On Friday afternoon, Vice President Mike Pence strode to the White House podium with top health officials behind him to deliver the message: “It’s important to know that because of the president’s decisive leadership, the risk to the American public of contracting the coronavirus remains low.”
Calm, steady, boring, reliably loyal: Pence has had President Donald Trump’s back through the ups and downs of the campaign and presidency, and he’s never let anything less than praise escape his lips for No. 45. His reward? The job of coronavirus czar.
The thankless post — particularly as panic spreads on a viral scale — has only relaunched speculation that Pence might not be long for the presidential ticket. “This is not a prediction. It’s a certainty,” longtime Democratic strategist and former Crossfire host Paul Begala said last week during a panel discussion at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference. Begala predicted — pardon me, made it certain that it be known — that on the day of the Democratic presidential nominee’s acceptance speech, Trump would call a news conference “to dump Mike Pence and put Nikki Haley on the ticket to try to get those suburban moms.”
Begala is not the type of TV talking head Trump calls at night to kvetch with, so there’s no reason to suspect inside info, but the speculation around Haley has bubbled for a while. An anonymous senior Trump administration official wrote in A Warning, that Haley was “under active consideration” to replace Pence on the ticket. “Although Mr. Pence has been loyal to a fault, the president is always eager to ‘shake things up,’” the anonymous author wrote, adding that top Trump aides also believe Haley could help with suburban women who are fleeing the Republican Party in droves.
Haley, 48, the former governor of South Carolina and U.N. ambassador who abruptly left the Trump administration in late 2018, has long been rumored as either a foil or a running mate for Trump. She’s sought to downplay those rumors, and Trump himself stepped in this week after Begala’s comments. “I get along great with our vice president,” he said at a Fox News town hall when asked who his best friend in Washington is. “I keep hearing I’m replacing him. He’s doing a phenomenal job. He’s a great guy and a loyal guy and he works so hard.”
Pence was electorally valuable in 2016, helping Trump consolidate religious conservatives who were skeptical of his candidacy. But now that Trump has delivered for those voters — first and foremost by appointing Supreme Court justices who could well overturn Roe vs. Wade — Pence has less utility. Enter Haley, a potentially history-making choice on two fronts who could hold some appeal both for suburban women and Indian American voters. And as Begala alluded, the move would make fantastic TV.
The first major coronavirus shake-up landed Friday night, when Trump tweeted that chief of staff Mick Mulvaney was being replaced by Rep. Mark Meadows, the North Carolinian who led the far-right Freedom Caucus in the House and has been a tight White House ally. Mulvaney, Trump tweeted, will now be envoy to Northern Ireland. Meadows becomes Trump’s fourth chief of staff and arrives amid a Category 5 shitstorm.
The president signed an $8.3 billion bill Friday to fight the virus, but he was late to the coronavirus problem — spooked only when the stock market started plunging. The president has continually downplayed the threat with specious claims. Trump last week told Fox News host and quasi-chief of staff Sean Hannity that “my hunch” is that the World Health Organization’s 3.4 percent death rate for coronavirus “is a false number.” Trump suggested that some people are infected and simply “get better” even if they go to work, and are never tested. (Please, don’t go to work if you might have coronavirus.)
In a rollicking Friday news conference at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta — just minutes before Pence’s staid affair at the White House — Trump said he didn’t want to allow quarantined cruise ship passengers off the coast of California into the U.S. because “I don’t need to have the [infection] numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”
He claimed anyone can get tested who wants to, while Pence then told reporters that wouldn’t be the case for “a matter of weeks” though test production from private labs is accelerating. Stories abound of a chaotic response inside the government that reflects Trump’s own seat-of-his-pants style … and that was before the surprise chief of staff swap.
Pence could make for a convenient fall guy, but this election is still going to be a referendum on the man who has dominated the American psyche for the past five years. It’s why Republican strategist Doug Heye — who calls the Haley-as-veep talk “idle gossip” — doesn’t see much of a difference either way. “Trump voters are Trump voters first and foremost, before any other issues or who his veep pick might be,” Heye says.
But eight months out from the election, polls show Trump needs more than current Trump voters, or even those who turned out for him in 2016, considering high Democratic enthusiasm. Haley is untested in a national campaign, but she has a powerful story of perseverance and could add a dose of star power and drama at an opportune moment — whether it’s Begala’s predicted Mar-a-Lago news conference, or a sudden Friday night tweet when the president is in a jam.