- Vice President Mike Pence, with a key boost from Second Lady Karen Pence, grabbed a second day of coverage out of Mask-Gate on Thursday.
- Pence donned a mask Thursday for a tour of a plant in Kokomo, Indiana — two days after he said he didn’t need to wear a mask.
- Pence mirrored one of President Donald Trump’s regular tactics for keeping the spotlight trained on him.
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Putting on a facemask as he toured a GM plant in Kokomo, Indiana, on Thursday may be the Trumpiest thing Vice President Mike Pence has ever done.
Not because he suddenly cratered to Twitter pressure, but because he successfully grabbed the spotlight for two days out of the week — and he did it by flip-flopping.
On Tuesday, Pence grabbed the nation’s attention by refusing to wear a mask while touring the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, despite reportedly being told by the clinic he must wear one. He later said he didn’t need to wear a mask because he’d been tested and was a coronavirus-free.
Thursday morning, Second Lady Karen Pence gave a rare interview on cable news – and contradicted the Mayo Clinic, saying that their staff was never warned the vice president had to wear a mask. Then, a few hours later, Pence landed in his home state of Indiana to tour a GM plant repurposed to make ventilators. And he wore a mask.
(A White House official explained the change Thursday, saying that Pence never knew about the Mayo Clinic policy demanding masks, but was alerted to the GM policy requiring masks before Thursday’s tour. A Mayo Clinic spokesperson contradicted this claim Tuesday, saying they had alerted Pence.)
Twitter, cable news and the left bit – hard. Starting from Tuesday and continuing through Thursday, the Pences collectively drew the fire of the biggest names in Resistance Twitter.
Comedian Chelsea Handler, tweeted the cherry on top: “Congrats to Karen Pence on becoming the ultimate Karen.”
The thing is, for a politician – particularly one with his eyes set on the White House – almost all exposure is gold. Just ask the president.
In the throes of the 2016 primary battle, as it became clear Trump was starting to pull away with the nomination, the New York Times calculated he had won $2 billion in free air time through his wild campaign rallies, and follow-up phone calls the next morning to the cable shows.
And he’s continued that strategy in the White House and through the response to the coronavirus. To wit: Last Friday, Trump’s advisers said he’d probably cancel the daily briefings after he suggested ingesting bleach. On Saturday, Trump tweeted he was done doing them. On Monday morning the White House announced he’d do the regular briefing, then said he wouldn’t. Then he tweeted he would. (I’m sorry you had to read all that – email me if you’d like back the last 15 seconds of your life. Happy to talk.)
The story itself flip-flopped all over the place. But it had one distinct constant: the focus trained squarely on Trump. And like the season finales from the last five years of the Trump Show, it built in a cliffhanger: What if he actually did stop the briefings?
For virtually every politician, exposure to the public is the very lifeblood of their existence. Pence himself learned this lesson very early, as I wrote in my biography of him, when he discovered in his first two races for Congress that his biggest opponent was not the Democratic incumbent, but the fact he was unknown.
As I reported my biography of the vice president, “Piety & Power: Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House,” I was repeatedly told by some close friends that they wondered when Trump would rub off on Pence. Specifically, they noted that Pence used to be more spontaneous before he left for Washington in 2001. They hoped that some of Trump’s chaotic nature would rub off on Pence and break up his stiff demeanor – because they knew there was a real human, even a funny one, buried underneath that veneer.
Earlier this week, a longtime acquaintance of Pence’s told me that Pence doesn’t do anything without calculating first how it will look in public. Not wearing a mask, while everyone else wore one? A dog whistle to Trump supporters – including the many protesters at state capitals – that he stands with them, and the president.
Two days later, the second lady goes on television and says the Mayo Clinic was wrong, then the vice president pops on a mask and says nothing of the scuffle – prolonging the coverage bonanza.
Perhaps Thursday proved that some of that Trump planned chaos had finally rubbed off on Pence. It’s certainly the most he’s acted like Trump since they first connected almost four years ago.