The Coming Bannon Pence Conflict

The biggest threat to Donald Trump for now will not come from the Democratic Party, as they simply do not have enough power in Congress or anywhere else at the moment. The President and his powerful supporters in Congress also have significant leverage over Republicans like Lindsay Graham who occasionally seem to be aware of the President’s conflicts of interests and disturbing relationship with Russia. The President is clearly rattled by critical media and massive demonstrations, but, at least for now, neither is going to bring him down. Instead, the biggest threat to the President could be the one person, any one person, who is both a senior figure in his administration and can plausibly claim to have not been involved with Russia.

At first glance it seems that nobody in the White House fits this description. Everybody from Steve Bannon to Jared Kushner to former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was in contact with Moscow during the election. This means that many of Trump’ senior advisors stand to lose a great deal if there is an investigation. In this regard, the President has behaved like the high school kid who ensures that nobody will tell parents or teachers about his pot smoking by making everybody in the room take a hit off the joint.

The one person in the administration who, for the moment at least, seems not to be directly involved in the Russia scandal is one of the people who has benefited from it most, Vice President Mike Pence. Although, the notion that Pence was not aware of some shenanigans involving Russia and the Trump campaign is hard to believe, it nonetheless seems possible that he never met with any officials from the Russian government or was otherwise directly involved with the foreign power that tampered with our election. Notably, one of the key reasons former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn resigned was because he had concealed his conversations with Russian officials from Mike Pence. Flynn’s resignation thus gave Pence an argument that he was not aware of the Russia scandal while simultaneously demonstrating his influence within the White House. Therefore, although Flynn’s resignation may have been bad for the administration, it was very good for the Vice President.

Pence is an additional threat to the President and his cronies because the Vice President would be, from the perspective of the Republican leaderships in Congress, a much more desirable partner in the White House. In 1988, when George H.W. Bush nominated another Indianan, Dan Quayle, for Vice President, many wags commented that this was Bush’s form of impeachment insurance. Quayle was viewed as inexperienced, not very bright and not capable of being President. Pence is the opposite. He is impeachment incentive. HIs former colleagues in Congress see him as competent, relatively scandal free and much more likely to support conventional Republican extremism, rather than the quirky mix of right wing extremism, populism and personal whim that is the Trump agenda.

Additionally, Pence holds a constitutional office and unlike presidential appointees in the White House or the various agencies, does not serve at the pleasure of Donald Trum. Moreover, during the election Pence was a great asset to the ticket. It is likely, for example, that if Pence had not drubbed Tim Kaine in the vice presidential debate, Trump would not have won. Pence cannot be fired, only impeached or removed from the ticket. Neither of those are likely to occur, least of all in a way that would the Trump presidency intact.

For most Republicans, particularly those who are in positions of power in Washington, the best outcome regarding President Trump would not be impeachment, but a scenario where poor health, low poll numbers or boredom leads Trump to decide not to seek reelection in 2020. In that scenario Pence would almost certainly be the GOP party standard bearer and would be a formidable candidate. That is unlikely to happen, but it illustrates how Pence is the only Trump insider with a power base that is directly tied to the President himself.

Trump may see Pence as the political asset that he is, but Bannon and his supporters in the administration are probably smart enough to recognize the threat that Pence’s competence, relationships and distance from the worst scandals pose to them. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the Vice President will quietly go along with the undemocratic nature of the administration and keep quiet about what he knows of the administration’s relationships with Moscow, but the Bannonites in the White House cannot be assured of this.

Accordingly, one of the most important dynamics to watch in the coming months will be whether Bannon, Kushner and the others in the administration who are more compromised with Russia and more complicit in the uglier aspects of Trump’s democratic rollback will see the threat Pence poses to them and act accordingly. If this happens, we can expect leaks from the White House that are damaging to Vice-President, efforts by Bannon specifically to encourage the President to marginalize Pence and increased disharmony at the highest levels in the administration.

Photo: cc\Michael Vadon