After Donald Trump abruptly disavowed his running mate Mike Pence’s position on Syria — “He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree,” the Republican nominee said in a scolding tone — Pence rushed to swat down rumors that he was leaving the ticket.
The Indiana governor wrote on Twitter: “Congrats to my running mate @realDonaldTrump on a big debate win! Proud to stand with you as we #MAGA.”
The campaign, too, moved quickly to throw cold water on the idea that Pence had so much as mulled over leaving the ticket.
“He’s never considered dropping out. He’s in 100 percent,” said Kellyanne Conway, the campaign manager, after the debate. “He’s happy to be on this ticket.”
But the last few days have raised questions about Pence’s level of comfort with Trump. On Saturday, Pence condemned Trump’s comments about women in a 2005 audiotape, saying in a statement, “I do not condone his remarks and cannot defend them.”
Pence was not part of the campaign’s intensive deliberations at Trump Tower over how to handle the aftermath of the tape. An aide to Pence, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the vice-presidential nominee stayed in touch with Trump over the weekend, urging Trump to make a more direct apology. The aide said Pence was pleased by Trump’s expression of contrition over the tape at the beginning of the debate.
“Trump needed the space to clean up the audio tape and I think his apology at the beginning of the debate was the strongest yet,” said the aide, adding that the Indiana governor felt the same way.
But Trump’s chosen line of attack before and during the debate further underscored the distance between the two running mates.
Pence has followed the advice of many Republicans and eschewed references to Bill Clinton’s past affairs and treatment of women; Trump, however, paraded several of Bill Clinton’s accusers on Facebook and then hosted them at the debate. Pence was in Indiana, far from the scene.
Then came Trump’s disavowal of Pence’s views on Russia’s role in Syria, perhaps the major foreign policy crisis of the moment. Running mates sometimes acknowledge disagreements on issues but rarely contradict each other. But Trump’s rejection of Pence’s position was sharp enough to elicit gasps in the press room at the debate.
Pence stated in the vice-presidential debate that the U.S. “should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime” if Russian aggression in the country continues.
Trump roundly rejected that view in Sunday’s debate.
“He and I haven't spoken, and I disagree,” Trump said.
“You disagree with your running mate?” ABC’s Martha Raddatz asked.
“I disagree,” Trump said, and went on to suggest that U.S. should support Russia, Iran and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in fighting ISIS.
Trump’s suggestion that he and Pence hadn’t even spoken about the issue prompted the campaign to reassure voters the two were still in touch. Conway tweeted a photograph of Trump speaking with Pence by phone on Sunday.
In addition, the campaign announced Sunday night that Pence will be appearing on morning TV Monday, his first interview since the release of the tape.
Pence and his aides appear to have made the calculation that sticking it out with Trump is the only realistic move. A recent poll showed Pence as a leading contender for the 2020 Republican nomination should Trump lose. Another poll showed about three quarters of Republicans support keeping Trump on the ticket — a signal to Pence that, even as some elected Republicans abandon Trump, the party’s voters are still very much behind the candidate.
“This is the most united ticket that we've ever seen,” Jason Miller, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, said after the debate. “Mr. Trump and Gov. Pence talk every single day. This is a great ticket. Couldn't be stronger. And the rest of this is just silly nonsense.”
Miller said it was “great” that Trump was willing to point out the “slight disagreement.”
Trump surrogates made no effort after the debate to cover for Pence.
“I think Mr. Trump had it exactly right,” said Peter Navarro, a Trump adviser and UC-Irvine economics professor. “He sets the tone. It’s his foreign policy.”