'Piety & Power' Considers The Life And Ambition Of Vice President Mike Pence

Sep 26, 2019
Originally published on September 27, 2019 12:12 pm

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into President Trump will have far-reaching impacts, and one of them may be to increase public interest in the man who would occupy the White House if the president were to depart, Vice President Mike Pence. Pence has been a loyal but largely invisible figure in the Trump administration.

Our guest, veteran political reporter Tom Lo Bianco, has covered Pence in Indiana and Washington for two decades for the Associated Press, CNN and the Indianapolis Star. He has a new book about Pence's political career. He says while Pence holds conservative views and deeply religious convictions, he's shown a willingness to set them aside as circumstances require to pursue his political ambitions.

LoBianco describes Pence as the ultimate political shapeshifter. FRESH AIR's Dave Davies spoke to LoBianco yesterday about his book "Piety & Power: Mike Pence And The Taking Of The White House."

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Tom LoBianco, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, we're speaking as, arguably, the most serious threat to Donald Trump's presidency has emerged in the form of a formal impeachment inquiry over his dealings with the government of Ukraine. What are you hearing about how the vice president and his team are reacting to this?

TOM LOBIANCO: I think to understand where Pence's team is right now, it helps to understand what happened with the Russia investigation. They really dodged a bullet that first go around. If you'll remember, Pence was almost like a ghost through that investigation. You didn't really hear a lot about him. He didn't come up, but here he has had a meeting with the Ukrainian president, Zelenskiy, and made this argument that is at the centerpiece of this - the impeachment push right now, this anti-corruption argument that Trump and the - his people are making.

Pence has already answered some questions about this, but I suspect we'll have more questions because we need to know what happened in that meeting he had with Zelenskiy. He's already said - earlier this month, he said, did he bring up Joe Biden in that meeting with Zelenskiy? And he said, no, that did not come up. Two, what did they discuss? Well, they discussed anti-corruption measures.

Look. What he's doing right now is what he's always done within the administration. He's carrying the water on the messaging. But in a serious way, he is more overexposed than he has ever been inside this White House.

DAVIES: Right. You know, it's interesting that in your biography, you point out that during the 2016 campaign, when the "Access Hollywood" tapes emerged that showed Donald Trump, you know, bragging about grabbing women by their privates, there was talk then of forcing Trump from the ticket and replacing him with Mike Pence. How did Pence respond then to that chatter?

LOBIANCO: So my reporting - and I'd heard about this before, and we've seen this reported out there before that there was an effort to remove Trump from the ticket. Now, based on my reporting, what happens is Marty Obst, who's the chief political aide to Mike Pence - he fields phone calls.

So this is - what? - Friday, Oct. 7, 2016. And Marty starts fielding these phone calls from the Republican donors saying that they are speaking on behalf of Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and that they are ready to remove Trump from the ticket and replace him at the top of the ticket with Mike Pence.

Now, Reince Priebus has said that never happened. What I do know is this based on my reporting. There had been discussed a contingency plan on what would happen if something exactly like "Access Hollywood" were to come out. You know, the chatter, previously, had been around Mark Burnett, the "Celebrity Apprentice," when Trump was a reality TV star that he used the N-word on these hot mic moments. And that's what they were worried about.

And they come to Marty Obst, and they say, look. We're ready to replace him on the ticket. All Mike Pence - Mike Pence doesn't even have to say yes. We're just ready to do it to save the party.

So Marty says no. And he says no for a very important reason. They're thinking about running in 2020 in their own right because they don't expect that Donald Trump is going to win. Nobody expects that Trump is going to win. And Marty - they've already been lining up political donors for the run for the Republican nomination for '20, for to take on - presumptively, to take on Clinton.

And they've been telling people behind the scenes, get on the Pence train early and you'll have a good seat at the table when he is the prohibitive front-runner. And he knows that the Republican Party base, the base which will carry him forward in a future run has already moved to Trump. He can't have anything to do with it.

So - and this really, to me at least, informed a lot of thinking going forward. It really answered a lot of questions about how - you know, why does he sit there with Trump? Why does he - you know, people laugh about it. Why does he take the water bottle off the table when Trump takes the water bottle off the table? It's just because of this. He's playing the long game. He's a - he wants to be the nominee. He wants to be the president in his own right.

DAVIES: In this 2016 campaign, when the "Access Hollywood" tapes emerge and there is a crisis, Pence doesn't want to be seen as trying to push Trump off the ticket. He's got his own plans for the future. As you have looked at his political career, how long has he been thinking about being president?

LOBIANCO: Since 2008. This is - I - based on my reporting, based on everything I can see, this is when he gets bit with the White House bug, the presidential ambition bug. He doesn't have it before then.

But what happens in 2008 is immediately after the election, the Council for National Policy, a big umbrella group, comes out and they get together - conservative umbrella group - and they say, we need to find somebody to take on Mitt Romney. What about Mike Pence? He is beloved by the movement conservatives anti-abortion groups, pro-life - however we want to term it - religious conservatives.

And what happens - you see - in that moment, you see Mike Pence move from being a guy who is positioning himself for a rise within the House of Representatives to a guy who starts building out - building out networks of donors. His first run for governor - ultimately, he decides to run for governor.

His run for governor is all about positioning. His first year as governor is positioning. After winning, he joins the vice presidential ticket. He joins Donald Trump as his running mate. It's all about positioning. 2008 is the moment he moves from being a guy who's climbing the ranks in the House of Representatives to a guy who's running for president.

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is veteran political reporter Tom LoBianco. He's covered the career of Vice President Mike Pence for many years in Indianapolis and Washington. He has a new biography of Pence called "Piety & Power: Mike Pence And The Taking Of The White House."

So let's talk about Mike Pence a bit. He grew up in Columbus, Ind., a middle-class family. What kind of a kid was he?

LOBIANCO: Fairly, I guess, normal so to say (laughter).

DAVIES: Gifted talker...

LOBIANCO: Look, he's...

DAVIES: ...Right?

LOBIANCO: Yes, he was. Pence's older brother Greg, who's now a congressman, is born 1956. Then comes Ed, Jr. And then comes Mike Pence in 1959. And then comes Tom Pence. Four boys within the space of about four years. Twelve years later is when they have two daughters. And they're almost raised as not different families, but you know how it is. It's - it's sort of - so Pence is in the - is the middle child of the four boys.

And he points this out. You know, I was researching a lot through his early congressional races, his first two runs at office in 1988 and 1990. He talks a lot about this. He talks about how he was the fat kid. And he said he was - I think he said he was a real pumpkin in a pickle patch - is the way he put it. And his brothers were very athletic. And he's kind of a little quiet, a little more reserved, but he finds this talent.

It's the St. Columba - the Catholic school he's going to, he starts to find this talent for public speaking. And then he transfers to the public high school, Columbus North High School.

And what happens is he loses 55 pounds the summer after his sophomore year. And he comes back into school and, you know, his peers don't even know who he is. And he gets - he starts to get popular. He starts to go out there more. He blossoms. He's a champion on the debate team. By the time he leaves high school, he's a popular kid in a way that he wasn't before.

DAVIES: He goes to Hanover College, a relatively small college, becomes involved in a religious group there. He was Catholic but becomes friendly with a lot of evangelicals. Gets into Republican politics at the ground level and then runs for Congress twice in 1988 and in 1990, fails to unseat a Democratic incumbent and ends up heading a conservative think tank and a newsletter, and then gets a radio show. And this is when conservative talk radio was becoming a big thing. And Rush Limbaugh is a big thing. Limbaugh, of course, was brash and provocative. What was Mike Pence's radio persona like?

LOBIANCO: (Laughter) He was neither brash nor provocative (laughter). But he was very conservative, certainly. He likes to joke. And this is a little bit of misdirection that he uses. OK.

I first saw this when he talked about the cornfield in his backyard. He would deflect questions about his presidential ambitions that say - by saying he was a kid who grew up from a small town in southern Indiana with a cornfield in his backyard. And, you know, I saw the cornfield.

And the reason the cornfield was there was not because it's, you know, some small, one-stop town in the middle of a cornfield. Columbus is sort of a - it's cosmopolitan. It's a small metropolis. It's almost like a - like, Annapolis, Md. Like, it's a good mid-sized city. The reason there was a cornfield in his backyard was because he lived in the newest subdevelopment that was eating into the cornfields, on the outskirts of town.

And I saw this as a theme throughout his career. He says that he's like Rush Limbaugh on decaf. That's technically right but, you know, he's not brash. He was not brash on air. In the limited number of radio tapes that we've been able to find, they don't show somebody who's a Rush Limbaugh. What they do show is somebody who's a good listener. He's very good at taking and absorbing. And he develops - ironically enough, he's no longer running for anything at this point. He's not running for the statehouse, city council, Congress, whatever. He's not running for anything, but he is developing political instincts.

He is starting to get a sense of - people call in from around the state because he's syndicated in these small towns like Shelbyville and Richmond, Ind. And they're calling in and they're talking about Bobby Knight, the coach of IU, do they love him or hate him? They're talking about class basketball - right? - the basis of "Hoosiers," the movie. And this is what they're interested in. He's developing a sense of where the public is in a way that he hasn't before. That is what he gets from his radio career.

DAVIES: Right. And his good listening also was very helpful in fundraising. People felt flattered and attended to by him. He - it might be this - might be a good point to ask what he stands for. I mean, he became a fiscal conservative as the Tea Party arose. And he was an evangelical Christian, even though he was a Catholic. Tell us a little bit about his religious views and how they informed his politics.

LOBIANCO: Sure. Well, let's start from - he has a - his salvation experience happens in 1978, in a place called the Ichthus Music Festival in Wilmore, Ky. It's right near Lexington. And this is where he feels the experience of Jesus dying on the cross. This is where he understands that Jesus is his personal savior.

But he doesn't start going to an evangelical church. He doesn't really leave the Catholic Church until the mid-'90s. So this is a 16-year expanse. And I think this is a misconception that's out there about him. He doesn't start out as, like, a Christian right culture warrior, and he doesn't fully embrace it, either. Best I can tell, based on the reporting, he plays to these groups, but he's not firmly ensconced with them. He's not like a Pat Robertson, per say.

DAVIES: Tom LoBianco's book is "Piety & Power: Mike Pence And The Taking Of The White House." We will continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is veteran political reporter Tom LoBianco. He's covered the career of Vice President Mike Pence for many years in Indianapolis and Washington. His new biography of Pence is called "Piety & Power: Mike Pence And The Taking Of The White House."

After 12 years in Congress, in 2012, he has a choice to make. He has ambitions of running for president. Turns out, there's - it's a strong Republican field. He doesn't do that. He sets his sights on running for governor of Indiana, where he would be replacing a very well-regarded Republican governor, Mitch Daniels.

I'm interested in how, both when he was running for governor in 2012 and when he was serving in Congress, how his religious views, particularly on social issues like gay rights, where in the past, he had advocated for restricting funding for AIDS research if it supported, quote, "dangerous lifestyles" - how those sorts of religious convictions played out in both his positions in Congress and how he ran for governor. Was he a man who stuck to those principles?

LOBIANCO: Yeah, he - that's really important. And I think that's where - that period from 2010 to 2011 where he makes the decision to run for governor, this is where we start to see that - the ambition taking over, the ambition taking over the faith. And he suppresses the - sort of the Christian right principles that he's been, you know, pushing for the last decade or so.

And he decides that, no, I'm going to run as Mitch Daniels 2.0. And this is what his advisers tell him to do. The fundraisers who are helping, they help clear the field for him. And they all tell him, you cannot run as a culture warrior. You will lose this race. They want him to be Mitch Daniels 2.0.

And what do I mean by that? I mean that they want him to be a technocrat in the form of Mitch Daniels. Mitch Daniels sort of eschewed the social conservative policy. Not completely - he didn't completely call for a truce. That's a misconception that's out there about him. But he pushes it aside in favor of things are a little more anodyne, like fiscal policy.

And you see Pence make this change. Pence tries to live within the Tea Party but not get wrapped into some of the more social stuff. He doesn't get wrapped into the birtherism, for instance. He tries to keep it very tight on fiscal policy. So by the time he's running for governor, he is running as somebody who's not a culture warrior.

DAVIES: He served one term as governor of Indiana from - yeah - got elected in 2012, up to the 2016 election. And it's clear that he still had his eyes on the White House. He traveled abroad. He talked about national issues. He still had to run the state. Was he good at the statecraft of being a governor, dealing with the legislature, being on top of policy?

LOBIANCO: No. No, he was - objectively, I can tell you that he is a terrible government manager. It's - I've - have seen other governors work, and this is not a comment on his policy or his politics but just on his handling of the building. He was not dialed in with the lawmakers. He did not have a sense of things.

And let me give you the best example of this, which is he's so focused on running for president and building out his national network of donors that he doesn't see the religious freedom battle coming in 2015. He doesn't see how that can bite him. And he has nothing to do with it. Remember, this is the thing that, you know, basically ends his career in that moment in 2015.

DAVIES: In 2015, a group of legislators develop a piece of legislation. This is when gay marriage is becoming more accepted. They come up with this piece of legislation, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says that, I guess, no businessperson has to participate in a gay marriage if it violates their religious beliefs. Doesn't get involved in drafting the legislation - how does he respond to this?

LOBIANCO: The headwinds look fine for him politically in this moment. He doesn't see the backlash that he saw the previous year with the same-sex marriage ban that they were trying to put into the Constitution, and he decides, well, it looks safe. He sticks his head up out of the bunker. And he says, well, I'm going to sign it, and I'm going to take credit for it, which is something he often liked to do - things that he didn't work on - the classic politician, right? - things he didn't work on. You know, it was Reagan that said that, you know, success has, you know, a thousand fathers and, you know, failure is an orphan. So here we go. Here's, you know, one of the thousand fathers for this.

And he kind of pops up. It's at the exact same time that the Comic Con convention is in Indianapolis. And what lights this on fire - and this is something that is incredible. It's a Facebook post from George Takei, Mr. Sulu. He says - and he - I think he's out at this point. He says that he knows exactly what this law is that Mike Pence is signing because he saw it in the internment camps that his family lived in, and he sees it now with the bigotry towards him and his - and other LGBT residents.

This just catches on fire. And it becomes something that Pence doesn't know - he's never experienced before - it becomes a viral moment. Online, it catches on fire and just catches him flat-footed because he thought it was safe. He had no idea what he was getting into. And this brings them into this fateful interview with George Stephanopoulos, where he goes on air, and he tries to defend this legislation that, ironically enough, he had nothing to do with creating, you know? But he tries to take credit for it.

And he goes on there, and he - basically, it sounds like he's supporting discrimination in Indiana. And it just wrecks his career. That's the end of it. After that, like, it's - you know, nobody's even talking about him running for president anymore. After that interview on March 30, 2015, they're talking about whether he can survive a bid for re-election as governor.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded yesterday with Tom LoBianco, author of the new book "Power & Piety: Mike Pence And The Taking Of The White House" (ph). After a break, they'll talk about the conversation with Trump that helped secure the vice presidential nomination for Pence, why Pence's wife Karen was angry when the ticket won the election and whether members of Trump's family have been angling to bump Pence from the ticket in 2020. Also, Justin Chang will review the new biopic "Judy" starring Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As the House impeachment inquiry gets underway, we're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with veteran political writer Tom LoBianco about the man who is in line to occupy the Oval Office if President Trump were to depart, Vice President Mike Pence. LoBianco has a new book about Pence's career called "Piety & Power."

When they left off, they were talking about Pence's decision in 2012 to postpone his ambition to run for president and instead run for governor of Indiana.

DAVIES: He barely wins the general election and takes office as governor in 2013. And his - when he moves into capital, his wife, Karen, has an office there and a phone that rings on his desk. What was her role in his administration and, I guess, in his political career generally?

LOBIANCO: I used to think that there was a small circle of - an inner circle for Mike Pence that consisted of three people - Mike Pence, his longtime chief of staff Bill Smith and Karen Pence. And that was my conception for years. And in reporting this book, I found out that it's even smaller than that. It is only Karen Pence and Mike Pence in this inner circle. They're the ones who make decisions together.

You know, when the Trump campaign was vetting Pence, they had no problems picking him out. They had no problems getting information on him, felt like they had a great sense of who he was. They couldn't find anything bad about him, really. They could not find information about Karen. And I've - to be honest with you, as a reporter, I understand why because it took me a long time to find out how she moves the needle.

I'll give you two examples from inside the State House. Number one was the expansion of Medicaid. She was very important in pushing the idea that the infant mortality rate was too high and that they needed to address that. That was a big item for her. That informs him on this decision. The other one is starting a pre-K program in the state. You know, a couple of state senators go to meet with him, and these are conservative state senators very much in line with where he is. And they say, you know, Mike, we don't want to pay for this. You know, there's no money in the budget. You know, we just don't want to do that. And he looks at them. He says, you know, guys, look. Karen wants me to do it, so I'm going to do it.

DAVIES: So she often controlled access to him. It sounds like, in terms of policy, she pushed him more to - in a more progressive direction, spending money on social services.

LOBIANCO: In that instance, yes. Absolutely. Yeah. I think that - here's something I learned in this process. They are not the caricatures that are out there about them. Yes, they are 100% conservative. And, you know, look. They 100% oppose abortion and will do everything they can to repeal Roe v. Wade. That's very clear. But in terms of - are they fiery theocrats? You know, are these like a Jerry Falwell type? I don't - that's not right, and I think there's a reason that you don't see them knocking it down. This goes to the politics of it.

It helps them to have that caricature out there because it keeps that politicized evangelical base with them, and it keeps them from going someplace else, like a Nikki Haley or some other political opponent. So these caricatures are actually politically beneficial to them.

DAVIES: So 2016 rolls around. Mike Pence can run for reelection as governor. He would love to enter the presidential race, but it's a strong presidential field - decides he'll go ahead and seek reelection as governor. And then this prospect of joining the ticket with Donald Trump arises. Why did the Trump camp look to Mike Pence?

LOBIANCO: So they're having trouble getting moderate Republicans - or any Republicans, really - to join the ticket. By the beginning of July, it's down to Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich and Mike Pence. Paul Manafort, who is running the campaign in this moment, and Reince Priebus, who has taken on more of a role - certainly as it became clear that Trump would become the nominee - are both arguing extensively for Pence for two different reasons. They see - Manafort sees a delegate uprising led by the - by Cruz and his supporters. Ironically enough, Ken Cuccinelli, now the acting human - acting DHS secretary in the administration and some others are trying to block the nomination of Trump or, you know, deny the nomination on the floor in a delegate battle in the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Priebus sees a different reason for wanting him. He sees that Pence can bring back your evangelical voters.

And let me point this out because this is really important. Trump already has the support of televangelists - Jerry Falwell, Jr., for instance - people who have already gotten on board with Trump. So if the televangelists already support Trump, why do you need the evangelical voters? Because those televangelists don't represent all of your politicized evangelical vote. It's not a monolith. They know - Priebus knows that Pence, in his different style of evangelicalism - his more quiet, Midwestern style - can bring back these quiet, Midwestern voters and help boost the margins in the Rust Belt, in places like Wisconsin and western Michigan.

So they want him for different reasons. The problem they face is trying to convince Trump to sign up with this guy. Trump sees a loser. That's how he views him. And he doesn't like - he thinks that he's weird with the religion. Trump's just - he just doesn't like Pence at all, so it's kind of vexing for them.

DAVIES: So there's an interesting moment here when it's coming down to the end and Donald Trump has just a few choices - former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey who very much wants to be on the ticket and then Pence. And a weird thing happens. The Trump campaign wants to make - is going to make a short stop in Indianapolis, but the plane has a flat tire. Why does this end up mattering?

LOBIANCO: That flat tire - it ultimately changes history. It's July 12, 2016. They land. It pops a flat under the right fuselage of the Trump campaign plane. It strands Trump in Indianapolis. In this moment, one week before the nominating convention, Newt Gingrich has the upper hand, based on my reporting. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are with Gingrich in New York in Trump Tower. They like Gingrich. They like the way that he meshes with their father. They like that he's a big ideas person. Christie has a good line directly in with Trump, but Kushner doesn't like Christie because Christie helped put his father in jail.

So there's - Pence's in the mix, but he is not the top candidate in this moment. What that flat tire does - it basically relocates the entire campaign to - for about 48 hours to Indianapolis. And it forces Trump to seriously consider and spend time with Mike Pence in a way that he hadn't before.

So they stay overnight in Indianapolis. They get up the next morning. Their families have breakfast at the governor's mansion, and what's important here is that Jared and Ivanka have not met Mike Pence. This is their first time meeting them. And they go downstairs after breakfast in the governor's mansion for a meeting in the bunker, and it's this family room that's in the basement.

And Donald Trump is sitting across from Mike Pence - and this is the brass tacks moment - and Trump looks at him, and he says, Mike, I need killers. He says, why do you want this? I need killers. Are you going to be a killer? He holds up his phone, and there's the missed phone calls from Chris Christie. He's like, look. Chris Christie, he's a killer. And Pence looks at him, and he says, I am not a killer. I can't be that. Look. I can help you govern. I can help you lobby Congress. I will help you with conservative voters, evangelical voters in the Rust Belt. But I'm not a killer, and if you want a killer, you should find somebody else, and I will support you and whoever else that is in your effort to change America, but I don't need this.

And Trump is gobsmacked, and afterwards, after this, it's the first time that Trump seriously considers Mike Pence as a possible running mate. And Marty Obst meets with Pence afterwards, and he's just astounded. He's like, Mike, that was incredible.

DAVIES: Tom LoBianco's book is "Piety & Power: Mike Pence And The Taking Of The White House." We will continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is veteran political reporter Tom LoBianco. He's covered the career of Vice President Mike Pence for many years, both in Washington and in Indiana, for several media outlets. He has a new biography of Pence called "Piety & Power: Mike Pence And The Taking Of The White House."

You have a remarkably personal detail in this book, and that's on election night. After Trump surprises everyone and wins and Hillary Clinton calls and concedes, you say that Mike Pence leans in to kiss his wife Karen, quote, "but she rebuffed him and says, you got what you wanted, Mike. Leave me alone." The - I looked in this - in the back of the book, you cite former campaign - Trump campaign aides as a source for this. What do you make of this interaction?

LOBIANCO: Well, when I first heard this, I thought to myself, wow. She is really angry at Trump and having to be stuck with Trump. But then I realized something. The more I understood about her influence in their trajectory, their political - their joint political career, it wasn't that she was angry at Trump. She was angry at Pence. What happened when he signed on - when they both decided to sign on - with Trump was they took a gamble, and they never take gambles in their political career. They take a gamble that it's only going to be four months at Trump's side, and that...

DAVIES: And he'll lose, and then he can run for - run in 2020, right?

LOBIANCO: Exactly, and they lose. They lose. In that moment, they lost that bet. And now he's gone from four months of having to carry the water for a guy who talks about, you know, serially molesting women to four years of that, possibly eight years of that. And she knows that it's going to ruin his image because has developed a very clean image in his career trying to - so that's why she's angry. Politically, they lost. They lost that bet on election night.

DAVIES: So I think you say that in the early months of the administration, he tried to be in every meeting he could in the West Wing and got into a lot of them but never said anything. Talk about his role in the administration, and in particular, the perception that he would actually mimic the president's moves just physically.

LOBIANCO: (Laughter) He kind of takes on other people's dynamics. He takes on other people's properties. One source told me that he's like a Zelig character. He takes on their mannerisms. You know, you see he does the wink and the nod like Reagan used to do. He does really good George W. Bush impersonations. He does Trump impersonations every now and then.

So to your question, I think this is a central question that people have about Pence. You know, look. I've seen two tropes out there about him. One is he is a, quote, unquote, "shadow president." Let me just say he doesn't secretly run things inside there. If there's anyone who's a shadow anything, it would be Karen Pence, who is a shadow vice president, and I think as we're putting this out now, is not really shadow anymore.

But then the other version - and you see a little bit more of this reported out in the Bob Woodward book where Gary Cohn and Rob Porter have a big say in things - is Mike Pence is sort of a glorified coat rack. And this is to your question - right? - the guy who shows up, nods, you know, solemnly furrows his brow a little bit and, you know, smiles and, you know, pats everyone on the back but don't really do anything. I think that kind of misses it, too.

What Pence is - he falls in between those two. Those are your extreme caricature goalposts for him, and what you really have is a guy who - he works hard on anti-abortion, social conservative policy, you know, the updates of the gay marriage fight, which beat this religious freedom fight that continues. And you also have him in a - with a deep hand in the Health and Human Services and trying to repeal or curb Obamacare within that department. But he stays within his lane. He's not forceful. He's not somebody who pushes the president because, remember, ultimately, this is about survival. He has to survive until 2024, so he's not going to do anything that endangers his political viability.

DAVIES: So we're - you know, he and Trump clearly are not close, and there have been reports that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner would like to bump Mike Pence from the ticket for 2020. What's your sense of that?

LOBIANCO: Let me start by saying that Jared and Ivanka's people deny this, but what I heard is that they talk about trying to find a woman to run with Trump to help them win back the suburbs. This is the major political calculation for them. You know, look. They've also kind of pushed aside Pence's operatives within the Trump reelection, keeping them out of decisions.

There's a great anecdote I write about where they go out in the field - the Trump campaign goes out in the field with some polling, and they try to hide it from Pence's team, in part, because the poll comes back and it shows that Pence's favorable numbers are much better than Trump's favorable numbers. And Pence's aide has to go out and actually use a mole within his own campaign to get a copy of one of these polls. It was 14 battleground state polls.

It's - they see that Trump or that Pence is not helping them. And the other part of this calculation is that they feel like Trump has a solid lock on the evangelical vote writ large, so they don't need Pence anymore, and they can dump him from 2020. That's - I think that misreads it. And this is what Pence's people say.

Certainly, his allies say that no, the evangelical vote is not a monolith. It's not just the televangelists who are 100% onboard with Trump. It's these other voters that - which is the reason they needed him to begin with.

Here's why I'm confident that this is a real thing. And it's not so much the chatter or the rumors and whatnot, it has more to do with the actions of Pence. And you saw this really - this tough July that he had - July 2019 where he goes - he gets yanked back from this weird trip to New Hampshire that's unexplained. Then he gets a - a few weeks later, he gets sent down to a detention camp and - one of the border detention camps. And it's just, you know, just terrible scene, you know - men and women, cages. It is just a horrible scene.

And what one of Pence's advisers and friends was telling people was that this is another Trump loyalty test. It's another way of him yanking on the leash. And they hate it. They really feel like this is too demeaning. It's too - it's not - it's - why should you have to constantly - Pence is just completely loyal. Why should he always have to be taking these loyalty tests? And that goes to this effort by Jared and Ivanka to find somebody else. Now, are the - you know, will they actually replace Pence? Most people think probably not, but they are testing it.

DAVIES: You know, we've just - the House Democrats have just embarked upon a formal impeachment inquiry. And obviously, we don't know where this will go and will take some time to play itself out. But I feel I should ask you since we have you here that if it comes to it, if Donald Trump leaves the presidency, what would a Mike Pence presidency look like?

LOBIANCO: Great question. I think that it would look very - like a very conservative George W. Bush presidency. Expect a return to sort of pre-Trump policies for the most part - neocon policies, neo conservative policies, certainly in foreign policy, fiscal policy. Expect more - I would expect more fiscal restraint than you've seen under Trump. I don't know that you'd see a return to free trade.

Let me tell you a little bit about his people that will be in there. You know, Kellyanne Conway is still very important in Pence's orbit. She would be a key player in a Pence White House, you know, whether that's through impeachment or in 2024, whenever. Marc Short - still, perhaps, the most important player in Pence's orbit.

But I don't know that he would be a fiery theocrat the way that a lot of folks on the left present him as. Because I think that, ultimately - and this is something that his people told me - so let's say he does get impeached, and they remove him. He wants to win the presidency in his own right. And he wants it to be a victory that sort of cements him in U.S. history. I think he'd revert back to that - the ambition, the shapeshifter. It's not a guarantee that he would be an ideologue. It's all about winning. It's all about being a political opportunist.

DAVIES: Well, Tom LoBianco, thanks so much for speaking with us.

LOBIANCO: Thank you.

GROSS: Tom LoBianco spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies. LoBianco's new book is "Piety & Power: Mike Pence And The Taking Of The White House." After a short break, Justin Chang will review the new biopic "Judy," starring Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland. This is FRESH AIR.

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