RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Vice President Mike Pence has been praised by evangelical leaders for his positions on abortion and religious freedom. And he has stood by President Trump in situations that have made the same evangelicals squirm. Journalist McKay Coppins has tried to make sense of this in his profile of Vice President Pence in the latest issue of The Atlantic. It is titled "God's Plan For Mike Pence." McKay Coppins joins us in our studio. Thanks so much for coming in.
MCKAY COPPINS: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: I want to start the conversation by just reading the opening line of this piece. It says as follows - quote, "no man can serve two masters, the Bible teaches, but Mike Pence is giving it his all." There's a lot packed into that first line.
COPPINS: Right. Well, I mean, this, I think, gets at the heart of the contradiction of Mike Pence. And this came up throughout all the conversations I had with people around him. He is, by all accounts, a man of genuine faith. He goes all the way back to his youth. He grew up Catholic, converted to evangelical Christianity in college. This is core to his identity and who he is. And it's also kind of tangled up in his personal ambition. And he is a man, like a lot of evangelical Christians in this country, who had to make a choice last year during the election about how they could reconcile their faith with Donald Trump as the Republican nominee. And he went all in.
And it's been great for his career. But there are questions still among the people who know him about whether he's kind of, in their words, sold his soul.
MARTIN: So you, in your reporting, talked with a lot of people who knew Mike Pence when he was younger. What did you learn about who he was then that helped explain how he ended up being Donald Trump's running mate?
COPPINS: Well, I mean, a lot of them are frankly - a lot of the people I talked to are frankly surprised that he ended up where he is. But the one thing that has come through all the way from his - you know, since his frat days in college - I talked to one of his former frat brothers who said, even back then, we all knew that he wanted to be president someday. He was exceedingly ambitious, maybe even a little calculating. That's not something that necessarily comes through in his public persona but because he's so, you know, humble and kind of has this aw-shucks folksiness.
But in his heart of hearts, he is genuinely very ambitious and believes that he is kind of on a divine mission, that his role in this world is to push forward God's will. And he thinks he can do that through politics.
MARTIN: We should say, though, a lot of politicians are like that.
MARTIN: I mean, Barack Obama, you read memoirs from Barack Obama, he believed he had a role, he believed this was his path.
COPPINS: Yeah, no question. The debate that's happening - and this is happening throughout the religious right in Christianity in this country right now - is how far are you willing to go? What compromises are you willing to make to be able to get to that position of power? Because every day, he's put in a position, Mike Pence, where he has to apologize for or justify or rationalize something the president's done. And that makes a lot of his Christian friends and Christian colleagues kind of squirm a little bit.
MARTIN: You write about this seminal moment in the campaign when this tension really was crystallized for Mike Pence. This is the leak of the "Access Hollywood" tapes. But this didn't just give Mike Pence pause about being on Trump's ticket. You found out it did something much more.
COPPINS: Yeah, this was actually a moment where his, I think, ambition really manifested itself. I'm told by several Republicans who are familiar with this situation that he didn't only consider dropping out of the race or dropping from the ticket. Pence actually considered a coup of sorts, basically. He made clear to the Republican National Committee in the hours after that tape came out that he was ready to take Trump's place at the top of the ticket.
MARTIN: Wow - with Condoleezza Rice as a running mate.
COPPINS: The idea that Reince Priebus floated during a meeting with Trump and others in the campaign, I'm told, was the ticket would be Mike Pence and Condoleezza Rice as the running mate.
MARTIN: Obviously that didn't happen.
MARTIN: What caused Pence to back down?
COPPINS: Well, what's interesting is if you flashback to that time in the campaign, 48 hours after the tape came out, Trump showed up to this debate in St. Louis and had a bunch of women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct and kind of turned things around. It was kind of a circus. It was very, you know - it was a crazy moment in the campaign that turned things around. And Mike Pence kind of backed down. But it raises questions about how loyal he'll be to the president going forward.
MARTIN: On that, would he ever consider running against Donald Trump in 2020?
COPPINS: That's the $64,000 question. I don't know, but certainly a lot of people in Pence's orbit think he could consider it or at least consider doing something to undermine the president at some point.
MARTIN: Stay tuned. McKay Coppins, journalist whose piece "God's Plan For Mike Pence," appears in the latest issue of The Atlantic. McKay, thanks.
COPPINS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.