“Final yes-or-no question: Do you think it should be legal in the state of Indiana to discriminate against gays or lesbians?” a fed-up George Stephanopoulos asked Indiana Gov. Mike Pence in an ABC interview last March, in what was likely America’s first introduction to the man Donald Trump has now picked as his running mate.
“George!” said an exasperated Pence, who for the past ten minutes had danced around the truth that by signing the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law, business owners were free to discriminate against the LGBT community. “Hoosiers don’t believe in discrimination. Hoosier hospitality isn’t a slogan, it’s a reality!”
The exchange made headlines, but for Indiana journalists who have spent years covering Pence’s political career — he did 12 years in Congress, before becoming governor in 2013 — this episode was familiar. They knew what the rest of the U.S. political press corps is about to learn: that Pence is incapable of answering a question he does not like.
“I cannot emphasize enough how frustrating an experience it has been trying to cover Mike Pence,” Brandon Smith, the statehouse bureau chief for Indiana Public Broadcasting who has covered Pence since 2011, tells Rolling Stone. “I can remember vividly a press conference in which the big idea that Mike had put forward was that he wanted to reduce, or eliminate, the business personal property tax. We repeatedly asked about the specifics of what he wanted. Did he want to reduce it by some amount? Did he want to eliminate it entirely? And if so, how would he pay for that?” But even simple questions about Pence’s own policy proved fruitless.
“For a press conference that was 45 minutes long, at least 30 minutes were spent asking the same question over and over again,” says Smith.
“He’ll get a couple of sentences in his head, and he just repeats those,” says Chris Sikich, a government watchdog reporter with The Indianapolis Star who’s covered Pence since 2012. “It’s almost like he’s filibustering.”
Sikich had one such experience with Pence just last month, the day after the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Pence “was doing an economic development announcement in Carmel that I was covering the day after the shootings. He said something [like], ‘My thoughts and prayers go to the community down there,’ and the follow-up question I had to ask was, ‘The [Orlando shooting] wouldn’t be a hate crime in Indiana. Should it be?’
“He wouldn’t answer. He just kept saying, ‘My thoughts and prayers.'”
Question-dodging is hardly a unique trait among politicians, but even so, Indiana journalists see Pence’s habits as extreme. Perhaps signaling how their styles will meld on the campaign trail, Pence’s relationship with journalists is in keeping with Trump’s strategy for handling the press. For instance, last month CNN’s Jake Tapper had to ask Trump the same question 23 times.
With Trump’s selection of Pence, hopes die for a running mate capable of translating the presumptive nominee’s rhetoric — which often seems fueled more by conspiracy theories or mood swings than fact — into anything more concrete for a national audience heading into the general election. There won’t be any transparency coming to the Trump ticket.
“I can’t imagine [Pence’s] philosophy [in dealing with the press] is going to play well on the national stage,” says Sikich.
“Yeah, it’s going to be a difficult one for the media to get direct answers out of both of them,” says Zach Osowski, statehouse reporter for the Evansville Courier & Press, who has been covering Pence since his 2012 election and has experienced the typical Pence “canned response” on countless occasions. “He doesn’t deviate from the script.”
Asked if incidents like the 2015 Stephanopoulos interview indicate a lack of preparedness on Pence’s part, Smith says no. “It’s mostly because [answering the question] is not the philosophy of Mike Pence’s administration,” he says.
For a man who all but refuses to talk to reporters, Pence has spent a significant amount of taxpayer money on communications staff; this year he’s spending more than $385,000 for a four-member press department, according to Indiana’s Transparency Portal. The two top earners in that department were brought on in response to the Stephanopoulos interview PR disaster. The Pence administration also responded to that incident by announcing a plan to spend up to $2 million in state funds on national PR in an attempt to restore Indiana’s reputation as a welcoming state, according to a report by Dan Carden in the Times of Northwest Indiana.
And yet, the members of the governor’s press department aren’t a whole lot more helpful than their boss in terms of offering up information in a timely manner, some of the local reporters say. But, Smith says, “it’s because that’s what they’re getting from the top down. Dealing with Pence’s press department is often similar to dealing with Pence himself.”
(Pence’s office did not respond to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment.)
A piece of advice from Zach Osowski for national reporters getting ready to cover Pence’s every move between now and November: Exclusive interviews mean bupkis with him.
“This is something I’ve heard from reporters who have been at the statehouse a lot longer than I have. From what I’ve heard, even if you get an exclusive, he still won’t answer any of your direct questions,” he says.
“Maybe he’ll put on a different face for bigger networks. I guess we’ll see.”