Pence's sensitivity to talk of 2020 speaks to White House insecurity

For months, President Trump’s White House has been prone to veering off message, sometimes wildly so. But it was crystal clear on one point Sunday: No one except Trump should put up a hand for the 2020 GOP presidential nod.

Vice President Mike Pence denied that he is considering a run for the presidency the next time around, issuing a statement, the vehemence of which underscored how sensitive the White House is to any questioning of whether Trump will seek a second term.

In what appeared to be a coordinated message, the White House also hit back Sunday at a report in the New York Times that described steps Pence and some GOP lawmakers have taken that could position themselves for presidential bids.

Pence went so far as to call the newspaper’s report “disgraceful and offensive.”

“The American people know that I could not be more honored to be working side by side with a president who is making America great again,” the vice president said, invoking Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan.

“Whatever fake news may come our way," he said, citing another favored presidential phrase, "my entire team will continue to focus all our efforts to advance the president’s agenda and see him reelected in 2020.”

Trump began fundraising for a 2020 campaign almost immediately upon taking office, but a reelection bid would face several potential obstacles:

He was 70 when he took office, the oldest first-term president to be inaugurated, has since turned 71, and would be the oldest second-term chief executive were he to run again and win the 2020 election.

If age is not enough of an issue, his approval ratings are at a low that is unprecedented at this point in a presidential term.

Moreover, an increasingly complex special counsel investigation, looking at whether Trump’s campaign cooperated with Kremlin interference in the 2016 race, has been gathering momentum. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III recently began working with a grand jury in Washington.

Mueller has not commented on the course of the probe, but his investigators have sought documents related to several associates of Trump's, including his former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, and his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort. Investigators are also examining a meeting that Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., held with several Russians and Russian Americans in early June 2016, a few weeks before the senior Trump received the Republican nomination.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), a former prosecutor, said the reported impaneling of a grand jury pointed to a probe that was picking up its pace, not slowing to an end.

“You can't read that this means that indictments are going to follow,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Nonetheless, he said, “it does mean the investigation is not only not being turned off, but it is moving into a new phase.”

Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod J. Rosenstein, to whom Mueller reports because Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions has recused himself from Russia-related matters, said Mueller would be guided by the emerging evidence, wherever it takes him, and implicitly rebutted Trump’s accusation that the entire matter is a “fraud.”

“The special counsel is subject to the rules and regulations of the Department of Justice, and we don't engage in fishing expeditions,” Rosenstein said on “Fox News Sunday.” Mueller could seek authorization to broaden the scope of the probe if he deemed it necessary, Rosenstein said.

Rosenstein also commented on the Justice Department’s announcement Friday that it was stepping up investigations of leaks of classified information. He appeared to at least partially pull back from Sessions’ suggestion that prosecutors might pursue reporters for stories they’ve published.

“The attorney general has been very clear that we’re after the leakers, not the journalists. We’re after the people who are committing a crime,” Rosenstein said. “We don’t prosecute journalists for doing their jobs.”

“Generally speaking, reporters who publish information are not committing a crime,” he said, although he added that “there might be a circumstance where they do.”

The move to increase leak investigations appears to have placated Trump, who in recent weeks publicly disparaged both Sessions and Rosenstein. But his anger at Mueller and his investigation continues to threaten the relationship between the Justice Department and the White House.

Trump has talked with friends and aides about firing Mueller — something that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have explicitly warned him against, even if the investigation appears to encroach on areas the president and his allies consider out of bounds, such as Trump’s financial entanglements.

Preserving the special counsel’s independence has been enough of a concern in Congress that two pairs of lawmakers on opposite sides of the aisle have introduced legislation meant to shield Mueller against any attempt by Trump to fire him.

“We'll let the facts lead us to whether or not it was a hoax or a distraction,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), one of the lawmakers, said on ABC’s “This Week” when asked about Trump’s longstanding contention that the investigation is a witch hunt. “But we are where we are, and I want to see this investigation concluded so that we can get on to doing the good work the president has already started.”

Despite the president’s perceived political and legal vulnerabilities, most prominent Republicans have avoided hinting at a challenge if Trump does seek the 2020 nomination. The main exception has been Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who opposed Trump to the end in 2016 and has not ruled out running against him.

Some other Republicans, including Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, have been making the rounds of political dinners and fundraisers, building the sort of support that they could use for a presidential bid.

The subject is extremely sensitive within Trump’s White House; the president has been known to punish underlings he perceives as engineering too high a personal profile for themselves.

In an appearance that coincided with the release of Pence’s strongly worded statement, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said it was “absolutely true the vice president is getting ready for 2020 – for reelection as vice president.”

Appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” she said she had “zero” concern of any presidential aspirations on Pence’s part in the coming election cycle.

“Vice President Pence is a very loyal, very dutiful, but also incredibly effective vice president,” she said.

Trump, who has embarked on a 17-day visit – which he describes as a working vacation – to his golf property in Bedminster, N.J., was uncharacteristically quiet Sunday morning on Twitter.

Less than a week into the tenure of his no-nonsense new White House chief of staff, retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, Trump confined himself to a single tweet, albeit in his signature all-caps style: “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

 

laura.king@latimes.com

@laurakingLAT

 

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