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In coronavirus fight, Mike Pence is caught between Trump and a hard place

U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence decided silence was the way to go.

Soon after U.S. President Donald Trump asked him to lead the U.S. government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, Pence was on the phone with Washington’s Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, whose state is at the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S.

Inslee told Pence that it would be best if the Trump administration “stuck to the science and told the truth” on the mounting public health crisis — and broadcast his prickly advice on Twitter.

But when the vice-president travelled to Washington state Thursday, Pence opted not to punch back at Inslee — to the dismay of Trump. Instead, Pence heaped compliments on the governor for helping federal and state officials collaborate in a “seamless way.”

As the virus continues to spread through U.S. communities and ravage the stock market, Trump and Pence have been a study in contrasts in their public response.

Trump grumbles that Democrats and the news media are needlessly fueling panic and has a ready retort for any critic. Pence, for his part, walks a fine line — doling out frequent praise for the boss’s performance, taking pains to avoid contradicting Trump’s questionable public health pronouncements and trying to foster bipartisan co-operation for a “whole of America” approach to containing the virus.

It’s a huge moment for Pence — arguably the biggest since Trump picked him to be his vice-presidential candidate.

If he can help Trump contain the outbreak and steady the stock market, it could have an immense impact not just on public health and the economy, but on the president’s reelection bid, and in the process elevate his own standing for a potential 2024 run. A botched response, too, could have enormous implications for Trump and Pence politically and for the spread of the virus.

Pence has scaled back — but not ended — his political travel to deal with the virus. But Trump aides believe the vice-president’s task force role gives the president more leeway to maintain his own political travel during a crucial part of the election year, when he’s trying to take advantage of divisions in the Democratic field to boost his campaign in November.

Trump continues to play down concerns about the virus, advising Americans to “be calm” and that “it will go away.” He also frequently takes credit for saving lives by acting early on to restrict travel to the U.S. from China.

Pence avoids publicly contradicting Trump but speaks more soberly about the impact as members of his coronavirus team caution that the virus could continue to spread in the U.S. before health officials are able to develop vaccines and therapies.

Pence’s tight spot — wedged between the medical experts and the president — was fully evident Friday.

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