NORFOLK, Va. – Mike Pence tried Thursday to smooth over turmoil stirred by Donald Trump’s refusal to endorse some prominent Republicans, issuing a blanket endorsement of all GOP congressional incumbents seeking re-election.
Since his selection as Trump’s running mate, Pence has tried to stay focused on winning over conservatives skeptical of the New York billionaire, but his new boss keeps getting in the way.
Last week, Trump ignited a feud with the family of a U.S. Army captain who was killed in Iraq, arguing that the family’s recent criticisms of him were not fair. This week he angered Republican leaders by refusing to endorse House Speaker Paul Ryan, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain.
The Indiana governor’s mass endorsement was an unusual break between a vice-president and the top of the GOP ticket, but it was just the latest development after several days of damage control he’s undertaken on Trump’s behalf.
Pence started Thursday with a rally in North Carolina, where an 11-year old boy who identified himself as Matthew said Pence had been “softening up on Mr. Trump’s policies and words” and questioned whether that would be his role in the administration.
Pence replied that “sometimes things don’t always come out like you mean” and added that he and Trump “have different styles,” which shouldn’t be “confused with differences in conviction.”
Later, at a rally in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Pence suggested Trump speaks “straight from his heart, straight from his mind” and doesn’t have time for “thousands of rules of political correctness.”
On several occasions in the past week he has found himself in direct conflict with Trump, choosing a different campaign tack or taking the sting out of the Republican presidential nominee’s incendiary remarks.
Curt Smith, a longtime Pence friend who runs the socially conservative Indiana Family Institute, said, “There’s been some cleanup,” later adding, “I think you’ll see more.”
The early days of the general election campaign have been a contortionist act for Pence, who has remained loyal to Trump while trying to maintain his reputation as a principled, down-to-earth Midwesterner with the primary mission of acting as an emissary to the conservative and evangelical wings of the Republican Party.
The first noticeable split between the two came during the Democratic convention, when Trump encouraged Russia to find and make public missing emails deleted by Hillary Clinton from the private servers she used while secretary of state.
At roughly the same time, Pence blasted Russia in a statement issued by the campaign that said “the United States government will ensure there are serious consequences” if Russia is “interfering in our elections.”
Last weekend, Pence, whose only son is a U.S. Marine, sought to quell the uproar Trump created by lashing out at Capt. Humayun Khan’s parents, who appeared at the Democratic convention and criticized Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. Their son was killed in Iraq.
Pence said he and Trump believe Khan is “an American hero” and said “his family, like all Gold Star families, should be cherished by every American.”
He backed up those remarks at a Monday evening town hall meeting in Nevada, when the audience jeered a woman who asked how he can tolerate what she called Trump’s disrespect of American servicemen.
Pence asked the crowd to quiet down and then said of the questioner: “That’s what freedom looks like. That’s what freedom sounds like.”
Trump, meanwhile, wrote on Twitter that day: “Mr. Khan, who does not know me, viciously attacked me from the stage of the DNC and is now all over TV doing the same… Nice!”
On Tuesday, Pence held a meeting with Arizona Sen. John McCain – a day after the former prisoner of war said Trump did not have “unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us,” and hours after Trump responded by telling The Washington Post he would not endorse McCain’s re-election.
In that same interview, Trump also refused to endorse Ryan, who faces a primary election next week, and suggested Ayotte was weak.
While Trump has been openly hostile toward members of the media, Pence has struck a conciliatory tone. He recently gave a reporter in his travelling press entourage cupcakes for her birthday. And after law enforcement and local volunteers barred a Washington Post reporter from entering a rally in Wisconsin, Pence said on conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt’s radio show the campaign would evaluate its policy and added that events would be “available to the media, whether they’re fair or unfair.”
Still, there are no outward signs that Trump has any issues with Pence, or that his statements come as a surprise to the candidate at the top of the ticket. Two people familiar with the campaign’s inner workings said the official statements and tweets from Pence are approved at campaign headquarters. They spoke on condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Indiana Republican public affairs consultant Mike Murphy compared Pence’s relationship with Trump to an arranged marriage.
“He’s staying consistent with his character and he’s not changing who he is, but he’s also careful not to criticize his spouse,” said Murphy, who has known Pence for nearly 30 years.