Pence Trips Show Challenges Of Returning To Political Normal

Apr 28, 2020

Vice President Pence is slated to leave the confines of Washington twice this week — the latest in a series of trips the White House is using as test runs for President Trump to get back on the road after the coronavirus brought political travel to a screeching halt.

Pence will tour the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., on Tuesday and a GM ventilator plant in Kokomo, Ind., on Thursday. Last week, he visited a ventilator factory in Wisconsin — a key battleground state in the November presidential election. Last weekend, he gave the commencement address at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Trump is itching to get out of the White House. "I haven't left the White House in months," Trump said last week — a bit of an exaggeration, since he held a campaign rally as recently as March 2.

Trump plans to deliver the commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in June. The White House hasn't ruled out other trips in the meantime, as it seeks to showcase how America is turning a corner on the pandemic.

Air Force cadets toss their hats in the air after being commissioned at the graduation ceremony. Chalk lines on the field marked where cadets should stand to maintain social distancing.
David Zalubowski / AP

Pence's trips have demonstrated both the political and logistical hurdles the administration faces trying to return to some kind of new political normal.

A source familiar with the vice president's plans confirmed that Pence and Trump staffers are meeting regularly to talk about lessons they have learned from the Pence trips, such as new security and health protocols.

A Secret Service agent wears a mask as Air Force Two gets ready to leave Madison, Wis.
Morry Gash / AP

NPR accompanied Pence on his first two trips. There were several new safety protocols evident. For example, at Andrews Air Force Base, masked officers in camouflage took the temperatures of passengers traveling with Pence and made sure no one showed symptoms of the virus.

Inside the terminal, almost everyone wears face masks, from those scanning bags to the officers who drive the truck carrying the stairs for Pence to board Air Force Two. Some seating was staggered on the plane to reduce contact, though passengers were closer than the recommended 6 feet.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis wears a mask with the state's flag as he greets Pence in Colorado Springs.
David Zalubowski / AP

Pence did not wear a mask. But Colorado Gov. Jared Polis was wearing one when he greeted Pence at the airport. They bumped elbows instead of shaking hands.

The Air Force Academy band, some also wearing masks, played on. But without the cheering crowds and doting parents, it felt more like a dress rehearsal. The cadets dressed in blue-and-white uniforms marched to their seats, all spaced 8 feet apart.

Cadets practicing social distancing march to their seats to start the graduation ceremony at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
David Zalubowski / AP

In Madison, at the GE plant, factory workers who met Pence had their temperatures checked beforehand. An extra long table was brought out for a panel discussion so participants could spread out.

The factory visit was a chance for Pence to praise employees who have been working around the clock to boost production — and it was also an opportunity to show progress and push back on criticism from some governors for a slow response in medical supplies for the virus.

It was also an opportunity to show things are on the way to getting back to normal.

Pence talks with employees as he tours a GE ventilator plant in Madison, Wis.
Kamil Krzaczynski / AFP via Getty Images

The choice of locations is also significant, said Johanna Maska, who helped organize and run trips for the Obama White House. Wisconsin is a swing state critical to winning the November presidential election.

"This White House has never shied away from making political statements in virtually everything that they do," said Maska, who is now CEO of the Global Situation Room, a communications and consulting firm.

"They're going to be trying to figure out how they can get President Trump traveling again," Maska said. "That is without a doubt, because every president wants to be able to travel."

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