Mike Pence had just accepted the biggest assignment of his political life, overseeing the nation’s response to the emerging Covid-19 virus, when White House officials confronted the vice president with an urgent question: what to do about the cruise ships?
It was the last weekend of February, and the nation’s top health officials had concluded that cruise lines were a major factor in spreading the virus — each vessel a potential hothouse of invisible infections. Hundreds of passengers already had been sickened on cruises; efforts to evacuate Americans from two virus-infested ships had become logistical nightmares; and in the health experts’ emerging consensus, the Centers for Disease Control needed to issue an immediate “no-sail” order, keeping ships in port.
The looming decision would test the vice president, pulled off the campaign trail and tapped by President Donald Trump to lead the coronavirus task force in a major shake-up of the U.S. response. “Mike is going to be in charge, and Mike will report back to me,” Trump said on Feb. 26 — before a single reported Covid-19 fatality in the United States. “He’s got a certain talent for this.”
But weighing the cruise ship question, Pence hesitated to act. The White House’s economic experts were worried about preemptively shuttering an industry that employed or subsidized hundreds of thousands of Americans — a message echoed by the cruise industry itself, which drives billions of dollars to the key swing state of Florida and is led by executives close to Trump.
As Pence and his new team carefully deliberated, weighed administration arguments and negotiated with the cruise industry, the virus spread unimpeded as each hour and day ticked by. It wasn’t just the cruise ship question. Other initiatives that were in the works when Pence replaced health secretary Alex Azar as the leader of the task force were placed on hold while the vice president pondered next steps.
“We definitely lost time,” said one health official familiar with the inner dealings of the task force. “How much, I can’t say … but it was disruptive to slam the brakes when we should’ve been going full speed ahead.”
How Pence approached the challenges of his first weeks on the job foreshadowed how he would pursue the next six months of the coronavirus crisis — the most important and hands-on role of his tenure.
Pence’s office did not make him available for an interview, and declined to comment for this article. But interviews with 21 people involved with Pence’s coronavirus task force painted a detailed picture of the vice president, who will formally accept his renomination at the Republican National Convention Wednesday, as he steered the administration’s evolving response to the pandemic.
Many gave Pence high marks as a listener, and state and local officials praised him for being more responsive to their concerns than the president or his inner circle. All acknowledged that Pence was dealing with a complicated dynamic — trying to please Trump while wrestling with a demoralized health bureaucracy.
But Trump’s mercurial behavior was not solely responsible for what amounted to a slow response to the deadliest pandemic in a century, they said, pointing to Pence’s own leadership style as a force for delay. Many said Pence’s consensus-building approach drained urgency from the mission, pitted interests against each other and gave inappropriate weight to opinions outside the public health realm.
For instance, Pence quickly expanded the size of the task force, roping in agencies and officials who had little connection to public health. He then initiated a process in which each participant had roughly equal opportunity to air their views, while the vice president and his staff — who had little experience in public health — struggled to chart a way forward amid the competing interests. In some cases, they said, Pence felt pressure to appease Trump as well.
Nudged by the president, Pence met face-to-face with the cruise industry’s leaders on March 7 and offered them a chance to come up with a plan to self-regulate. But eventually, after days of contentious debate and Pence’s own evolving thinking as the outbreak worsened, the administration delivered the shutdown that the cruise industry feared.
To many public health officials, the cruise ship episode provided an early indication that Pence and his deputies were the wrong match for the urgency of the moment.
When the CDC ultimately issued its no-sail order on March 14, it was more than two weeks after some officials had argued to Pence that it was necessary — and after dozens of additional cruises had set sail in the intervening days around the globe, further spreading the virus and sickening Americans.
“By the time we locked down the cruise ships, it was too late,” said one former official involved in the task force meetings. “The entire country was seeded with virus.”
Yet Pence went on to steer the task force much as he had the initial cruise ship crisis. In doing so, he’s continued to be seen as a force for moderation and fact-based decision-making within a White House that’s often been plagued by infighting while struggling to develop a comprehensive strategy. He’s provided an open door to industry leaders, state governors and top officials, a welcome contrast for those who view the president as unreliable.
But in the face of a historic pandemic, Pence’s leadership style has often resulted in decisions that health experts view as too slow, too consensus-oriented and too focused on public perception. The task force he’s led has been unwieldy — and over time has evolved into more of a communications forum than a decision-making body.
Even officials who say they cheer the vice president struggled to identify examples of Pence taking bold, potentially unpopular actions to curb a virus that has left more than 177,000 Americans dead and innumerable more struggling with its indeterminate long-term effects.
“Mike’s the ultimate good soldier,” said a senior administration official. “He’s not going to be pounding his fist on the table, demanding a change … that’s not Mike Pence.”
‘He inherited a mess’
When Trump abruptly tapped Pence to lead the White House coronavirus task force, it was effectively a battlefield decision. Azar, whose 29-day tenure as task force chair was marked by revolts that had spilled into public view, was seen as a general who had lost command of the troops — a problem that wouldn’t afflict Pence, who possessed the gravitas of the vice president’s office.
The president’s decision also forced a reassessment of the government’s emerging strategy. Pence hadn’t been closely involved in the coronavirus response before Trump installed him as the new leader; the day prior, he had been campaigning in Michigan when his team began to get wind of a possible shake-up, one official said.
Pence’s allies quickly decided that the task force’s efforts were being skewed by the government’s disjointed messaging, highlighted by CDC official Nancy Messonnier’s statement to reporters on Feb. 25 that Covid-19 was set to disrupt Americans’ daily life — a warning that would be swiftly borne out but enraged the White House at the time.
Meanwhile, it had become increasingly clear that the United States didn’t have the necessary supplies or testing to deal with the global pandemic — even as senior officials routinely assured Americans that the risk was low.
The vice president “had a lot of clean-up work to do,” said an individual who attended task force meetings at that time. “He inherited a mess.”
That mess extended to task force pecking order. In numerous meetings, Azar had clashed about next steps with the national security team, economic experts and White House officials like then-chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and then-domestic policy chief Joe Grogan, who generally viewed Azar’s warnings as alternately too alarmist or not urgent enough, according to seven people who were involved in the response.
“Pick a person around the room who didn’t work for him,” said one former official who attended task force meetings. “Azar probably fought with them.”
And within Azar’s own department, there were deep ruptures about how best to proceed. The CDC had split with the health department’s emergency-preparedness division over its focus on repatriating Americans who were in China, where the virus was fast-spreading. Azar himself was deeply frustrated over CDC’s delays in developing tests to detect the coronavirus. Meanwhile, earlier fights and turnover had left Azar isolated from some of his key deputies, including Medicare chief Seema Verma and FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn.
Pence moved quickly to shake up the task force by adding new members who had worked for him when he was governor of Indiana, including Verma and Surgeon General Jerome Adams, and made overtures to officials like CDC Director Robert Redfield, who some officials said had often been steamrolled in previous meetings. Meanwhile, scientist Deborah Birx was tapped as the White House coronavirus coordinator and quickly emerged as a key adviser to Pence.
But the turnover caused confusion, especially with Azar asserting that he was still running the task force — only to be contradicted by Pence at subsequent meetings, or have the two men issue joint statements that left task force members unsure where to go to seek approval. “It was this week of ‘who’s on first, who’s in charge,’” said one former official who joined task force meeting calls, including the initial Pence-led session that was held in Azar’s own conference room on Feb. 27. “That filtered down and had us spinning our wheels.”
Other officials said that some of the confusion about the chain of command was because Pence was trying to delicately handle the transition and help Azar save face after his public demotion.
“It was a show of support and a show of respect for Alex Azar when we had done the first task force at HHS in the secretary’s conference room,” said an administration official, insisting that it was evident to other staff that Pence was now in charge of the effort.
Meanwhile, Pence and key members of his team, like chief of staff Marc Short and senior adviser Olivia Troye, needed to be brought up to speed on issues that task force members had already spent weeks debating.
The confusion and handoff had a practical cost: Four people said that the task force’s agenda was effectively frozen for several days to accommodate the additional briefings and the leadership handoff, even as the virus continued to silently spread across the United States.
“We spun our wheels at a time when we should’ve been going full speed ahead,” said one official who attended task force meetings.
Pence’s office also temporarily reined in media appearances for task force members, including the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, as the vice president’s team assessed the communications strategy. That prompted charges in the media that Fauci was being “muzzled” by the White House — an allegation that Fauci quickly denied as a “real misrepresentation.”
While some officials acknowledged that canceling Fauci’s media appearances may have hindered public awareness at a crucial stage of fighting the pandemic, they said that Pence was grappling with problems that ran deeper than communications strategy.
“I think the ‘messaging’ pause was really a ‘lack of preparedness’ realization,” a former official said.
Pence couldn’t control all of the administration’s statements or strategy. Trump spent much of late February and early March issuing wild and inaccurate claims about the outbreak, such as repeatedly telling the nation that the virus would soon disappear — a promise that his vice president would find impossible to keep.
Meanwhile, Trump heaped praise on Pence as a gifted leader who was stabilizing the response.
“I want to thank Mike because he’s been working 24 hours a day, just about,” Trump said at a press conference on March 9. “He has been working very, very hard, very diligently, and very professionally.”
But even as Pence settled into his new role, the coronavirus outbreak was exploding. On March 3, there were about 100 confirmed cases in the United States. By March 12, there would be more than 1,500 confirmed cases and about 40 confirmed deaths — with tens of thousands of other infections going undetected, scientists now believe.
Bringing order to chaos
Amid the chaos and competing messages, Pence and his team sought to impose order on the White House’s fractious response.
Task force meetings under Pence became regimented affairs, with pre-set agendas and a process designed to give everyone around the table an opportunity to contribute. Generally, Pence kicked off the meetings by asking for an update from Birx and then reaction by Fauci before diving into other issues. After facilitating discussion and seeking a range of viewpoints, Pence would then summarize what he’d heard around the room.
Following task force meetings, Pence’s team would then help select which attendees should join the president and vice president at that day’s coronavirus press briefing.
It was a sharp contrast to the often disorganized decision-making process elsewhere in the White House, which people involved in the task force sessions characterized as a welcome reprieve.
“Mike was very, very effective in that way, in that there was always a discussion and then there was a decision,” said Tomas Philipson, who was acting chair of the Council of Economic Advisers before leaving the White House in late June.
Pence also took pains to coordinate with senior adviser Jared Kushner, who by mid-March was running a separate effort to speed tests and supplies. While the relationship was sensitive — with Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, possessing his own political power center — and the projects at times overlapped, four officials said that the two men were in frequent contact, speaking as often as several times per day and taking care not to embarrass the other. For instance, Pence would lead regular, small meetings across the spring with Kushner, Birx and other senior officials to discuss ongoing efforts to boost the nation’s supply chain for coronavirus care. The sessions, while focused on a key strategic priority, also allowed the two men to stay closely informed on the other’s portfolio.
Meanwhile, Pence elevated some decisions to Trump’s attention — like how to proceed on travel restrictions — but didn’t consult the president on every matter, officials said. Trump also made the call on announcing social distancing measures on March 16, effectively shutting the nation down, after Pence and other senior officials presented arguments and new data to him in the Oval Office.
Pence “knows when to bring something to the president and when not to,” one official said.
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.
The frustration helped prompt Pence’s team to hit back in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. “There isn’t a coronavirus ‘second wave,’” Pence wrote in an op-ed on June 16. Taking an early victory lap, the vice president claimed that the nation was “winning the fight against the invisible enemy,” pointing to declines in cases and deaths. For instance, Pence argued, the number of new coronavirus cases had fallen to about 20,000 per day, down from about 30,000 per day at the height of the crisis in April.
“The media has tried to scare the American people every step of the way, and these grim predictions of a second wave are no different,” Pence wrote. “We’ve slowed the spread, we’ve cared for the most vulnerable, we’ve saved lives, and we’ve created a solid foundation for whatever challenges we may face in the future.”
Pence’s op-ed came as a surprise to other officials who attended task force meetings and thought it was premature. “I learned about the op-ed when I read it in The Wall Street Journal,” one official said.
And Pence’s central claim — that the media was fear-mongering because cases were on a downward trajectory — was almost instantly debunked by health experts, as states instead began to report record surges in coronavirus cases.
“In The Wall Street Journal 10 days ago, you said 20,000 cases was a good number relative to where they’ve been. This week, there’ve been 40,000 cases,” CBS “Face the Nation” host John Dickerson pressed Pence on June 28. “Your level of concern … seems insufficient to the alarm from governors and experts.”
“Let me be very clear that we are focused,” Pence responded. “Our entire team is focused on working with governors to make sure that we meet this moment.”
Pence’s office declined to comment on why the op-ed was written, saying that the vice president has addressed the topic in interviews. Pence last week defended the decision on CNN by claiming most of the task force’s health officials “believed that we were well on our way toward lowering cases,” but also allowed that “things changed” around Memorial Day.
Public health experts, though, contend that no matter the original purpose, Pence’s op-ed sent the worst signal at the worst time.
“It was so clearly wrong back then and has turned out to be so clearly wrong since that I hope there’s some part of him that’s embarrassed,” said Ashish Jha, the head of the Harvard Global Health Institute, adding that it was widely expected the virus would continue to circulate through the country. “I had already been seeing data for a good week that things were really heading in the wrong direction.”
Heading toward the fall
As Pence prepares to take the stage at the Republican National Convention, there’s a growing sense inside his coronavirus task force that it’s outlived its initial purpose.
The once-daily meetings are now held only a few times per week. They’re no longer used as a prelude to a joint daily press briefing led by task force members; these days, Trump generally gives coronavirus press briefings on his own.
The task force meeting guest list continues to balloon, with some attendees lacking a clear portfolio or responsibilities. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist who caught the attention of top Trump aides after downplaying the coronavirus threat on Fox News, began attending the meeting this month.
Heading into the fall, the administration’s coronavirus strategy increasingly rests on separate power centers that have sprung up instead.
“The task force is less and less important for making strategy,” said one official who’s regularly attended its meetings. “The future is Operation Warp Speed” — the joint HHS-Defense effort to rush coronavirus treatments and vaccines to market, and an increasing focus of Trump’s own attention.
Pence also has effectively handed off some responsibility to Kushner and his allies, who reemerged across July and August as part of the coronavirus effort, stepping back into prior roles that involved boosting testing and helping shape strategy. Kushner is also part of a smaller group of White House officials that includes Birx and has begun holding separate meetings to discuss the pandemic response. While Pence doesn’t go to the meetings, his chief of staff Short attends in his place.
Meanwhile, the White House has reabsorbed some of the messaging responsibilities that once rested with Pence’s team, adding a string of communications aides to the coronavirus response effort.
Asked what Pence should have done differently — and whether he was the best choice to lead the coronavirus response, in retrospect — administration officials generally praised Pence as the default option but panned the structure of his response.
“My suggestion is don’t have 500 f—— people at the task force meetings. That would challenge anyone, and the VP’s a quite effective leader,” a senior administration official said. “If I went back in time, I wouldn’t have that meeting, or maybe I’d coordinate a separate smaller meeting — and give Mike a very good COO.”
“Next time, don’t worry about playing so nice during a pandemic,” a former official added. “History won’t care who got overruled during a meeting.”
As his work on the task force recedes and November draws closer, Pence has increasingly been getting back to his agenda on the day before he was pulled into Trump’s coronavirus response: stumping on the campaign trail and trying to make the case for reelection.
“Get used to seeing us,” Pence promised in a visit to Wisconsin last week. “President Donald Trump and I are going to be back to Wisconsin again and again and again to earn four more years in the White House.”