In public, Vice President Mike Pence is loudly praising his boss’ proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum -- while gently urging him to scale back the policy behind the scenes.
Pence was in Council Bluffs, Iowa, this week, where he gave Trump a shout-out for a policy decision that alarmed legions of White House aides, including the vice president, a lifelong advocate of free markets and free trade.
“Whether it’s in renegotiating NAFTA, or protecting our steel and aluminum industries, President Trump is always going to put American workers, American companies and American farmers first,” Pence said in a speech touting the administration’s tax reform.
But back in Washington, the vice president has been among the legions of top administration officials pushing President Donald Trump to back off the sweeping protectionist plan he put forward during a March 1 meeting with industry executives.
Pence, according to more than a half-dozen White House and Capitol Hill aides, has been quietly delivering messages to the president from Republicans on the Hill, who have publicly opposed the tariffs plan set to be announced as early as Thursday—though he’s made sure to maintain a studiously neutral position, to the frustration of some who had hoped he would do more to exert influence over Trump.
Throughout his time as vice president, Pence has been careful to air any disagreements with the president privately, scrupulously avoiding the sorts of public feuds that have damaged the standing of other top administration officials with Trump. At times, he has even kept his mouth shut behind closed doors, according to two senior administration officials, declining to express his views when they are at odds with those of the president.
A political adviser to one right-leaning outside group called his lack of engagement on tariffs a “big time” disappointment, and said the feeling was shared among free-market Republicans.
Pence’s low-key approach means some are coming to view him as a weak vice president, compared by some Republicans—unfavorably—to President George H.W. Bush’s No. 2 Dan Quayle. But his hands-off style has endeared him to Trump, with whom Pence has avoided the sorts of public clashes that led to the resignation earlier this week of his top economic adviser, Gary Cohn.
“It’s not the vice president’s job to publicly criticize the president’s policies. Whatever Mike Pence might think about a particular policy, he’s going to work as hard as he can to help implement the president’s agenda,” said Alex Conant, who served as communications director and senior adviser to Marco Rubio during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The firestorm Trump ignited over tariffs has put Pence, a former Indiana congressman who serves as a liaison between the White House and conservatives on Capitol Hill, in a delicate position, stuck between a president dead set on a policy outcome and Republican congressional leaders who are for the first time taking a firm public stand against the White House.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters there is “a lot of concern among Republican senators that this could metastasize into a larger trade war,” and House Speaker Paul Ryan publicly urged the president to take a more “surgical” and “targeted” approach to tariffs.
“The vice president fully supports the president’s policy agenda and the VP’s role as an honest broker should not be misconstrued as lobbying one way or another,” Pence’s office told POLITICO on Wednesday.
Pence succeeded his good friend David McIntosh in Congress; now the president of the Club for Growth, McIntosh has become one of the most outspoken opponents of the administration’s tariff decision on the right, calling the policy “an affront to economic freedom.”
As governor of Indiana, Pence was a tireless advocate for free trade. He urged the Indiana congressional delegation to support both Trade Promotion Authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump campaigned against. In the letter, Pence argued that “reducing tariffs and other trade barriers so that Indiana businesses can enjoy increased market access and fairly compete on the world stage is something that Congress must do.”
Many administration officials, including Pence, would prefer to see tariffs targeted at specific countries—particularly China—rather than the across-the-board hikes on steel and aluminum Trump seems to be proposing that would affect allies like Canada and the European Union, according to one White House official.
The policy, which had not been written before Trump made his surprise announcement last week, has not yet been finalized. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday that it would leave room for country-specific exemptions based on national security, including for Canada and Mexico.
The anti-protectionist camp lost a crucial voice in the tariff battle when Cohn announced his resignation as director of the National Economic Council on Tuesday. But many of the president’s allies, including Pence, are still urging him to pull back before the policy is implemented.
“I agree with his effort to stop unfair trading practices, I do,” the free-market economist Larry Kudlow, who is under consideration to replace Cohn as head of the National Economic Council, said of the president. “I just think you have to be very careful how you do it. Go after China, they’re the worst offenders.”
Kudlow said he thinks the tariffs, as currently formulated, will hurt the economy, and that he is holding out hope that White House aides, including Pence, will be able to scale them back. “I think this stuff is resolvable,” he said. “There’s a lot between the lip and the cup here.”