- Vice President Mike Pence is a low key but central figure in President Trump's orbit. He surrounds himself with a tight-knit group of aides and family members that have often been with him for years.
- The vice president's closest adviser and confidant is his wife, Karen Pence, who controls access to him and plays a significant role in shaping his policy decisions.
- Much of Trumpworld is really Penceworld, as top Pence lieutenants have taken prime roles on the campaign and in the administration. The vice president serves as a bridge between the anti-Establishment Trump orbit and mainstream conservative and religious circles.
- As the likely frontrunner for the 2024 presidential nomination, Pence and his advisers could play a key role in shaping the future of the Republican Party.
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Vice President Mike Pence's big moment is here.
His debate Wednesday night against Democratic rival Kamala Harris has all the makings of must-see TV coming on the heels of last week's chaotic showdown between his boss, President Donald Trump, and Joe Biden.
Making the Pence-Harris clash even more important: Trump since that last debate has tested positive for the coronavirus and his erratic behavior while carrying the contagious and deadly disease has raised questions about whether Pence is ready if necessary to take over as a temporary commander-in-chief.
While it will be just Pence onstage in Salt Lake City alongside Harris, he brings with him a powerful and loyal circle of advisers and family members who behind the scenes have helped bring him to this point — and might help him go even further.
What's perhaps most critical to know about Pence is that he's an all-important bridge between Trump's political base and the conservative religious and establishment stalwarts that make up the boundaries of the current Republican party. He keeps a relatively low profile through it all, but he has actually installed many of his longtime advisers in key administration and political roles that allow him to shape the policy and personnel that govern the country.
Many of Pence's top aides, including Marty Obst and Marc Lotter, play significant roles in Trump's campaign and administration. This list illustrates how much of Trumpworld is secretly Penceworld — and what that will mean come 2024 as Pence enters the Republican nominating contest no matter who wins this November as the undisputed frontrunner.
Insider will update the Pence rankings periodically to reflect any important changes.
Second Lady Karen Pence
Pence may surround himself with a tight-knit group of loyalists, but his inner circle consists of just one person: Second Lady Karen Pence.
When Pence served in the House, he had a faux-antique phone installed on his desk, and only she and their children had the number. As he ascended to the Indiana governor's mansion and the White House, she has served as a quiet but powerful adviser and ultimate gatekeeper for her husband.
The deeply religious couple has drawn fascination and criticism from political watchers, and Karen Pence plays a key role in influencing her husband's conservative policy stances. In 2002, Pence told The Hill that he doesn't eat alone with a woman that isn't his wife — known generally as the "Billy Graham rule" for the late Christian evangelist. Pence didn't adopt that stance until he moved to Washington in 2001 as a new member of the House of Representatives. He later drew heat for that position from critics who said he was being sexist.
Like her predecessor Jill Biden, Karen Pence returned to her teaching job while holding the office of second lady.
But the Virginia school where she accepted a part time art teaching position requires employees to disavow same-sex marriage, prohibits premarital sex for employees, and effectively bars LGBTQ employees, the Washington Post reported.
As Pence seeks a second term as vice president and likely has his eye on the top job four years from now, be sure to keep an eye on the woman at his side.
Marty Obst, chief political adviser
Obst is the most important political adviser to the vice president outside of Karen Pence. He currently works for the Trump/Pence campaign as a bridge between the two running mates, but he's been with Pence for years. Obst began as a fundraiser before evolving into Pence's chief political adviser, and helped get him on the 2016 ticket. He's been helping Pence with the campaign's swing state strategy as Trump tries to win a second term.
Marc Short, chief of staff
Short is one of the vice president's most trusted aides, back to when he joined Pence's team at the end of 2008. He is viewed among Pence's advisers and friends as a critical connection to the conservative donor class and one of the people who first helped plug in Pence with national conservative leaders more than a decade ago.
He became a key aide for Pence in the House, and in 2017 he played on that experience as Trump's top legislative liaison on the Hill, charged with turning the president's agenda into law.
In March 2019, Pence named Short his chief of staff. Early in the pandemic, he exerted "significant influence" over the vice president's coronavirus task force that oversees the nation's pandemic response, the Washington Post reported. He reportedly voiced skepticism of the severity of the pandemic, questioned data provided to the president and pushed for an early reopening of the economy. The US's coronavirus response has been patchwork, contradictory, and haphazard, and has resulted in about 210,000 deaths from COVID-19.
Kellyanne Conway, former senior White House adviser and counselor to the president
Conway started polling for Pence more than a decade ago at about the same time that Marc Short joined Pence's team. Since then she has served as a critical bridge between Pence and the social conservatives who helped fuel his rise on the national stage. She has also served as an important connection to the New York donors who help fuel Republican campaigns. She even set up the very first meeting between Trump and Pence in 2011, although the meeting was considered a dud at the time.
Conway started the 2016 campaign as an anti-Trump Republican supporting Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's bid, but like many others she joined Trump after it was clear he would be the party's nominee. She is one of the rare advisers in Trump's orbit who was never forced out of the White House or his political operation — something other Trump advisers attribute to her not trying to take credit for Trump's efforts.
She left the White House in August to spend more time with her pseudo-celebrity family, which includes a husband lawyer who is among Trump's most outspoken critics and a teenage daughter who frequently airs criticism of the president on TikTok. On October 2, Conway announced she tested positive for COVID-19 amid a White House outbreak that has infected top advisers and even the president and First Lady Melania Trump.
Corey Lewandowski, PAC adviser
Lewandowski serves as an important bridge between Trump loyalists and Pence's insular operation. Team Pence threw the former Trump 2016 campaign manager a lifeline in 2018, hiring him for their super PAC at a time when Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and others were trying to keep him away from the president. Lewandowski and Trump's children later buried the hatchet, just before the 2020 re-election kicked off in earnest.
Lewandowski has deep ties in New Hampshire and flew with Pence there last year when the vice president formally filed paperwork for Trump's re-election bid (the surest sign that Pence wasn't getting dumped from Trump's ticket.)
Since 2018, he has advised Pence's fundraising entity, Great America Committee PAC. It's unusual for vice presidents to launch their own PACs while in office, but the move could signal Pence's higher ambitions for the future — and Lewandowski's potential role in it.
Marc Lotter, former spokesman
Lotter almost stumbled into Pence's operation in 2015 as the then-Indiana governor was fighting for control of the state school system with a former Democratic schools superintendent. He got pulled in as the education spokesman for Pence and later stuck with him even as other Republicans largely wrote Pence off in the wake of 2015's "religious freedom" battle.
Lotter used to book Pence for TV hits in the mid-'90s when he was a producer. He followed Pence onto the 2016 campaign trail and then to Washington. He now works as the Trump campaign's director of strategic communications.
A longtime player in Indiana politics, Lotter worked for Pence's 2016 gubernatorial campaign, which the candidate suspended when Trump chose him as a running mate. Lotter was a spokesman for Trump's campaign in 2016, but went over to the White House to work as Pence's press secretary in October 2017. He's now back handling communications for the campaign and frequently appears on TV to promote the Republican ticket as Election Day approaches.
Josh Pitcock, former chief of staff and longtime aide
Pitcock, a native Hoosier, is another top aide from Pence's days on Capitol Hill who followed him to the White House. When Pence was Indiana governor Pitcock stayed in DC and worked as the state's top lobbyist.
Pitcock also advised Pence during the presidential transition. He was Pence's chief of staff in the White House for seven months, from January to July 2017. He left to join the cloud computing and database company Oracle as its vice president of public affairs.
Mark Paoletta, chief counsel for the Office of Management and Budget
The longtime Washington lawyer and close vice presidential confidant is currently the chief counsel for the Office of Management and Budget, working under another Penceworld stalwart Russell Vought. Prior to that role, he spent a year as Pence's first counsel, beginning on the first day of the Trump administration and serving in the role until January 2018. Paoletta is close with both Pences, and an influential adviser in their world.
Paoletta gained extensive experience dealing with Congress from both sides; he was a counsel for the powerful House Energy and Commerce committee and has also represented witnesses before Congressional panels.
George H.W. Bush tapped him to help push through Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' confirmation in 1991, and Paoletta later reprised the role in 2017 when he assisted Pence and Trump with the confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Nick Ayers, former chief of staff
The longtime Republican strategist and party operative first worked for Pence as a consultant on his 2016 gubernatorial campaign, which Pence abandoned to join Trump's ticket. At the time, Ayers had worked for GOP candidates like former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and had close ties to then-RNC chair Reince Priebus.
Ayers played point in negotiations as Trump's campaign vetted Pence and then became a key adviser to the vice presidential nominee. After the 2016 election, Ayers took a job as senior adviser on the transition team. He had a cameo in the White House as Pence's second chief of staff replacing Josh Pitcock in 2017 and serving until early 2019.
Russell and Mary Vought
This Penceworld power couple have played key advisory roles to Pence over the years.
Russell Vought currently serves as the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, but he previously worked as the policy director for the House Republican Conference during Pence's time in Congress. He also served as vice president of Heritage Action, the political grassroots arm of the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation.
Mary Vought, now a political strategist and executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, also worked for Pence in Congress. In 2017, she wrote an op-ed defending Pence's policy of not dining alone with women, and said she had never faced discrimination because of her gender.
Matthew Morgan, Trump campaign general counsel
In 2016, Morgan carried the papers to Indiana's secretary of state's office to officially remove Pence from the ballot for governor and place him on the ballot as Trump's running mate (it is illegal to run for two offices at the same time in Indiana.)
He followed Pence to Washington where he served as a lawyer in the vice president's office. He now works as the general counsel on the Trump campaign.
Retired Lt. General Keith Kellogg, national security adviser
Pence chose Kellogg as his national security adviser in 2018. The decorated US Army veteran who began his long military career during the Vietnam War had previously advised Trump's campaign and transition. He became the acting national security adviser in January 2017 following Michael Flynn's resignation, and Pence appointed him a year later.
Kara Brooks, spokesperson for Karen Pence
Brooks served as the press secretary for then-Gov. Pence in Indiana before pivoting to become Karen Pence's spokesperson once the couple arrived at the White House.
Brooks is considered a close and trusted adviser to Karen Pence, encouraging her to step up her public appearances and tweak her image in what some Pence observers see as a prelude for a 2024 presidential campaign.
Gregory Jacobs, legal counsel
Jacobs joined Pence's vice presidential staff in March just as the pandemic started spreading rapidly in the US and shutting down large sectors of the economy.
He also held positions during the George W. Bush administration in both the Department of Labor and the Department of Justice.
Jana Toner, chief of staff for the second lady
Toner joined Karen Pence's staff in January 2018 from the White House Office of Presidential Personnel. As chief of staff, she helps control access to the second lady and makes her policy priorities a reality.
Toner worked for several key agencies during the George W. Bush administration, including the Department of Education and the Department of Energy.
John Pence, Trump campaign senior adviser
Mike Pence's nephew and the son of Indiana Rep. Greg Pence carved out a niche for himself in Trump's political operation. He has been a top Trump campaign adviser throughout the 2020 battle. Last September, John Pence married Kellyanne Conway's cousin, also a Trump staffer, Giovanna Coia.
Katie Miller, communications director
Miller has played a key role during the coronavirus pandemic as Pence leads the administration's coronavirus task force. She's been shaping the vice president's message and image during a chaotic time while the White House has come under fire for its failed approach to containing the virus.
In September, Miller tested positive for COVID-19, which raised fears that the virus had infiltrated the White House itself. A few weeks later, it did; a large outbreak struck the White House in early October, infecting top staff including her husband, Stephen Miller.
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