WASHINGTON — The New York Times kicked a hornet’s nest with a story suggesting that Vice President Mike Pence is cultivating his own base of support, with an eye toward a 2020 run if President Donald Trump doesn’t seek a second term (or is irreparably weakened.) Knowing that the wrath of the narcissist in chief would be coming, Pence rushed to deny that he was anything but a loyal VP. He put out an unusual statement insisting, “Today’s article in The New York Times is disgraceful and offensive to me, my family, and our entire team. The allegations in this article are categorically false and are just the latest attempt by the media to divide this Administration.”


The problem, however, is that Pence HAS been meeting with donors, HAS been creating an independent power base (as the Times reported), HAS hired a politically combatant chief of staff and HAS been the main channel of communication between Trump and Republicans on the Hill. The only real question is whether he is doing these things on behalf of Trump - or his own political ambition. (Very likely, it is some combination of the two.) It’s impossible to say definitively what Pence’s motives are, which only fuels Trump’s well-known paranoia and hatred of being upstaged. Moreover, it doesn’t help reassure the president if, as was reported, Pence’s aides are whispering about being ready if Trump doesn’t make it to 2020. (Trump’s Monday attacks on the Times most likely reflected his annoyance with seeing his VP’s profile rise.)


Several aspects of the situation deserve scrutiny.


First, Trump was the one who chose a younger VP (Pence is a vigorous 58, Trump an indolent 71), a well-liked political figure with possible presidential aspirations of his own. He could instead have decided on the model used by presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. They picked vice presidents who played the role of seasoned veteran and counselor but who wouldn’t be tempted to plot their own presidential runs. In failing to imagine that his VP might become a rival, more popular and reassuring than he, Trump set himself up for this very situation.


Second, in point of fact, if Trump is removed, has to leave office or is unable to run in 2020 because of his failed first term, Pence won’t be in a great position either. Look at the experience of Hubert Humphrey in 1968, who bore the criticism of his boss after Lyndon Johnson decided not to run again. Pence, having endorsed and fawned over Trump, won’t be able to escape responsibility if Trump’s presidency goes down in flames. At the very least, Pence would be guilty of making a huge misjudgment about Trump’s ability and character. The best-case scenario is that Trump’s presidency makes a stunning rebound - but Trump decides not to run in 2020. (How likely is the first half of that, let alone both?)


Finally, for his sake and that of the country, the best thing Pence could do would be to stay far away from anything having to do with the special counsel or the Russia scandal. (Having vouched for the phony explanation for Michael Flynn’s firing as national security adviser, he’s in an awkward enough position.) I share entirely the view of the Lawfare blog’s legal gurus, who recently warned Pence in an open letter:


“Your boss is completely out of control. You know this, probably better than we do. You know that he is incapable of controlling his behavior and could lash out at any moment in a fashion that could be ruinous. You know that’s true even if there’s nothing to all those Russia allegations. And you know that all those denials - including the ones to your face - have proved false. You know, in other words, that it could happen. And if it does, you will face the monumental task of leading a fractured country forward out of the wreckage. The time to begin preparing for that moment is now.”


In other words, Pence would be wise to be less overtly political, entirely silent on Trump’s legal problems and focused on preparing himself in the event that he must step into the presidency before 2020. Come to think of it, that might be the only way Pence gets to be president.


Jennifer Rubin is a Washington Post columnist.