The following is excerpted from PIETY & POWER: Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House. Copyright 2019 by Tom LoBianco. To be published on September 24, 2019, by Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
It was Friday, October 16, 2016, a surprisingly warm fall afternoon in Toledo, Ohio. Mike Pence stood at the counter of Tony Packo’s Café chatting up diners at the legendary hot dog joint. The sleeves of his white shirt were rolled up, but his collar was still buttoned and his red-striped tie still perfectly knotted. This stop—the look, the energy in the place—was all vintage campaign trail stuff, and Pence was totally in his element and riding high. He loved working a room. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump had been through Packo’s earlier and completed the tradition of signing the hot dog bun that would join the dozens of other famous buns hanging on the walls inside the restaurant, including Barack Obama’s and George W. Bush’s. It was a campaign rite of passage for presidential contenders. Now it was Pence’s turn. The assembled reporters from all the major networks huddled just down the bar, waiting for their shots.
Pence was not exactly a compelling, news-making running mate, but on the rare chance that Pence did get some press, it usually went well for him. His surprise selection as running mate just a few months earlier reinserted him in the national conversation. His stellar performance on the national debate stage against Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine had raised his profile even higher. Pence appeared to be a sane salve to the disaster of Trump: the insults, the bullying, his history of cheating on his wives and on contracts. Pence magically shook it all off. If anything stuck, it stuck to Trump. Pence just squared his shoulders a bit, took a breath, nodded slightly—just like Ronald Reagan used to do—and delivered his lines. He was remarkably good at it. He even took the fatal flaws of Trump and made them into a tale where Trump was the scrappy underdog. “Invariably, they’ll say, ‘This time we got him,’ right?” Pence said. “‘This time we found that there’s another tweet that’s come out or something. This time, we got another thing, another issue that’s come forward.’ Then they turn on the television the next morning, and Donald Trump is still standing stronger than before.”
But halfway through the hot dog shop visit, the script stopped rolling. The reporters suddenly stopped looking at Pence and began checking their phones—all of them. “He appeared to grow suspicious,” NBC reporter Vaughn Hillyard noted. Pence’s aide Marc Lotter ducked in the back where Pence had been shuffled away with several other aides and showed the candidate his phone. Lotter returned a few minutes later and told the reporters to get out. Pence wouldn’t be stopping in to see the hot dog bun Trump had signed, he wouldn’t be signing his own, and there wouldn’t be anything more to see here.
The Washington Post had just revealed a tape of Donald Trump bragging about abusing women. It was a hot mic moment from a 2005 episode of Access Hollywood. Trump bantered with show host Billy Bush, the cousin of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, about how easy it was for him to get whatever he wants from women because he’s rich and famous. As Trump and Billy Bush rode on their Access Hollywood tour bus en route to the studio, they spied their cohost in the parking lot—tall and slender soap star Arianne Zucker. Trump said he better get ready: “I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” That’s right, Billy Bush said, “Whatever you want.” Yeah, Trump said, “Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
As Pence hustled out the back of Tony Packo’s, the 20-something-year-old campaign embeds from the networks looked around. Now they had some tougher questions than the mechanics of signing spongy white hot dog buns. Did Pence support a womanizer for president? Someone who, by his own words, had molested women?
Meanwhile, within a half hour of the news breaking, WikiLeaks began posting thousands of emails from the Gmail account of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. The emails had been stolen in a hack that Democratic cybersecurity experts traced to Russia. It seemed awfully convenient that when the biggest “October surprise” to land in modern American politics dropped on the head of Trump, a half hour later an equally startling surprise landed at the feet of the Clinton campaign. It was whiplash for the American public.
The Pence campaign entourage began blocking and tackling, shuffling the reporters away. Pence only had one more public event to survive on his Friday swing, down the road in Rossford, Ohio, then he was home free. He could vanish without having to cancel any events and raise even more questions. On the rope line in Rossford a few hours later, a reporter demanded an answer—“Did he still support Trump?” Pence ignored the question.
And then he vanished.
The first calls from the Republican National Committee donors started coming into Pence’s aide Marty Obst around 6:30 p.m. The Republican Party had a contingency plan, to remove Donald Trump from the ticket and replace him with Mike Pence as the nominee. Pence didn’t even have to say yes, the RNC would just do it, to protect the party.
RNC chairman Reince Priebus and a small group of his top deputies had been preparing for an event such as the Access Hollywood tape. Rumors of incredible comments Trump had made in other tapings had swirled throughout the election season, and Priebus and his team were certain one of them would eventually make it out into the open. So when the Access Hollywood tape aired, the RNC was ready.
As a practical matter, it would be impossible to throw another party nominating convention on such short notice, and ballots had already been printed in most states—hell, in many states, people had already started casting early votes. It would be impossible to change those votes, and maybe even impossible to remove Trump from the printed ballots, a matter the GOP’s seasoned election lawyers were already considering Friday night. But this measure was not about winning the presidency, it was about salvaging the party down ballot—saving the rest of the races that they would have to pry from under the wreckage of Trump’s Tic Tac strategy. The Party of Reagan and Lincoln would be known as the Party of Grab ’Em by the Pussy.
The mechanism was convoluted, but not technically impossible—Pence had been nominated by the full convention of delegates in Cleveland, so he was approved already. This would give the RNC political cover. But the actual decision could be made solely by the 168 members of the RNC selected to represent the 56 states and territories—they wrote the rules of their party and could rewrite the rules at any time to designate another nominee.
A few select donors were designated to deliver the message to Pence using backchannels, a standard practice in sensitive matters, to give Priebus and his team complete deniability if word ever leaked out. Obst listened as the calls came in, and he beat them back. He said, “Mike is too loyal for that. We made a commitment to this guy. He goes down, we go down. That’s how this works.”
New Jersey governor Chris Christie called up Pence that evening to see how he was doing. Pence said he just wanted to focus on getting Trump ready for the presidential debate coming up that Sunday. He said he was keeping his head down and focusing on the work.
Pence didn’t tell Christie what he was going to do about the news; all he said was that he and his wife Karen had to pray. The truth was, they didn’t know what they were going to do. Helping remove Trump from the ticket would be political suicide for Pence—he’d lose the general election in a blowout by Clinton, and he’d be known by the new base of the Republican Party, Trump’s base of supporters, as a traitor and a snake. It would end his career.
No, the Pences had to consider another option: Maybe they should resign from the ticket. It wouldn’t be surprising, given Trump’s comments. And Karen was livid—how could they face their daughters and son if they supported such defiling behavior by the man who wanted to become the most powerful person in the world? But dropping off the ticket also felt impossible—they had already hitched their fortunes to Trump. For so long, this was what they had prayed and hoped for.
Pence’s small team of advisers had to plot out the weekend—they huddled. There was a rally the next day in the critical swing state of Wisconsin, so making any move there was off the table, but the private, closed-door fundraiser in Newport, Rhode Island, Saturday night might be workable. They decided Pence should put out a statement saying he was “disappointed” in Trump, but not go any further than that—neither supporting nor condemning—until after Trump’s debate performance Sunday night. Nobody wanted Pence to take over the Republican nomination from Trump, but his team of advisers were split on whether he should leave the ticket or stay.
While the Pences hunkered down at the Indiana governor’s mansion Saturday morning, Trump gathered his team at his residence in Trump Tower in Manhattan. Priebus confronted Trump and told him to step down from the ticket or lose in a landslide—he never mentioned the contingency plan the RNC worked out to remove the nominee and replace him with Pence. Trump campaign chief executive Steve Bannon told Trump to stick to his guns.
Republican senators who had suffered through a soul-crushing campaign finally cracked. “Donald Trump should withdraw and Mike Pence should be our nominee effective immediately,” Republican senator John Thune tweeted. New Hampshire Republican senator Kelly Ayotte said that she would not support Trump or Clinton, but would write in Pence. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman joined the chorus, as did former candidate and Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
Priebus’s chief of staff, Katie Walsh, tried to get Priebus, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to sign a joint statement calling on Trump to step down, but McConnell balked at the idea.
Shortly before noon, Pence put out a carefully hedged statement—he found Trump’s comments reprehensible, could not condone any of them, and was praying for Trump.
Friends and colleagues called Pence repeatedly; they texted their pleas. “Please leave the ticket, save yourself,” they begged. But Pence knew that Trump was the future of the Republican Party; the yowling from the politicians and elites inside the Washington bubble were the past. He had picked up on the rumbling of Trump support in rural white America a year ago as he fought for his own re-election in Indiana, and his sense that Trump owned the Republican Party base only increased once he joined the ticket and saw the passion of Trump’s legions for himself.
Finally, after 18 hours of trying to get through to Pence, Trump connected with his running mate around noon on Saturday. He apologized and said that wasn’t the man he was today. Then he asked to speak with Karen. Trump paused a second, waited for Pence to hand the phone to his wife, and he apologized profusely to her. He couldn’t be sure if it worked; the two were still praying.
A few hours later, the Pences and Obst boarded the campaign plane to fly to Rhode Island for a fundraiser. They were staying on the ticket. Still, to be safe, Pence would stay out of public view at least another 24 hours until the storm passed. Pence’s traveling press corps was cordoned off inside a separate plane, unable to squeeze in a single question.
The Pences and Obst sat together on a lonely flight to Rhode Island. “Well, here we are again,” the vice presidential nominee said. Supporters got cold feet with Pence after the Indiana RFRA blowup, in which he had pushed for a law protecting religious liberty at the expense of LGBT rights. Now there were suddenly fewer campaign staff and fans who wanted to fly with him again. When things got hot, the fair-weather friends disappeared.
Obst looked to Karen, with whom he had worked closely for the last decade, and asked her straight up: “Tell me how you feel about this, between you and me, as friends.” Karen answered, “You know, Marty, I told Mike that we knew we were signing up for something unique. We knew there would be times he’d say and do things we’d never do. We understood that. All the trepidation about—well, he says things off the cuff—we settled in our hearts before we decided to do this. Obviously, it’s disappointing, but it doesn’t change the mission.”
Pence fired up the Rhode Island crowd that night. He said that Trump was a good man, that people make mistakes, and that he was proud to stand with the Republican nominee. Pence sensed that Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” comment might not be as big a deal to voters as it was to the chattering class in Washington. Trump’s comments certainly didn’t seem to matter to the supporters in Newport.
The Pences flew back to Indianapolis that night and hid out in the governor’s mansion. They may have been willing to tell friends they were sticking with Trump, but they weren’t ready to tell the public.
The calls from Republican donors and operatives promising to make Pence the nominee if he would help push Trump off the ticket continued coming in, but now they were easier to ignore.
The Trump campaign, meanwhile, cooked up a novel attack: Trump’s words might be bad, but Bill Clinton’s actions were worse. To prove their point, they invited Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, and Kathleen Willey to join them at the next presidential debate. All three women had accused former president Bill Clinton of either sexually assaulting them or forcing himself on them. Trump and his team tried to have the women walk in the debate hall the same time as Bill Clinton himself, but the Presidential Debate Commission blocked that. Still, the broader stunt worked—if Trump had bragged about sexual assault, here was evidence that the husband of the Democratic nominee was an actual assailant.
The Pences and a few close aides watched Trump’s performance intently in the study of the governor’s mansion. This was their last exit ramp if they wanted off. But they liked his performance; they were still on board. After the debate, Trump called up Pence and said, “You know, Mike, I was just telling everyone how loyal you are. I was telling Jared [Kushner] how loyal you are. A lot of people who were supposed to be my friends were trying to get me out of this race. A lot of people were trying to plot my demise. And you know what Mike Pence did? He got on a fucking plane to Rhode Island and raised money.”
Pence looked over at Obst and beamed.
Monday morning, three days after the Access Hollywood news broke, Pence finally reappeared in public. “Last night, my running mate, he showed the American people what was in his heart and he showed humility to the American people, and then he fought back and turned the focus to the choice that we face, and I am proud to stand with Donald Trump.” Had Pence considered leaving the ticket? Not at all. The truth he didn’t state was that it would have been political suicide to ditch Trump; he had gotten himself within sight of the big prize and he wasn’t about to head back into the political wilds now. Steady Mike Pence didn’t have to usurp Trump to become president, he was already on his way to winning the Oval Office by playing a cunning long game while exercising Herculean discipline. It was a strategy he had been perfecting for four decades.
Pence was savvy enough to know that the ground had shifted beneath the feet of Republicans since Trump entered the race. There was a conservative, white, populist anger that had been building for decades—visible in campaigns like Pat Buchanan’s—and it could no longer be ignored. This was the new base of the Republican Party, and to kill their king would have been ruinous. Besides, Pence only had to wait one more month and then he could run for president in 2020 in his own right.
In the waning weeks of the 2016 campaign, Pence tried a new message, one that captured the tone of the moment—and one that showed why he was selected as Trump’s running mate in the first place. On October 24, at a campaign rally in California, he summed it up: “I want to submit to all of you, it’s time to reach out to all of our Republican and conservative friends and say with one voice: ‘It’s time to come home and elect Donald Trump as the next president of the United States. It’s time to come home and come together and do everything in our power to make sure that Hillary Clinton is never elected president of the United States of America.”
On October 28, FBI director James Comey delivered the unlikeliest of gifts to the Trump campaign. He wrote in a letter to House Republicans that investigators had discovered a new cache of Hillary Clinton emails. With about one week left until the election, it sounded as though the FBI was reopening its probe into the Democratic nominee’s use of a private email server for official State Department communications. Politically, it was gold for the Trump campaign. Comey had just reinforced the narrative that Hillary Clinton could not be trusted—and swept away any lingering coverage of Trump’s Access Hollywood comments once and for all.