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How the Kochs are using Mike Pence to shape Trump's White House

Vice President Mike Pence as US President Donald Trump speaks.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images
Vice President Mike Pence as US President Donald Trump speaks.

The power struggle between populist hardliners and moderate generals in the Trump White House is well documented. Vice President Mike Pence has largely stayed out of the drama, while quietly becoming one of the most powerful people in the Trump administration, according to a new profile of Pence from the New Yorker's Jane Mayer.

Mayer's piece shows that behind the scenes, the vice president has made a huge mark on President Trump's policy agenda, while putting himself in a good position for his own presidential ambitions. Mayer writes that Pence's influence has shaped White House policies far more than that of other important members of the administration, including Breitbart executive chair Steve Bannon or Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner. In particular, Pence's longstanding connection to libertarian megadonors Charles and David Koch — former political enemies of Trump — has helped shape the current White House.

Pence and Trump are two very different men. Pence is a devout evangelical who doesn't dine alone with other women unless his wife is present. He made his name in conservative politics as a talk radio host and enacted hardline policies during his time as Indiana's governor, mandating burials for fetuses and essentially allowing businesses to discriminate against gay people. Trump is a bombastic billionaire who famously bragged about groping women and publicly espoused pro-choice and pro-same-sex marriageviews. Mayer's piece includes moments where Trump mocked Pence's socially conservative views and his tendency to pray in the White House.

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We read the whole profile; these are the key takeaways about the influence of the former Indiana governor and cultural warrior.

Trump once joked about Pence wanting to "hang" gay people

Pence's intense religious views have made him the butt of Trump's jokes, according to Mayer's piece. She details a moment when Trump made fun of Pence's desire to get rid of the abortion protections in the landmark Roe v. Wadedecision and said his vice president wanted to "hang" gay people:

During a meeting with a legal scholar, Trump belittled Pence's determination to overturn Roe v. Wade. The legal scholar had said that, if the Supreme Court did so, many states would likely legalize abortion on their own. "You see?" Trump asked Pence. "You've wasted all this time and energy on it, and it's not going to end abortion anyway." When the conversation turned to gay rights, Trump motioned toward Pence and joked, "Don't ask that guy — he wants to hang them all!"

Pence's religion has also seeped into the White House, Mayer reports. Pence organizes a Bible study in the White House led by evangelical pastor Ralph Drollinger, who has written that women should "submit" to their husbands, described homosexuality as a "sin," and called Catholicism a "false religion." Administration members who attend include Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Mayer writes.

Pence is a Koch loyalist — and he's not the only one in the White House

During the 2016 primaries, one of Trump's main attacks on his Republican opponents was that they were "puppets" of the Koch brothers, accepting donations from the billionaires. A billionaire himself, Trump made a point of saying he didn't need to accept donations from anyone else. He ultimately did, accepting more than $79 million in Super PAC money, but the Kochs made a point not to donate to his presidential campaign.

Pence has been closely affiliated with the Koch brothers since he was a Congress member from Indiana. He helped boost the "No Climate Tax" pledge by their political advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity, convincing other politicians to sign on. Many of Pence's former political staffers have gone on to work for Koch Industries and their affiliated advocacy groups, and some have come back to work in the White House; a former Pence staffer named Marc Short now serves as the head of legislative affairs in the White House, and has close ties to the Koch brothers. Pence also helped boost Cabinet members including DeVos and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, both Koch favorites.

Democrats and Steve Bannon alike have openly complained about the Kochs' influence on Pence. The vice president is, as the saying goes, only a heartbeat away from the presidency. Contemplating the possibility of Pence as president, Bannon told Mayer, "I'm concerned he'd be a president that the Kochs would own."

Pence pushed out those who challenged him

In becoming vice president and then becoming head of the Trump transition team, Pence twice bested New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, with whom he was reportedly in a dead heat for the VP job. After the election, Pence also tossed months of work and research Christie's team did on Cabinet staffing and started over from scratch.

Pence also sidestepped Christie on the decision to hire former National Security Agency director Mike Flynn, who is currently a main player in multiple investigations into Russia's interference in the 2016 election. Christie reportedly did not consider Flynn trustworthy, but after he left the transition team, Pence did not object to Flynn coming on, with little vetting. As the Russia investigations continue, this could have resounding consequences for the Trump White House, especially as Pence himself got caught up in the fallout, giving misleading statements as to what he knew about Flynn and the firing of FBI Director James Comey.

As Mayer reports:

Several law professors have argued that the Vice-President could be vulnerable to charges of obstructing justice, or "misprision of a felony," for participating in a meeting about shutting down the federal investigation and then providing a false cover story to the public. Pence has hired an outside lawyer, Richard Cullen, and has further strengthened his political armor by hiring Nick Ayers as his chief of staff. Laurence Tribe, a law professor at Harvard, tweeted, "The VP appears to me to be in what we lawyers have been known to call deep doo-doo."

Mayer's whole piece in this week's issue of the New Yorker is worth reading in full.