is doing the opposite of what you might think the task force would recommend. There’s been reporting that, for instance, there’s not a ton of contact tracing going on in regards to the president who might have had contact with him. It just seems like the White House’s fingerprints on the coronavirus, they’re just going in a different direction than they might have if the task force was still what it was or empowered.

S2: I wonder sometimes, Mary, how different all of this would have been if it wasn’t an election year and if Donald Trump, Mike Pence weren’t trying to win reelection in the middle of fighting this outbreak, or if the person in charge of the coronavirus task force wasn’t a political appointee trying to also make the case why he should be re-elected in a few weeks if it was some X government types and public health leader who’d been given broad powers and portfolio to make things happen. The problem with the White House coronavirus response is the coronavirus response has been bad, objectively bad. We are an outlier internationally in terms of the spread of the virus, the number of people sickened and the fact that our own leader ended up in the hospital. So I think when you talk about the fingerprints of the White House on this response, it’s with the understanding that the White House wants to be as distant from coronavirus as possible, that this is a bad political issue for them. And the more that can be done to downplay the severity of the disease, the better it is politically. At least that’s the thinking in many corridors of the West Wing. I think Mike Pence and team know the threats, know the risks of covid-19, but there’s a real fear that the more that they are sounding alarms, especially this close to Election Day, the less likely it is that they’ll be the ones running the country next year if the president’s health gets worse.

S1: Pence is next in line to assume his position. I wonder if you think pences time leading this task force actually tells us anything about who pense might be as a leader, because when I look at it, it seems almost impossible to disentangle Pence himself and his leadership from his relationship with the president.

S2: I think that’s such a good point. I mean, he is an important figure in the response and probably more interesting than his persona makes him seem. But everything that Mike Pence did on Coronavirus, even though he was technically leader of the task force, got subsumed because Donald Trump made coronavirus all about himself. So we haven’t really seen him. Mike Pence unfettered from the president and able to do whatever it is he thinks needed to be done separate from Trump. So how Mike Pence would be as acting president? Pence, it’s been almost four years of covering this White House and this administration. And I I think I’m still not entirely sure there are issues that he deeply cares about, social issues and health care, like restricting access to abortion. But on something like coronavirus, if he hadn’t had to answer to the president, would Mike Pence have done things differently? Probably. Do we know for sure? No, because he and his team are so scared of getting crosswise of Trump that they swallow their their feelings and complaints. And he does such a good job of being that lieutenant. If he’s the guy in charge, would we see a drastically different Mike Pence? Maybe. But but I don’t know.

S1: If you were moderating the vice presidential debate tonight, what would you most want to ask the vice president?

S2: You know, I’ve had various officials sit down with me for interviews, and I always like to ask them, what’s the decision you wish you had back? That doesn’t mean that they’ll answer it honestly. But if you’re Mike Pence, basically, do you have any regrets?

S6: You oversaw the coronavirus response. This has been a bad response. What would you do differently? What have you learned? I don’t know if he’d give the straight truth on that, but that’s the question and the answer that I’d most want to see.

S1: Diane Dimond, thank you so much for chatting with me, Mary Harris.

S2: Thanks for having me.

S7: Even if there wasn’t a Plexiglas shield separating just a few hundred miles. Good to talk to you. Diane Dimond is a reporter at Politico. His daily morning newsletter is indispensable. It is called Politico Pulse. Check it out. And that’s the show before we go, I have a quick favor to ask a whole bunch of you have been calling in to tell us how you’re planning to make your vote count or help the people around you make their votes count. We love these stories and we want more of them. If you haven’t had a chance to give us a ring, you can still do it. Call us at two zero two eight eight eight two five eight eight. What Next is produced by Jason de Leon, Daniel Hewitt, Mary Wilson and Elina Schwartz. We had a little help today from Diane Dimond himself. He’s got a big fancy podcasting microphone. We are led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.