As Republican insiders reportedly have new worries that Democratic victories in the 2018 midterm election could mean the impeachment of President Donald Trump, investigative journalist Jane Mayer, in her latest piece for The New Yorker, offers an in-depth warning about "the danger of President Pence."
"The worse the President looks, the more desirable his understudy seems," writes Mayer, noting that left- and right-wing commentators alike have increasingly wished that Vice President Mike Pence would ascend to the Oval Office.
While she details their ideological differences—"Trump campaigned as an unorthodox outsider, but Pence is a doctrinaire ideologue"—Mayer makes another notable distinction: "Pence is the inside man of the conservative money machine."
White House counselor and former Pence staffer Kellyanne Conway has described Pence as "a full-spectrum conservative," while former While House chief strategist Steve Bannon said he is "the outreach guy, the connective tissue" between the Trump administration and the most conservative wing of the Republican establishment.
Serving as that "connective tissue," as Mayer explains, also means keeping a cozy relationship with billionaires who donate to Republican candidates:
Pence has the political experience, the connections, the discipline, and the ideological mooring that Trump lacks. He also has a close relationship with the conservative billionaire donors who have captured the Republican Party's agenda in recent years.
On election night, the dissonance between Trump's populist supporters and Pence's billionaire sponsors was quietly evident. When Trump gave his acceptance speech, in the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel in midtown Manhattan, he vowed to serve "the forgotten men and women of our country," and promised to "rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, and hospitals." Upstairs, in a room reserved for Party elites, several of the richest and most conservative donors, all of whom support drastic reductions in government spending, were celebrating.
Doug Deason, a Texas businessman who attended the party on election night, told Mayer, "Mike and I are pretty good friends," adding, "He's really the contact to the big donors."
Deason wasn't the only elite donor supposedly enlisted by Pence. Koch Industries co-owner David Koch—who, along with his brother and business partner, Charles, is infamous for bankrolling GOP campaigns—was among the elite crowd celebrating upstairs, and as Mayer notes, his "presence was especially unexpected."
Trump insiders credit Pence's rapport with the pair for winning over the billionaire brothers.
"The Kochs were very excited about the Vice-Presidential pick," Marc Short, Trump's head of legislative affairs and a former Pence staffer, told Mayer. But, warned Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), "If Pence were to become President for any reason, the government would be run by the Koch brothers—period. He's been their tool for years."
After early failed attempts at launching a political career, Pence worked at a conservative think-tank and as a talk radio host, through which he "amassed a Rolodex full of conservative connections and established a national network of wealthy funders." By the time he ran for Congress in 2000, as the party favorite, he won by a 12-point margin.
As a congressman, Pence gained a reputation for challenging GOP party leaders, and he later transitioned to governor of Indiana.
"Pence's close relationship with dozens of conservative groups, including Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs' top political organization, was crucial to his rise," Mayer writes, before detailing how Pence got tangled up with the Koch brothers. Short "had grown up in moneyed conservative circles in Virginia," and his wife worked for the Charles Koch Foundation. A former White House colleague told Mayer that Short, Pence's chief of staff, "really delivered Pence to the Kochs."
Being the darling of billionaire Republican donors would undoubtedly influence Pence's decisions as president—which, as interviews with a retired Indiana newspaper editor and Pence's family reveal, could be his end-goal. While the newspaper editor described Pence as "ambitious, even calculating," his mother and a brother recalled the vice president, even as a high school student, "talking to classmates about becoming President of the United States."
While Pence reportedly has strong influence over Trump's decisions—and "has become a back channel for government figures who are frustrated by the impulsiveness and inattention" of the president—the priorities of the Republican party's wealthy donors have already begun superseding those professed by candidate Trump, who campaigned on a populist, nationalist agenda and promises to "drain the swamp."
"One by one, all the things that Trump campaigned on that annoyed the Koch brothers are being thrown overboard," said Whitehouse, who along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) released a report in July detailing the administration's embrace of corporate insiders and lobbyists. "And one by one the Koch brothers' priorities are moving up the list."