Mike Pence has to know that this question will come up in every interview he gives for the next week or two, right? “Did they offend you, those words?” Matt Lauer asked the vice president about Donald Trump’s strange claim that there were “some fine people” on both sides of the Charlottesville riot. “How can you be thanked by David Duke,” Lauer pressed, “and not be on the completely wrong side of the issue?”
“I can’t account for the views of that person,” Pence said, insisting that Trump had drawn no moral equivalency between the neo-Nazis and the counterprotesters. “The president disavowed David Duke long ago,” Pence pointed out, and spoke out explicitly against white supremacists in his responses to Charlottesville:
"There was no moral equivalency drawn by the President," says VP Mike Pence of Trump's Charlottesville comments on @TODAYshow pic.twitter.com/zqswWGv5mb
— NBC News (@NBCNews) August 22, 2017
Lauer notes that Pence is being “loyal” in Trump’s defense, which is part of the role of the VP. (It’s practically the only role of the VP.) Pence has his message discipline tight in these responses, implicitly relying on the same formulation I noted when asked about the comments in Chile. Pence wants to present all three Trump responses as a cohesive whole, which then allows Pence to argue that Trump’s comments about “fine people” come as a piece with his denunciations of white supremacy and bigotry, rather than as a sequence where the former undermines the latter. It’s Pence’s only play, but don’t expect the media to go along with it.
Or other Republicans, for that matter. Rather than putting all three responses together as the one Trump gestalt, Paul Ryan took them in sequence and allowed that Trump had “messed up” his response with his press conference last week:
“I do believe he messed up in his comments on Tuesday,” Ryan said during a town hall on CNN. “I do think he could have done better.”
Ryan said he found Trump’s comments “not only morally ambiguous but it was equivocating” and criticized the president for comparing the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who organized the “Unite the Right” rally with the counterprotesters who rallied to oppose them. Ryan said he did not support Trump’s comment that “very fine people” were among those who participated in the rally. But he said it would be a mistake to reduce the discussion over white supremacy to a partisan attack on Trump.
Pence had more to say on Afghanistan, which to Lauer’s credit was the lead topic of his appearance on Today. As with the Charlottesville response, Pence defends Trump, especially on troop levels and timelines. The lack of “artificial timelines” is part of the new strategic change, and Pence rejected the criticisms that it’s basically the Obama policy without the details. Be sure to watch Matt Lauer quote Breitbart. Get ready for a lot more of that after Steve Bannon’s exit from the White House.