KOKOMO, Ind — Before the coronavirus outbreak disrupted the 2020 presidential campaign, Vice President Mike Pence was a one-man roadshow passing through pivotal swing counties to do the pedestrian politicking his boss has long detested.
A lot has changed since then.
Crowded diner visits and rope lines cease to exist. Aides and reporters accompanying Pence are tested for Covid-19 prior to departure. Secret Service agents remain close by for protection, but far enough from others to protect themselves. And President Donald Trump, more anxious than ever to escape the confines of Washington, appears to be envious of his deputy’s schedule for perhaps the first time.
On the eve of Pence’s visit here, Trump unveiled his own plans to travel to Arizona next week for a trip that will closely resemble those the vice president has been beta-testing since the beginning of April, when he toured a Walmart distribution facility two hours from the nation’s capital. To plan for the president’s first trip outside the White House as he tries to jump-start a devastated economy, his aides have turned to Pence’s team to discuss logistical hurdles they faced while organizing travel opportunities, and then develop alternative protocols in response.
The changes Pence’s team has made — sending advance staffers to the vice president’s destinations on military planes instead of commercial flights, limiting their movements once they are on the ground and testing those who will be in close proximity to Pence — underscore the challenges White House officials will face as they coordinate presidential trips with a much a larger footprint.
“There are some protocols they will probably keep and some they may get rid of,” Pence chief of staff Marc Short told reporters aboard Air Force Two, noting that he and others had debriefed officials in the White House Military Office following each of the vice president’s recent trips to Virginia, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Even with meticulous planning, the vice president was left embroiled in political controversy this week after declining to wear a face mask at a facility that required them. Internally, the episode became a case study for Trump aides who are prepping their own boss before he hits the road in the middle of a global pandemic.
Trump has declined to wear a face mask during public appearances at the White House, and some aides are worried his defiance will become the story if he continues to reject protective coverings during his visit to Arizona next week, according to two people involved with the planning.
On Thursday, Pence wore a face mask and protective glasses as he visited a General Motors auto plant in his home state that reopened in April to produce portable ventilators as part of a partnership with the health care firm Ventec Life Systems. Top officials who joined the vice president, including Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, also wore masks and protective eyewear.
A person familiar with matter said the vice president was not personally made aware of the mask requirement when he visited a Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., on Tuesday. This person said Pence will adhere to the rules in place at future companies he visits, adding that the vice president is regularly tested to ensure he is negative and remains healthy and that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on face coverings were intended to prevent asymptomatic spread.
In addition to highlighting the logistical challenges that accompany White House travel in the current environment, the vice president’s return to his home state offered a glimpse of the administration’s messaging strategy moving forward. As Pence weaved past workers at the GM-Ventec facility, he repeatedly commended their “spirit” and emphasized the ingenuity behind the 12-step assembly process.
“You’re making a difference for America,” Pence told one employee seated beside a sign that read: “One Team. One Mission. One Month.” The sign referenced the deal GM struck with the UAW union to bring employees back to this auto plant beginning in mid-April and lasting through mid-May to produce critical care ventilators for hospitals around the nation. The facility was set up to accommodate ventilator production in less than three weeks and has already manufactured more than 600 machines, including ones sent to health care facilities in Gary, Ind., that were struggling with their supply.
“I think it’s pretty striking that a plant was shuttered, and they have hundreds of workers back now,” Short said of the Kokomo location, adding that Pence has enjoyed “showing the American people the great power of the ability to come together in this crisis” and intends to keep traveling even as the president resumes his own travel schedule.
Although Trump is widely expected to participate in official events and visits that mirror those Pence has been making – he will visit a Honeywell manufacturing plant in Phoenix next week, according to White House officials – his demeanor is hardly ever the same as his vice president’s whether he’s in Washington or outside of it.
In their separate roles so far, Pence has overseen the robust coordination between the federal government and state and local officials, while Trump has carefully monitored coverage of the administration’s coronavirus response and described himself as the nation’s “cheerleader.”
“It’s kind of like the president is the general and the vice president is the field general,” White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said en route to Indiana on Thursday.
Indeed, at the same time Trump was promising “a phenomenal year economically” during a White House event with older Americans on Thursday, Pence was wrapping up a roundtable discussion with frontline workers and deferring to the president in response to questions about U.S.-China relations and further use of the Defense Production Act.