But the vice president’s focus on coordinating meetings and soliciting feedback often went too far, especially as task force membership ballooned under his watch and the coronavirus death count continued to rise, current and former officials said.
“Everything had to go through the task force so people who should not have had a voice at the table — Homeland Security, CBP, Education, Commerce, all these other people who don’t have a reason — are suddenly killing ideas from health experts during a pandemic,” said a former official who attended the meeting. “Everyone had an equal say when they shouldn’t have. And it slowed the process.”
“The task force in its own right isn’t a decision-making body. It’s a communication body. It’s a 50-person or 60-person board,” a senior administration official added. “It’s not possible to make decisions with a group like that.”
Pence also allowed Homeland Security officials — backed by powerful White House adviser Stephen Miller — to use the task force meetings to successfully argue for new immigration restrictions during the pandemic, which three current and former health officials characterized as an unnecessary distraction from the public health priorities facing the group.
Two people involved in the task force’s development of new public health guidance also described a process in which Pence’s office frequently stepped in to revise guidance that was already being revised by other agencies, leading to days of delays as the documents ping-ponged back and forth. That’s continued across the summer and hampered the ability to speed the ever-evolving public health advisories to Americans, they said.
“They’re making edits on edits,” one individual said. “I don’t know if Pence knows how often White House officials spend weeks fighting over CDC guidance.”
A receptive voice
As coronavirus cases soared across the spring, nervous governors increasingly found themselves bringing complaints and requests to Pence — their former colleague and often their only point of access to a White House that was openly feuding with state leaders.
During regular group conference calls that began in March and private one-on-one discussions with Pence, governors laid out their demands as their states scrambled for protective equipment and testing supplies. Many pushed Pence to fast-track their issues within key agencies like FEMA and HHS as they waited on test kits and other materials, often receiving the vice president’s pledge to “look into it” rather than outright guarantees.
Others eagerly tuned into Pence’s calls, four state officials told POLITICO, because it was their only consistent way to be informed on the federal government’s response — outside of watching Trump’s rambling press briefings with the rest of the general public. That dynamic has continued through the summer, with Pence serving as a sort of Trump translator for state officials, although the vice president never betrays any hint of disagreement with the president.
At times, the vice president — who was a governor before entering the White House — has been a helpful partner, some state officials allow. Unlike Trump, who publicly mocked and belittled Democrats like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Pence worked to resolve conflicts with state leaders or tried to head them off before they reached Trump’s attention.
For instance, Pence quickly sought to make peace between Trump and Maryland GOP Gov. Larry Hogan in April when the two men began publicly sparring over access to Covid-19 testing. After Hogan criticized the administration for failing to provide sufficient tests — while touting his own state’s acquisition of 500,000 tests from South Korea — Trump said at an April 20 press conference that Hogan “didn’t understand” the White House’s strategy.
The conflict threatened to ensnare Trump in a high-profile war of words with a prominent Republican who’d shown little fear of challenging the president before. That’s when the vice president stepped in.
“Pence was really the guy who tried to arbitrate that situation,” one person with knowledge of the episode said, “by effectively telling Hogan’s people, ‘you need to do what you can,’ while also trying to soothe the president’s ego.”
Pence’s peacemaking efforts didn’t last; Trump and Hogan returned to feuding across the summer, with Hogan writing a book — excerpted in a Washington Post op-ed — that blames Trump for his handling of the virus.
But those sorts of attempts are why governors in both parties credit Pence as a mild-mannered backchannel into an otherwise vindictive White House during the pandemic.
“It really is important that we’ve had Mike Pence to call, because at the end of the day, we can’t call the president’s office,” said one blue state official, who characterized Trump’s White House aides as “the f—— worst” for refusing to engage on any requests.
“If we have an issue, we can call [Pence] and at a minimum it means we’ll get a response that takes the issue seriously on its face,” the official added.
Yet Pence’s amiability is not enough for Democrats and some Republicans who complain that the vice president’s actions and plans continue to be lacking.
“We are looking to the White House for more than a sympathetic ear,” said Charles Boyle, a spokesperson for Oregon Gov. Kate Brown. “We need a comprehensive federal strategy and particularly additional federal support.”
Sending the wrong message
Pence also came to embody the Trump administration’s months of resistance to what’s emerged as scientific consensus: that wearing masks can help stop the spread of the coronavirus.
“Let me be very clear,” Pence intoned at a press conference on Feb. 29, shortly after being installed as the task force’s leader. “The average American does not need to go out and buy a mask.”
At the time, Pence was far from alone in this assessment. The vice president was relying on advice from top health officials like Fauci and the surgeon general, who also publicly warned against the rush on masks in late February and into March. Their fear: that encouraging average Americans to buy up scarce equipment would deprive doctors and nurses of necessary protection.
But the vice president emerged as a particular laggard on masks, missing opportunities to promote face coverings or wear one himself, even as other officials began to realize their value to curb the coronavirus.
For instance, a plan suggested at the task force meetings in March by Robert Kadlec, the health department’s top emergency preparedness official, would have involved partnering with manufacturers like Hanes and potentially mailing cloth masks to every American, along with instructions on how to wear them.
While the idea had public health promise — “how different would the outbreak be if every American in April got a cloth mask from the government,” mused one former senior administration official — the plan died under Pence’s watch, with some task force attendees arguing they thought Kadlec’s proposal was too costly or not necessary at that stage of the outbreak.
The plan would have been “a waste of resources,” said one individual who attended the discussions and noted that the outbreaks were still concentrated in a handful of states. “At that point, we didn’t need every American to wear a mask.”
Studies have shown that widespread wearing of masks can significantly reduce transmission of Covid-19, although that was less established at the time of the debate over Kadlec’s proposal.
Pence also missed opportunities to model good public health behavior, instead sending dangerous signals as the outbreak worsened.
On April 28, Pence made a much-scrutinized visit to Mayo Clinic where he flouted the hospital’s policy on wearing masks. In press photos and video, a maskless Pence toured patient wards and met with doctors as the lone person without face protection. The controversial appearance was nationally criticized and led to backlash within Mayo Clinic, with staff angry that the hospital didn’t enforce the mask policy and that the vice president could have put patients and workers at risk.
Pence’s maskless visit highlighted “a lack of understanding or respect of even the most basic principles of public health,” tweeted New York City emergency physician Craig Spencer, one of the few Americans to contract Ebola during the 2014 outbreak. “And ‘reopening’ will ONLY succeed if built on public health principles.”
After several days of shifting explanations — with hospital staff insisting that Pence knew about the policy, and Pence’s team and wife claiming he did not — the vice president subsequently apologized on May 3.
“I should have worn a mask at the Mayo Clinic,” Pence said sheepishly at a Fox News town hall.
But it would take Pence nearly two more months before he started more regularly wearing a face mask at the end of June and urging other Americans to listen to advice to do the same.
Officials said that Pence’s posture on masks was hampered by Trump’s own public refusal to be seen wearing a mask. The president would not fully embrace wearing masks until the middle of July, after weeks of suggesting that masks weren’t necessary and even appearing to mock Democratic rival Joe Biden for wearing a mask in public, fueling a backlash against masks by some of Trump’s conservative supporters.
Doubting the second wave
By late May, officials like Birx were advising Pence that the U.S. had turned a corner on fighting the virus, and the task force operations seemed to become less urgent. Inside the White House, officials grew confident that the worst was over, for now — and began to increasingly think about a reelection campaign that had been largely disrupted by the virus.
But the task force’s optimism about the pandemic wasn’t reflected by the grim headlines about the team’s work, such as the flurry of news coverage when the nation topped 100,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths around Memorial Day.
In the eyes of White House officials, those reports missed part of the story: the number of new U.S. cases were dropping by the day. Meanwhile, some states were beginning to reopen after weeks of lockdowns. Administration officials were increasingly convinced that the media was misleading the nation about the effectiveness of the Pence-led response and overly focused on a possible “second wave” of coronavirus cases.
They despised in particular a CNN coronavirus map that showed the nation covered in red, which officials worried was making outbreaks look far more widespread than the actual data suggested. In one task force meeting, an administration official said, Birx argued the administration needed to specifically push back on graphics like the CNN maps that fed into a narrative that nowhere was safe.
“Only a small percentage of counties were actually experiencing a significant increase in cases, but the map was being presented to the American people as though you couldn’t go anywhere in the country without possibly being infected,” the official added.
Birx referred a request for comment to Pence’s office.