Trump flying by the seat of his Pence
US Vice-President intends to stand by President despite growing troubles
WASHINGTON United States Vice-President Mike Pence, 58, is the loyal wingman, the ever-discreet figure who rises above the Washington fray.
But as the Russia scandal encroaches ever further on President Donald Trump, Mr Pence is walking a political tightrope.
The former governor of Indiana is the man closest to the US presidency - either as Mr Trump's immediate successor should his term end prematurely, or as his heir apparent.
As the troubles of his boss grow deeper by the day, ensnared in a widening investigation into his campaign ties to Russia, experts said Mr Pence remains compelled to stand by his man - at least for now.
"Pence is in a very difficult position," Professor Joel Goldstein, an expert on the vice-presidency at Saint Louis University School of Law, told AFP.
"A VP is expected to be loyal to the president, but President Trump imposes a heavy burden on his subordinates by saying and doing things that often are hard to defend."
The two men could not be more different; where Mr Trump likes to blur ideological lines, Mr Pence is a committed Christian conservative, as stiff and disciplined as his boss is exuberant and unpredictable.
While Mr Trump tweets about a high-stakes healthcare bill, it is Mr Pence who has been shuttling between the White House and Congress to rescue the imperilled legislation.
In Mr Trump's turbulent Washington, Mr Pence is seen as the administration's steadying force, the "axe behind the glass you're supposed to break in case of emergency", as The Daily Beast news website put it.
Mr Pence offered a glimpse of what it is like on the Trump roller coaster as No. 2 to arguably the most controversial US leader in modern times.
"You need to keep your arms and legs in the ride at all times," he told student leaders at the American University.
"Pull the roll bar down, because you just got to hang on."
Yet, Mr Pence has taken low-key steps that suggest he is laying the groundwork for his political future.
In an unusual move, two of his close advisers founded a political action committee, The New York Times reported.
He has also begun hosting Republican mega-donors at his Washington residence.
However remote the prospect of impeachment by the Republican-controlled Congress, the Russia cloud will not dissipate.
Should Mr Trump eventually be forced from office, Mr Pence would become the 10th VP to assume the presidency without being elected - the first since the Watergate scandal in 1974.
When Mr Donald Trump Jr recently acknowledged he and campaign aides met a Russian lawyer last year in hopes of getting dirt on Mr Trump's Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, Mr Pence distanced himself from the issue.
"He is not focused on stories about the campaign, particularly stories about the time before he joined the ticket," said a statement from his office.
Yet, Mr Pence's close ties to the president - last month he said serving with Mr Trump has been "the greatest privilege of my life" - may prove a burden.
On whether Mr Pence would survive any Trump fallout, Mr Goldstein said: "None of the last seven vice-presidents have been so willing to be so sycophantic in their praise and have said so many significant things that later turned out to be untrue." - AFP