Mike Pence's mystery turnaround remains unexplained — and it's creating a tone of WTF in Washington

Mike Pence's mystery turnaround remains unexplained — and it's creating a tone of WTF in Washington
Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen

Why did Mike Pence’s abrupt turnaround and retreat to Washington yesterday seem like such an emergency? As CNN reports, that’s not hard to explain. Pence was supposed to be heading for a speech in New Hampshire when his spokesman stepped to the microphone to inform those waiting there that “I do have some bad news at this point. Air Force Two was headed this way, there's been an emergency."

And with that, Pence retreated to Washington. Or he never left Washington. Or—even that part of the story isn’t clear.

Since then, the reason for Pence’s Retreat has turned from a momentary puzzle into an ongoing head-scratcher. Did someone worry that the burning Russian submarine was part of a Red October scenario that might require Pence, and Mother, to be present in the war room? Did Donald Trump just decide that he didn’t like the idea of Pence being in New Hampshire on his own in advance of the 2020 election? Was there a scare involving a chicken nugget passing down the royal gullet in the wrong way?

The failure of the White House to provide any kind of answer—except that it might be “weeks” before there was an answer—only served to turn this event from a “huh” to a minor obsession that has run behind every administration story overnight. A flurry of tweets from Trump’s account with suspiciously good spelling didn’t help.

Pence’s office has declared that the emergency rewrite of the schedule had nothing to do with Pence’s health. Nothing to do with Trump’s health. Nothing to do with national security. In fact, they’ve declared that this “emergency” was “no cause for alarm.” Which seems to represent a sort of … definitional problem. As that staffer in New Hampshire put it, “We'll just ask that you all calmly go ahead and have all of you leave the room.”

Making things even more mysterious is Pence’s official schedule for Wednesday. Which contains nothing. Nothing at all.

Some sources have indicated that the problem wasn’t with Pence, but with the planned speech on the opioid crisis at the Granite Recovery Center in Salem. That suggests that the emergency might have been discovering that the operators of the center did not own any red hats, or had once said something Trump believed to be unfavorable. But if that’s the case, neither Pence’s office nor Trump’s has made it clear.

The White House has tried to downplay the not-an-emergency by noting that Pence had not even left the ground, which is true and not true. Air Force Two was apparently still on the ground when the turnaround order came, but Pence had already climbed aboard a helicopter and departed the Naval Observatory, so the trip was underway, and advance elements of Pence’s security detail were already out of town.

The last-minute cancellation required that Secret Service agents whip up an impromptu motorcade to hustle Pence to the White House. Where he could deal with … whatever it was that had to be dealt with. But the simple fact that Pence was hurried off the plane, inserted into a limo, and driven straight to the White House seems to be at odds with the idea that there was simply some snafu at the New Hampshire end of the trip.

What does seem to fit is this simple fact: Donald Trump was not seen at all on Tuesday. He didn’t conduct any yelling matches with reporters on the White House lawn. He didn’t make any calls to Fox to talk up his Fourth of July event. And despite some overnight tweets—several of which were clearly canned text, or consisted of retweeting images—Trump has continued to be invisible on Wednesday morning.

That doesn’t necessarily point to a crisis of either the nugget variety or the “Would you please sign here according to the 25th Amendment?” sort. But everything seems to suggest that there’s more at work here than all the nothing-to-see that Pence’s office has been waving around.

On the other hand, Trump is constantly looking for ways to distract the public. A rumor that something dire had happened during “executive time” would certainly serve as a distraction … though its effects on how the nation celebrates the Fourth might not be what Trump had in mind.

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