The Atlantic published a feature on Mike Pence today which presents Pence as the kind of evangelical Christian that has always made secular magazine editors nervous. The piece doesn’t call Pence a hypocrite but it does suggest his political ambition is a rival force in his life. Midway through the story author McKay Coppins offers a behind the scenes take on Pence’s reaction to the Access Hollywood tape. He claims that the campaign was considering various ways to oust Trump and that, in the midst of this, Pence offered to step forward as Trump’s replacement:
On friday, October 7, 2016,The Washington Post published the Access Hollywood tape that showed Trump gloating about his penchant for grabbing women “by the pussy,” and instantly upended the campaign. Republicans across the country withdrew their endorsements, and conservative editorial boards called on Trump to drop out of the race. Most alarming to the aides and operatives inside Trump Tower, Mike Pence suddenly seemed at risk of going rogue.
Trump’s phone calls to his running mate reportedly went unreturned, and anonymous quotes began appearing in news stories describing Pence as “beside himself” over the revelation…
It’s been reported that Pence sent Trump a letter saying he needed time to decide whether he could stay with the campaign. But in fact, according to several Republicans familiar with the situation, he wasn’t just thinking about dropping out—he was contemplating a coup. Within hours of The Post’s bombshell, Pence made it clear to the Republican National Committee that he was ready to take Trump’s place as the party’s nominee. Such a move just four weeks before Election Day would have been unprecedented—but the situation seemed dire enough to call for radical action.
Amid the chaos, Trump convened a meeting of his top advisers in his Manhattan penthouse. He went around the room and asked each person for his damage assessment. Priebus bluntly told Trump he could either drop out immediately or lose in a historic landslide. According to someone who was present, Priebus added that Pence and Rice were “ready to step in.” (An aide to the vice president denied that Pence sent Trump a letter and that he ever talked with the RNC about becoming the nominee. Priebus did not respond to requests for comment.)
Pence denies the whole thing but let’s assume for the sake of argument there’s some truth to this story. The piece makes clear that Pence wasn’t faking his reaction to the tape. His wife Karen was said to be “disgusted” by it. If so, he may even have felt, as many people did at that moment, that Trump’s chance of winning the election was over.
But a “coup” is when you take control of something over the objections of the current, often legitimate, leader. It’s taking power by force. It’s not at all clear that’s what Pence ever had in mind here. There was apparently a moment when Priebus and possibly Pence himself thought Trump was finished, i.e. he was dead as a candidate. At that moment the thought probably wasn’t “coup” it was “succession.” Who can replace the top of the ticket after this fatal October surprise? Pence was the obvious choice.
Author McKay Coppins spends a lot of time in this piece quoting scripture as a way to frame Mike Pence’s thoughts about politics. In this case, he wonders if Pence may have seen the Access Hollywood tape as a “parting of the seas, God’s hand reaching down to make his will known.” Coppins is casting about but misses the obvious verse that seems to apply here. It’s Isaiah 6:8: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!'” It’s a verse that is often quoted by evangelicals as an encouragement to be willing to stand up when there is a need for someone to do something beyond the ordinary, such as charity or missionary work. It’s not about seizing power (a “coup”), it’s about volunteering for hazardous duty.
If there is any truth to this story I think that’s the more likely way it happened. There was a moment of panic in the campaign and Pence may have indicated that, if the need arose, he would step up, i.e. ‘here I am, send me.’ That seems far more believable than the “coup” version of events. As it turned out, the need did for Pence to step forward did not arise and there’s no evidence Pence ever tried to seize control of the campaign.