"Four more years! Four more years!"
Vice President Mike Pence looked out over a red hat-clad crowd in sunny Lakeland, Florida, Saturday as they chanted in support of keeping him in the job he's held for nearly four years.
The event was full of support for the military and law enforcement, familiar talking points for conservatives seeking election and an ode to Americana.
He stood with Air Force Two in the distance and a massive American flag hung from a crane behind him. The flag was so large that it dragged the ground.
Pence delivered his familiar stump speech to this enthusiastic crowd, ending with his quip: "We will make America great again...again."
Vice President Mike Pence in front of Air Force 2. Credit: Megan Pratz
The crowd cheered him off as country music poured out of the speakers before he boarded Air Force Two for a quick trip across the state to his second event in Tallahassee.
But while he stumped on the trail, drama unfolded behind the scenes back in Washington. As the pool reporter for the vice president, I witnessed this happening in real time.
Earlier in the afternoon, before we left Joint Base Andrews, the home of Air Force One and Two, staffers trickled onto the plane. The scheduled departure time, 1:50 pm came and went with no sign of the vice president. Some staff members who had boarded the plane were not there when we ultimately took off — nearly two hours late. When the vice president arrived, he boarded Air Force Two alone, wearing a mask. When I traveled with him back in September, masks were an uncommon sight among him and his staff. Saturday marked a stark difference, a little more than a month later.
But later in the Sunshine State, the vice president projected the attitude of "business as usual" that is common at Team Trump campaign events.
When he stepped off Air Force Two and waved to the crowd, the mask was gone. When he was finished speaking, he stayed behind to wave and salute the crowd of supporters. Attendees in chairs were not socially distanced. Those who stood in the back were even less so. Masks were few and far between.
It is clear that there is excitement in Florida about a chance to re-elect President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in 2020. At one point, the crowd echoed calls of, "We love you, Mike!"
At our second stop in Tallahassee, a water-logged crowd had stood in the rain, some for hours, to see Pence. Here, Americana was on full display again as a pair of soaked American flags flew from twin cranes behind the stage. The speech remained roughly the same.
The crowd cheered in all the rights places, chanted "four more years," and booed the opposition.
As they listened, the drama continued to unfold in Washington. Bloomberg's Jennifer Jacobs broke the story that the vice president's political adviser tested positive for COVID-19.
We boarded Air Force Two, bound for home.
While we flew, with no access to wi-fi, the story continued to grow. Marc Short, the vice president's chief of staff, had also tested positive for the coronavirus. He was in quarantine, along with several staffers.
When we landed, I had messages from journalists looking to confirm the story. I had barely turned off airplane mode as I raced to get an on-the-record statement.
The vice president's office started to send its official comment to the press. Devin O'Malley, the vice president's press secretary, said this: "Today, Marc Short, chief of staff to the Vice President, tested positive for COVID-19, began quarantine and assisting in the contact tracing process. Vice President Pence and Mrs. Pence both tested negative for COVID-19 [Saturday], and remain in good health. While Vice President Pence is considered a close contact with Mr. Short, in consultation with the White House Medical Unit, the Vice President will maintain his schedule in accordance with the CDC guidelines for essential personnel."
It was after 10 pm and I had been on the road for nearly 10 hours. I hurried to get the official comment out while fielding questions about who was and was not on Air Force Two. Short was not. Other staffers who were seated when I boarded later did not fly with us.
I needed to get the vice president's press office to allow me to share off-the-record information on the record. Journalists rushed to file late on this Saturday. I wanted to drive home but also wanted to do my duty as a witness to this snapshot of this moment in history.
I answered emails and text messages and made phone calls from the parking lot at Joint Base Andrews. I finally got on the road after 11 pm.
The vice president, the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, deemed a close contact of several people who tested positive for COVID-19, would take off for North Carolina the next day. He plans to be on the road every day between now and the election.
The CDC recommends that he, and anyone who is a close contact with a COVID-positive person quarantine for 14 days. His office considers his work essential and he will remain at work.
However, in the final days before the election, he has no official events on his schedule. Just campaigning where he will continue to share his messaging about the economic might of the Trump Administration and the need for four more years. He'll continue to call the novel coronavirus the "China virus" in his standard stump speech as it works its way through his office. And he will continue to project an image of business as usual while COVID cases and hospitalizations continue to rise around the country.
Megan Pratz is Cheddar's Political Director based in Washington, DC.