Vice President Mike Pence as he tours Mayo Clinic facilities supporting the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) research and treatment in Rochester, Minnesota, U.S., April 28, 2020.
REUTERS/Nicholas Pfosi, Rebecca Harrington/Business Insider

  • Vice President Mike Pence sparked criticism Tuesday when he broke against the Mayo Clinic’s request that he wear a mask while touring its facilities.
  • Pence’s decision offered a rare look behind his figurative mask, revealing the long game he is playing to survive the Trump Administration and win the White House down the road.
  • Pence is not an openly defiant type of politician. He plays things by the book. In this case, it’s most likely Trump’s book he’s playing by.
  • As I found when interviewing dozens of people for my biography of Pence, “Piety & Power: Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House,” Pence doesn’t do anything without thinking through all the angles first.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Define irony: The politician with the toughest mask to crack, Vice President Mike Pence, has his worst media dustup over the novel coronavirus response precisely because he wasn’t wearing a mask.

A quick recap: Pence caught hell on Tuesday after footage showed him touring the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota not wearing a mask — while everyone else around him donned them. Mayo tweeted that it told Pence to wear a mask, then deleted that tweet, and then restated to the press that masks are mandatory. Pence’s office said he doesn’t need to wear a mask because he’s been tested and is coronavirus free.

Pence defended himself, Tuesday, after the tour, saying, “As Vice President of the United States, I’m tested for the coronavirus on a regular basis, and everyone who is around me is tested for the coronavirus.”

At the beginning of the crisis, when Trump selected him to run the task force responding to the coronavirus, speculation swirled that he’d drop the ball similar to his handling of the 2015 HIV outbreak in Southern Indiana when he was governor – thereby giving Trump a reason to drop him from the ticket in 2020.

That, of course, was weeks before anyone fully grasped the severity of the coronavirus, and what would happen across the nation just weeks later.

Pence (literally) mask-less during this pandemic is actually not new, as he’s re-emerged on the campaign trail over the past two weeks, hitting swing states critical to the Trump re-election effort.

On a stop one week ago, to visit a GE plant making ventilators in Madison, Wisconsin, a smattering of workers donned facemasks – Pence and his entourage didn’t wear any. Not terribly surprising, but what caught more eyes was that very few people seemed to be keeping the suggested six-foot distance from each other, including Pence himself.

A few days before that, as Pence flew to Colorado to address the graduates of the US Air Force Academy – each graduate spaced well apart from each other at the ceremony. As Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, walked to Air Force Two to greet Pence – Polis bore a mask, and Pence did not.

It could be open defiance – but Pence isn’t an openly defiant type of guy, not based on my research. He’s a by-the-book guy. And, on this, he looks like he’s playing it by the book. It’s just that the left, political Twitter, and the press generally take that book to be the official guidance of public health officials trying to curb the spread of the deadliest outbreak the country has seen in a century.

“He is going to do whatever keeps him in good graces with two groups, Trump and his minions and the evangelicals – but more important than the pastors, the evangelical money people,” a longtime acquaintance and former supporter told me Tuesday. “That’s what allows him to keep on a path to the White House.”

The acquaintance said – and it reflected the views of dozens of people I interviewed for my biography of Pence, “Piety & Power: Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House” – Pence doesn’t do anything without thinking through all the angles first.

The reality is, this is part of the greater dance he’s been doing since he dove headfirst into Trump World almost four years ago. Trump threatens to withhold assistance from governors he doesn’t like, Pence calls them to assuage their concerns. Trump tells reporters in the daily briefing they don’t respect him, Pence pulls them aside, quietly, to console them for the loss of a colleague due to COVID-19.

Pence was originally drafted to the Trump ticket in 2016 to bring home conservative voters, queasy establishment Republicans, and wary evangelical voters throughout the Midwest. And he has often shied away from Trump’s wilder statements and controversies.

But Pence doesn’t defy Trump, ever. And Trump has said he won’t wear a mask in public.

Acronym, the digital campaign launched by Democrats for the 2020 battle, tweeted that Pence has a history of not following orders – pointing to a tour of NASA he took in July 2017, when he touched some equipment labeled “Do Not Touch.” (Pence took it in stride, joking on Twitter that Sen. Marco Rubio instigated him. And that Rubio had pressed him similarly before.)

But the better analogy was probably when Pence staged a walk-out of an NFL game between the Indianapolis Colts and the San Francisco 49ers in September 2017.  A longtime Indiana Republican operative told me at the time that he didn’t have a problem with Pence kowtowing to Trump – pretty much everybody in the Republican Party does that. He was pissed because Pence helped make the game where they retired Peyton Manning’s number all about Trump.

Something is loading.