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Politics

On Capitol Hill, Pence’s high-profile role in Trump transition assures lawmakers

Mike Pence
Vice President-elect Mike Pence waves as he arrives Thursday to meet with Capitol Hill leadership.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

Vice President-elect Mike Pence stood before a roomful of House Republicans on Thursday and asked how many had his cellphone number.

Chuckles of laughter rippled through the private meeting in the Capitol basement.

“A lot of you do,” Pence said, according to those in attendance.

The former congressman is proving to be an effective envoy for President-elect Donald Trump, and his Capitol Hill visit offered a preview of the crucial role many believe the outgoing Indiana governor will play as liaison between lawmakers and the Trump White House.

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“He is the secret weapon,” said Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), who was among those fiscal conservatives initially reluctant to support the party’s presidential nominee. “There’s going to be tough moments, and he’s someone you can pick up the phone and call.”

Dispatching Pence to Capitol Hill was part of the Trump’s team ongoing effort to reverse the narrative of a rocky presidential transition.

High-profile visitors, many eyeing top Cabinet posts, went in and out of Trump Tower in New York, including Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, Wall Street executive Steven Mnuchin, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and several of Trump’s children.  South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was thought to have visited but was not observed by reporters entering the building.

Also reportedly ready to meet with the president-elect was former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who had called Trump a “phony” and a “fraud” during the campaign. According to numerous media reports, the pair planned to speak over the weekend.

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On Thursday evening, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was having a face-to-face meeting with Trump that raised some eyebrows because it went beyond the short congratulatory phone call that usually occurs between a president-elect and a world leader.

Trump advisors downplayed the session as a private, informal meeting and said the president-elect was being briefed by advisors about proper diplomatic protocol during this and other interactions with foreign leaders.

“We realize there is only one president of the United States,” Trump spokesman Jason Miller. 

During a newly launched daily conference call to update the news media on the transition, Miller said that by next week the team will have announced a roster of aides who will begin contacting various federal agencies to discuss transition matters. Delays in making those contacts have caused alarm among some.

“I’m hearing from all these agencies that they’re beginning to panic — that they’ve heard from no one on the transition team,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). “So I think it’s a problem.”

Miller said the first  “landing team” will focus on national security, reaching out to officials from the Pentagon, the State Department and other security agencies. Officials said the Pentagon team could arrive as early as Friday.

An economic team is promised by Tuesday and a domestic team by Wednesday, Miller said.

“We’re working seven days a week here,” Miller told reporters on the call.

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The transition team has been battling the perception of disorganization and infighting, particularly after the departure earlier this week of key advisors.

The shake-up purged some of the more respected figures who had been advising Trump, notably those close to or hired by the former transition chairman, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

It also led to speculation about the oversized influence of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whom some blamed for pushing Christie and his allies out. When Christie was a U.S. attorney more than a decade ago, he successfully prosecuted Kushner’s father on tax evasion and other charges. 

Sending Pence to Capitol Hill served as a reminder of one the reasons Trump chose the even-tempered conservative for his team.

Not since Dick Cheney has a vice president been expected to play such a leading role in an administration led by a newcomer to Washington.

“Especially with his experience in the House and Senate, the friends he has, the new president not having served…  I think it’s going to be a different vice presidential role,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield).

Pence attended the morning huddle of House Republicans and later conferred with Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin. He also met privately with Democratic leaders Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco.

Pelosi made it clear that House Democrats have “deep concerns” with the appointment of chief strategist Stephen Bannon, the former Brietbart News chief who has been accused of making anti-Semitic remarks and giving a platform to white nationalists. She asked Pence to urge Trump to reconsider the appointment, according to Pelosi’s spokesman.

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In an apparent gesture of support for Bannon, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer told reporters at Trump Tower on Thursday that Israel looks “forward to working with the Trump administration, with all of the members of the Trump administration, including Steve Bannon, and making the U.S.-Israel alliance stronger than ever.” He declined to say why he singled out Bannon.

Like Republicans on Capitol Hill, Pelosi also seemed to view Pence as a figure in the Trump administration that Democrats could work with more easily.

“You’re going to be a very valued player in all of this because you know the territory,” she told Pence, adding that she meant no “disrespect for the sensitivity and knowledge of the president-elect….So in that territory, we will try to find our common ground where we can. And of course, stand our ground when we can’t. “

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already invited Pence to join the weekly Republican lunches — much the way Cheney did — to provide a conduit between Republicans on Capitol Hill and the administration.

Even doubters of the president-elect came away feeling more at ease with Pence’s presence.

“He made it clear that he and the president-elect want to work with all of us, no matter what position we took during the presidential campaign,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), an outspoken opponent of Trump. “I’m very encouraged. He’s going to be very engaged — perhaps in recent history the vice president that will most be engaged in the Congress.”

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

Twitter: @LisaMascaro

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