Vice President Mike Pence pauses while speaking at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce during their "Invest in America!" Summit, Thursday, May 18, 2017, in Washington. (Alex Brandon / AP)
Mike Pence would like you to know that Mike Pence is not involved in any of this. At least that appears to be the message coming from Pence’s allies, and perhaps the vice president himself, as the Trump White House reels from a series of interlocking scandals that threaten all manner of political peril, even potentially an impeachment or resignation that could make Pence the president of the United States.
All of a sudden we’re seeing a wave of articles in which anonymous sources close to Pence tell reporters that he’s completely out of the loop, to use the phrase that then-Vice President George H.W. Bush uttered so memorably when claiming his innocence in the Iran-Contra scandal. But can we believe it? And even if it’s true, isn’t that nearly as much of an indictment of Pence?
Let’s begin with this report from NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard:
"Vice President Mike Pence has been kept in the dark about former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn’s alleged wrongdoing, according to a source close to the administration, who cited a potential ‘pattern’ of not informing the vice president and calling it ‘malpractice or intentional, and either are unacceptable.’ "
Nobody tells him anything! How can he possibly have any culpability for administration wrongdoing when he’s barely involved in any of this running-the-government stuff? Sources close to Pence would also like you to know that "Pence was not consulted about the decision to bring on Flynn as the national security adviser in November." I barely know the guy, I tell ya.
You’ll recall that Flynn was supposedly fired because he told Pence that he didn’t discuss the potential easing of sanctions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak when he and the ambassador talked multiple times during the campaign, a lie that Pence then repeated to the press. This affront to Pence’s honor was so profound that President Trump had no choice but to give Flynn the boot. But that’s not all.
Flynn was paid half a million dollars to lobby on behalf of Turkey while he was advising the Trump campaign, and in January, on the advice of his lawyer, he retroactively registered as the agent of a foreign government. Though Flynn informed the Trump transition’s legal team of this fact, Pence says that no one told him, despite the fact that he was in charge of the transition.
Pence claimed in March to have just found out about Flynn’s work for Turkey. Yet Rep. Elijah Cummings, Md., the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, sent Pence a letter on Nov. 18 going into considerable detail about Flynn’s Turkey connection. As of yesterday, Pence was standing by his assertion that he only learned about it in March.
As leader of the transition, it was Pence’s job to make sure that things such as appointing a national security adviser with troubling ties to foreign governments didn’t happen. So his defense in the Flynn matter comes down to: I was doing a terrible job leading the transition and had no idea what was going on.
That then brings us to the matter of FBI Director James B. Comey’s firing. Like other administration officials, immediately after the firing Pence went to reporters and claimed that Trump decided to fire Comey because he was following the recommendation of the Justice Department, offered in the form of a memo written by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein. Or, as Pence put it:
"The President took strong and decisive leadership here to put the safety and the security of the American people first by accepting the recommendation of the deputy attorney general to remove Director Comey as the head of the FBI."
We quickly learned, however, that Trump intended to fire Comey all along. Trump said so in an interview with NBC, and Rosenstein confirmed it to senators yesterday when he told them that he was instructed to write the memo after being told that Comey would be fired.
So the initial White House line was a lie, which was only corrected once Trump blurted out the truth. Did Pence know? I refer you to this Politico article from a week ago:
"Pence, who hasn’t assumed the traditional role of power player in the White House but is liked by many, signaled support for the decision [to fire Comey], said one adviser to the president.
" ‘Pence knew this wasn’t about Rosenstein writing a memo, the president seeing it and suddenly deciding to fire Comey,’ said this person. ‘He knows better than that.’
"Pence allies on Wednesday said the vice president was merely pointing to the factual turn of events: Rosenstein sent a memo on Tuesday recommending Comey’s dismissal, Attorney General Jeff Sessions seconded the opinion and Trump made the move. Pence had not specifically addressed who initiated the whole process, one noted."
In other words, if you parse Pence’s words carefully enough, you can come up with an interpretation in which he was being technically accurate despite giving an intentionally misleading impression. That’s what we call leadership, I guess.
Let’s recall that Pence, with 12 years in Congress and four as governor of Indiana, was supposed to be the steady hand that would guide Trump through the ways of Washington and the complexities of governing. According to at least some reports, the two men are in regular communication ("Lobbyists who set up meetings between Pence and their clients must warn them that the vice president may be an hour and a half late or have to leave after 10 minutes because Trump is constantly calling him into the Oval Office to confer with him.") But if his job was to keep things working efficiently and effectively, he’s obviously failing.
And now Pence has another priority. Anyone who has gone to work in this administration risks being tainted with its excesses, its incompetence and its corruption. No one is more at risk than Pence, who plainly harbors presidential ambitions of his own — and might even become president without having to run for the job. So the steady narrative coming from Pence associates — that he has nothing to do with the parade of horrors issuing from the administration — could be an attempt to inoculate him for some later date when he has to stand before the voters on his own. Sure, I was there, he may say, but I really wasn’t involved with that catastrophe.
If Pence thinks that argument is going to fly, he’s got another thing coming.
Paul Waldman is a contributor to The Plum Line blog, and a senior writer at The American Prospect.
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