First, watch this clip, uploaded by McCain’s campaign literally yesterday. This was recorded either shortly before or shortly after Pence had a “very friendly meeting” with McCain in Arizona,

Note what he says about McCain standing up for the military. The reason Trump gave for declining to endorse McCain two days ago was that “he should have done a much better job for the vets.” That’s some solid, consistent messaging for the ticket.

Now here’s Pence today. Question: Is there any plausible explanation for him declining to endorse ol’ Mav apart from Trump instructing him not to?

Mike Pence declined to endorse John McCain or Kelly Ayotte in their re-election bids while talking to reporters while flying to a campaign stop in Virginia.

“I look forward to supporting Republican candidates in the days and weeks ahead all over the country, and so does Donald Trump,” Pence said. “But the stakes in this election are so high. To restore our country and home and abroad, we need new leadership, and I’m looking forward to standing should to shoulder with Donald Trump to drive that new leadership forward.”…

Pence, when asked whether he has shared any other positions of disagreements beyond Trump’s declining to endorse Speaker Paul Ryan, told reporters that “those private conversations” will remain private.

“I did you a favor in letting you endorse your friend Ryan,” Trump probably told him, “now you’re going to do one for me and withhold endorsements from other incumbents.” Which, in fairness to Trump, isn’t irrational. His nationalist base was doubtless annoyed at seeing Trump’s number two backing dreaded “globalist” Paul Ryan and then more annoyed when Paul Manafort declared that Ryan will win his primary next week. Trump had to do something to make amends and show that he’s still planning, kinda sorta, to cleanse the Augean stables of Washington. That starts with staying out of Republican primaries and not backing GOP dinosaurs like Maverick, even though McCain stands a better chance of holding his seat in a tough cycle by virtue of incumbency than any primary challenger would. Especially if Trump underperforms in Arizona at the top of the ticket.

Still, Trump could get away with giving Pence a pass here. In fact, having Pence endorse incumbents while Trump pointedly withholds his endorsement would let them play both sides. In so doing, the nominee would retain some populist cred, pleasing his base while irritating the establishment, while Pence’s expressions of support would show everyone that Trump’s a team player, pleasing the establishment while irritating Trump’s base. Why not go that route? Maybe this is less about strategy than Trump wanting Pence to know that he doesn’t have carte blanche to endorse his old pals from Congress in all cases just because the campaign let him slide on Ryan.

To make this weirder, former Trump VP shortlister and self-styled populist “pirate” Newt Gingrich came out strong for McCain today in a video endorsement. Watch as Newt makes a point of noting, at the top of his list of McCain’s credentials, how hard McCain has worked for veterans, directly contradicting Trump’s main line of attack against Maverick. It’s hard not to believe that McCain recruited him for this precisely because Newt has some cachet among Trump voters. And it’s interesting, in light of Trump’s pointed non-endorsement of McCain a few days ago, that Gingrich was willing to comply.

Update: That was fast.