Surprise: Free-trader Mike Pence now open to renegotiating trade deals

Here, in a nutshell, is the dilemma of putting Pence on the ticket: His duties as VP require him to agree with Trump but he was named VP in the first place because he doesn’t always agree with Trump. He was a “unity” pick, designed to show wary conservatives that Trump’s GOP still has a place for their ideology at the very top. There’s no issue that Pence has been more consistent about over the years than trade, yet there’s no issue on which Trump has broken with conservative orthodoxy more sharply. How does Pence manage that? If he sticks to his guns on TPP then the media will go berserk over a high-profile split between him and Trump right out of the gate. If he backs Trump on TPP then what exactly are anti-Trumpers getting out of this pick? If Pence is destined to be a yes-man for the nominee then Trump really should have picked Christie, who at least has some charisma.

This is probably the best weaselly answer Pence can give on the subject. It’s not that he’s anti-trade per se, it’s just that his trust in Donald Trump, whom he supposedly “loathed” mere weeks ago, is now absolute. Show of hands from #NeverTrumpers: Who feels reassured with Mike Pence on the ticket?

The Indiana governor also suggested he would loosen up on his past backing of U.S. trade deals, particularly the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“I think when we elect one of the best negotiators in the world as president of the United States, I’m open to renegotiating these trade agreements,” Pence said in the interview.

I didn’t see it this morning but Trump apparently described NAFTA supporters as “stupid” in his speech introducing Pence as VP. Pence has been an outspoken NAFTA supporter for 15 years. Or had been, I guess.

“I think Mike Pence is going to make a lot of conservatives feel very comfortable that there will be a strong conservative voice in the administration,” said longtime RNCer Saul Anuzis. Why, given his answer on TPP? And what exactly has Anuzis seen from Trump so far to make him think he’ll consult frequently with Pence as president? The Pence VP event a few hours ago consisted of Trump rambling for half an hour about various topics, with Pence himself an afterthought. When Trump did finally introduce him, he walked offstage rather than stand behind him for a few minutes on camera. Peter Suderman’s description of Pence is exactly right: He’s an “ornament” whose purpose is to reassure movement conservatives that the pre-Trump GOP still sort of exists, but ornaments by their nature are kept around merely for show. If he tries to be a “strong conservative voice” in the administration, he’ll be sidelined. And judging by his answer above, I think Pence knows it.

The TPP bit was from Pence’s yesterday last night with Hannity, in which he also reversed himself — somewhat — on Trump’s Muslim policy, endorsing Trump’s new and improved ban on immigration from countries with a large terrorist presence after having opposed his outright ban on Muslim visitors last year. Hannity asked about immigration too, which is interesting because that’s one place where Pence and Trump share some common ground. Trump has spent months finessing his “mass deportation” scheme by saying that he plans to let “the good ones” back into the United States legally as guest workers once they’ve left the country. That’s similar to Pence’s own “touchback amnesty” plan from a decade ago, for which he was derided by righties and lefties. Would Pence seize the opportunity to highlight the fact that he and Trump were simpatico on “touchbacks” long before he joined the ticket, which might help moderate Trump’s immigration message to entice swing voters? Or would he just do the usual Trump applause-line stuff about the wall? The answer:

“I believe we need to focus first and foremost — as Donald Trump has done with such force and such passion — on border integrity and building the wall,” Pence said.

He also rejected “amnesty,” suggesting undocumented immigrants should leave the country.

Oh well. At least that’s one area where nationalist and conservative views substantially overlap, with Pence not forced to choose between the constituencies. Let’s see what he says on “60 Minutes” tomorrow night when he’s inevitably grilled about social issues like abortion, gay marriage, and whether he agrees with Trump that Planned Parenthood is pretty great apart from the baby-killing. Trump and his nationalist base don’t care much about those issues; Pence, a committed Christian and social conservative, should have stronger opinions. We’ve seen before what happens to Pence’s resolve on culture-war issues when a little pressure is applied. Will he decide now that there’s “room for reasonable people to disagree” on abortion? (That’s the answer he gave Hannity when asked about his differences with Trump on the Iraq war, incidentally. Which, oddly enough, is the one subject on which he could have squarely reversed himself and not taken much heat for doing so.)

By the way, here’s what might have been — and, if you believe the media reports, almost was:

In conversations late into the evening [on Thursday], Mr. Trump repeatedly hesitated over selecting Mr. Pence, according to people briefed on the tense deliberations, who insisted on anonymity to describe the confidential talks. Even as his emissaries reassured Mr. Pence, Mr. Trump fielded a last-ditch appeal from Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, another finalist, who once again pressed his own case.

As late as Tuesday, claims CNN, Trump was leaning towards Christie but was strongly opposed by both his kids and his campaign staff. (Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump’s husband and a top Trump advisor, supposedly firmly opposed Christie because, er, Christie sent his dad to prison years before.) Instead of VP, Trump allegedly told Christie, why not take Attorney General? Which is a good question: It’s a more consequential job than Vice President and Christie is better suited to it professionally and temperamentally. I wonder why Christie resisted. Is it because he fears he couldn’t make it through the confirmation process if the Senate ends up back in Democratic hands?

Oh well. Exit quotation from pollster Patrick Murray: “I think if Trump wins, Trump will find something for him. He’ll take anything, as is kind of obvious.”

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