I hold Jeff Sessions in the highest regard and appreciate his service, says ... Mike Pence?

If there were any Republican whom you’d think Pence would be cautious about praising, it’s the guy whom the president regards as slightly, uh, retarded.

Trump denied using the R-word about Sessions or, God forbid for 2020 purposes, referring to him as a “dumb southerner.” That still doesn’t explain Pence’s kind words for a guy whom his boss has spent a solid year insulting as a weak AG unable to restrain a supposedly anti-Republican DOJ. With any other VP, you might write that off as nothing more than kind words for a friend. Especially since Pence and Sessions know each other from their time on the Hill.

But Pence isn’t any ol’ VP. He’s been as dutiful a servant to Trump as POTUS could have hoped for, the one true loyalist in his orbit. Reporters noticed yesterday that of the many marquee administration names quoted in Bob Woodward’s book as backbiting Trump, from Kelly to Mattis to Gary Cohn and on and on, Pence’s was conspicuously missing. He’s a good soldier, it seems, even when the opportunity arises to backbite anonymously. The conventional wisdom about that is that Pence knows his political future depends entirely on remaining in the good graces of Trump supporters and will do anything to maintain that position. He starts with an advantage among populists in the 2024 primaries because of his Trump pedigree, but Trumpers know that he really isn’t one of them. He’s an establishment Republican who’s gotten with the new program in exchange for a taste of power. If Pence were to show any signs of reverting to his old swamp-y ways, his inside track with Trump voters in 2024 would be jeopardized. And he knows it.

Yet here he is, praising one of Trump’s least favorite people. How come?

I can’t see a strong strategic reason for him to do it. As sycophantic as he is towards POTUS, he must legitimately feel some anger at how the AG’s been treated. Although if you’re scrambling to find an angle here, you might speculate that Pence is gambling that the midterms will go badly for the GOP and that Trump’s grip on the party is destined to slip a bit afterwards. You might further speculate that Pence knows we’re headed for an ugly scene after Election Day in which Sessions gets fired, there’s a huge food fight with Congress over his replacement, and maybe Sessions himself starts speaking out against Trump to the media. If a mess like that is headed our way then Pence might be preparing to hedge his bets. He’ll remain the good soldier for the president on policy, pushing his agenda however he likes, but when it comes to Sessions he’ll signal a bit of independence. That’ll help him keep a low profile if the fit hits the shan in November. It’s actually amazingly politically deft how Pence has managed to stay off the radar of so many Trump controversies while broadcasting a sense of total loyalty on policy. That’s exactly what you’d be doing too if your goal was to ingratiate yourself to Trumpers *and* avoid alienating anti-Trumpers (to some extent) before 2024.

Philip Klein floats another interesting possibility today. What if Pence suspects that he’ll be thrust into the political spotlight much sooner than 2024? Not because Trump will be impeached, but maybe because … he’ll decide not to run for a second term. Klein:

“Almost everyone agrees that my Administration has done more in less than two years than any other Administration in the history of our Country,” Trump wrote on Twitter as part of his pushback against Bob Woodward’s upcoming book…

Trump has a knack for surprising us. He’ll be 74 by election day 2020, and could always decide that he’s had the experience of being president and wants to move on with his post-presidential life. We also have no idea what political circumstances are going to be like a year or two from now.

Given Trump’s personality, he isn’t going to want to bail on re-election under fire, as LBJ in 1968. And he won’t want to be beaten. He’ll want to portray it as if he’s going out on top. So the natural argument he’d make is: I don’t need to run re-election because I already achieved everything I wanted to in record time. Unlike mere mortal presidents, I don’t need eight years.

Trump’s endless boasting about how successful his presidency has been might not be idle salesmanship, per Klein. It may be that he’s inclined not to run again and is preparing to “go out on top,” as it were, insisting that he’s accomplished everything one could have asked of him. If Pence thinks that’s a possibility too, it might explain why he’s reluctant to join Trump in demagoging the AG. He might be involved in a GOP primary sooner than he thinks, in which case he’ll want to reassure the righties who are leery of his Trump association that he’s his own man. Declining to pile on Sessions is one way to do that. This will remain the dilemma for Pence going forward — how does he balance showing he’s very much like Trump for the benefit of Trump fans with showing that he’s very much unlike him for the benefit of everyone else? This is one small way.

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