Is Mike Pence distancing himself from Trump?

Mike Pence stands behind Donald Trump. Image copyright Getty Images

In the White House game of thrones, where senior administration officials fend off adversaries at every turn while vying for power and prominence, Mike Pence has been a relatively quiet player.

The vice-president is always in the background, often looking over Donald Trump's shoulder with an approving nod as the president delivers a speech or signs yet another executive order. When it comes to engaging in the bare-knuckle brawling that has played itself out through anonymous sources and well-timed insider leaks, however, the vice-president and his associates have largely stayed out of the fray.

Thursday night, then, was quite unusual. Two major US media outlets - CNN and NBC News - ran articles, complete with quotes from anonymous White House sources, distancing the vice-president from the current chaos in the administration and the running controversy over possible Trump campaign ties to the Russian government during the 2016 US presidential election.

"We certainly knew we needed to be prepared for the unconventional," an unnamed Pence aide told CNN's Elizabeth Landers, but "not to this extent".

The proximate cause for the concern among the vice-president's camp was a New York Times article earlier this week reporting that Michael Flynn, Mr Trump's prominent campaign surrogate and short-lived national security adviser, had in early January informed the presidential transition team - then headed by Mr Pence - that he was under investigation for his ties to the Turkish government.

In March Mr Pence denied any knowledge of Mr Flynn's Turkish ties before they were made public earlier that month.

A "source close to the administration" told NBC that Mr Pence stands by his comments and he was not told of Mr Flynn's Turkish connections.

"That's an egregious error - and it has to be intentional," the source said. "It's either malpractice or intentional, and either are unacceptable."

Complicating matters for the vice-president is that this is not the first time he has taken the White House line, only to be undercut by subsequent revelations.

Just last week he asserted, repeatedly, that the president decided to fire FBI Director James Comey based on a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

One day later the president himself told an interviewer that he knew he was going to terminate the law enforcement chief before the memo was even written.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mike Pence has been content to look over the president's shoulder - for now

Mr Pence was also part of the White House efforts in January to push back against reports that Mr Flynn discussed US sanctions on Russia with that nation's ambassador to the US, Sergei Kislyak - allegations that were later proven to be true.

Mr Flynn was fired, the White House said, for misleading the vice-president on the matter.

If Thursday night's story is any indication, the vice-president may now be trying to put some distance between himself and an administration that has made a habit of leaving him out on a limb.

If the Trump presidency is truly in trouble, and this week's appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller is a dark storm cloud on the horizon, this could be evidence that the vice-president is contemplating a future after Mr Trump. He's certainly not abandoning ship, but he's familiarising himself with where the lifeboats are stored.

If so, he's not the only one. Politico ran a story earlier this week about conservatives - on the record and off - who were "hinting" that a President Pence would be a welcome reprieve from the drama of the Trump presidency.

To get there, of course, Mr Trump would have to resign or be removed from office, leaving the vice-president as next in line for the job.

Such speculation is decidedly premature, of course, but then there was another tidbit this week that has stoked the flames.

Trump-Russia Scandal: How did we get here?

Follow Anthony Zurcher on Twitter.

Mr Pence, according to Federal Election Commission filings, has started a committee to collect political donations.

A source within the vice-president's office told NBC that the "Great American Committee", as it's named, will allow Mr Pence to cover travel expenses and support Republican candidates in upcoming elections.

It's a move, however, that none of the vice-president's predecessors ever made - and has been a traditional opening step for past presidential candidates.

Democrats have also taken note of Mr Pence's manoeuvres and are adjusting their fire accordingly.

"Mike Pence was a major player in the scandals enveloping the Trump administration, and no amount of spinning and leaking to reporters from him and his team can change that fact," writes Oliver Willis of the liberal website Shareblue.

There's no telling what Mr Trump, who prizes loyalty above all else, thinks of all this.

Reports are he's been angered in the past by aides, such as top White House adviser Steve Bannon, who have stepped too far into the limelight.

He famously said of Mr Comey in January that he had "become more famous than me" - then later justified sacking him by saying he was a "showboat" and a "grandstander".

There is of course one key difference between Mr Pence and anyone else working in the Trump administration.

The vice-president got his job through the will of American voters (or, at least, the Electoral College).

Mr Trump can't fire him.

More on this story