Dan Diamond and Adam Cancryn
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.