The quick dismissal of Mr. Lerner was widely seen as a brushback against Mr. Pence and Mr. Ayers, a way for Mr. Trump’s advisers to signal that they were closely watching the vice president’s office. Two senior White House officials said the Lerner episode made Mr. Trump more acutely aware of what these aides described as Mr. Pence’s empire-building.
Tensions also flared last year, after Mr. Ayers and another Pence aide were reported to have made suggestive comments to Republican donors about planning for an unpredictable 2020 election. Most brazenly, Marty Obst, a senior Pence adviser, told a Republican donor that Mr. Pence wanted to be prepared for the next presidential race in case there was an opening.
For now, Mr. Pence and his aides have found a yawning opening within the West Wing, as Mr. Trump’s principal political aides spend much of their time managing his impulses and vying with each other, instead of overseeing the party and this year’s campaign. While past vice presidents, like Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Dick Cheney, have played important roles maintaining the political coalitions of their ticket-mates, neither man wielded Mr. Pence’s independent influence over an administration’s political network and agenda.
Steering Mr. Pence’s strategy is Mr. Ayers, a 35-year-old operative who is the subject of the most pointed criticism from Trump stalwarts. Mr. Ayers regularly joins Mr. Pence in meetings with the president and has told associates that if aides in the West Wing cannot stay on top of things, his office will step up, White House officials said.
Mr. Ayers again unsettled skeptics in the West Wing this month by poaching a politically savvy aide to Mr. Trump, William Kirkland, to join the Pence team. Mr. Kirkland ran Senator David Perdue’s 2014 campaign in Georgia, and Trump officials believe he will effectively run a shadow political office for Mr. Pence, a setup unheard-of so soon into a new administration.
Mr. Pence’s team is aware of the unease within the White House, and Mr. Ayers recently told one Republican ally that one reason Mr. Pence is so effusive in his public remarks about Mr. Trump — he has recently hailed Mr. Trump as a “champion” for conservatives and branded the recent tax cuts a “Trump bonus” for America — is to tamp down questions about his loyalty.
Alyssa Farah, a spokeswoman for Mr. Pence, said in an email that the vice president’s activities were planned in “close coordination” with Mr. Trump and congressional leaders. She said they had formulated a 2018 campaign plan at a Camp David retreat in January and followed the blueprint since then.