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Is Mike Pence preparing to resign, assume the presidency, or both?
Since his selection as Donald Trump's running mate, many people believe that Mike Pence has been mired in the throes of PTSD - in this case, an acronym for "President Trump Stress Disorder."
That is not to say that the vice president does not strongly support the president. He most certainly does. It's just that Pence also seems to have a terminal case of whiplash as he snaps his head around time and again to witness the next shoe dropping, about or from the president.
Pence is the poster child of a reserved, traditional, button-down politician. Trump at times appears to consider these traits a weakness, counter to the persona he needs to push to protect his name, policies and legacy against the entrenched elites in the mainstream media and political parties who have sought to take him down since day one.
Connected Republicans in Washington and in Indiana - Pence's home state, where he was governor and a U.S. House member - have told me that they wonder if the never-ending drip, drip, drip of current events combined with this contrast in style, temperament and judgment between the two leaders is wearing down the vice president.
The fact is, no vice president in recent memory has had to deal with the daily uncertainty that swirls around Pence: the impeachment of his boss, the barrage of investigations, the accusations against Trump and partisan investigations.
And those on the left, in the "Never Trump" world, still openly salivate at the thought of somehow removing the president via the 25th Amendment. Were that political pipe dream ever to come about, Pence would become our 46th president.
Except, add to the mix of these challenging scenarios the fact that there is open talk among some Republicans that unless Pence is replaced by someone else of stature - such as frequently mentioned former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley - Trump may well be the last Republican president for the foreseeable future.
Aside from that stinging rebuke from within the entrenched GOP establishment, you have the left's continual attacks upon Pence - some of them truly despicable, involving his faith, his family and personal life.
Through that darkening fog of chaos, criticism and uncertainty, the process of presidential succession flashes like a neon sign on steroids. It's a process that duty and reality have forced Pence to focus upon.
The U.S. Constitution spells it out simply in Article II, Section 1, Clause 6: "In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President."
Leaving aside that his boss is only the third U.S. president to face an impeachment trial, Pence undoubtedly knew long before that burst of partisan revenge that nine vice presidents have been elevated to the Office of President because of a president's death or resignation. From the start, Pence, like any vice president, had only one real job: For the good of the nation, he must be prepared to step into the presidency immediately. That is Politics 101.
Now, Pence is navigating something dramatically removed from the basics - a world where meetings behind closed doors, whispered conversations, promised new positions and suspect loyalties are the norm. It's an atmosphere you'd expect to find created by murder mystery author Agatha Christie or Italian diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli more so than our Founding Fathers.
For three years, Pence also has served as president of the Senate, and he knows all about those closed-door meetings, whispered conversations and changing loyalties. More than that, he understands that precisely because of his roles, he is far from an impartial observer. Pence is one heartbeat - or one conviction - away from the presidency and realizes that, like it or not, he is standing at the edge of making history.
Several years ago, I had the honor of meeting then-Gov. Pence at a private home in Florida, where we spoke at some length over a cup of coffee. He came across as advertised: kind, respectful, dignified, decent and highly informed.
The cliché tells us that "nice guys finish last." Mike Pence is indeed a nice guy, yet one who knows how to survive the often brutal political arena. With the Senate trial - and more cracks appearing and then being patched in the foundation of solidarity beneath Trump - Pence knows that more whispered conversations are taking place.
Some are wondering whether all of this will cause Pence to decline to serve as vice president in a second Trump term. They believe Pence has no chance to be elected president on his own and that, sometime after the Senate trial, he will opt for a private sector life of normalcy, family and faith. Should that be the case, who could fault him?
Douglas MacKinnon, a political and communications consultant, was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former special assistant for policy and communications at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration.