Mike Pence might be the most enigmatic figure in the executive branch. Notwithstanding his team-spirited demeanor, professions of loyalty, and message discipline, he was never really the MAGA-type. The vice president fits a more traditional Republican mold.
He supports free markets and free trade. He’s been outspoken in opposition to tyranny abroad. His record defending life, religious liberty (for all religions), and the constitutional right to bear arms is distinguished. The career of Mike Pence is in many ways a testament to a “fusionist” pact that unites national security, economic, and social conservatives.
The president could do worse than to listen to him more often.
Vice President Pence has quarterbacked the American response to the deepening crisis in Venezuela, rallying allies and signaling support for opposition leader Juan Guaidó. While the outcome of the uprising remains to be determined, the administration’s Venezuela policy has been managed prudently—under the guidance of the vice president and special envoy Elliott Abrams — and it aligns with both our interests and values. One hopes the president, who reportedly called Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro a “tough cookie,” doesn’t go wobbly.
Pence worked tirelessly to forge a compromise spending deal last December, balancing the president’s political interest in funding his long-promised border wall against other national priorities. When a deal was in grasp, the president, bowing to demagogic outside voices, carelessly discarded the vice president’s efforts, leading to a pointless and self-defeating shutdown.
And when the president threw caution to the wind, overruling the advice of numerous senior officials not to seek total repeal of the Affordable Care Act in the courts, the vice president was among the dissenters. Again, we don’t know how this will play out, but judging by the reaction by Hill Republicans, it looks like Pence got this one right too.
When Donald J. Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016, some conservatives decided—as a matter of principle—that they could not support the presidential ticket.
While the decision by some conservatives to withhold support for Trump has been vindicated, others—men and women of honor—took a different path. Recognizing that there was more at stake than the occupant of the White House, people like James Mattis, Rex Tillerson, Jeff Sessions, H.R. McMaster, Don McGahn, Gary Cohn, and Dina Powell heeded the call. There can be little doubt that the country is better for their dutiful service.
But they’re all gone. Officials motivated by a higher calling are being replaced with has-beens, toadies, incompetents, and charlatans.
The case for a primary challenge to the president is, if you’ll pardon the expression, unimpeachable. The Republican Party is in danger of sacrificing its fidelity to conservatism, the U.S. Constitution, and the American creed at the altar of a personality cult. If this is the direction the party wishes to take, it should do so in the open, and only after a robust and honest debate.
However, the report of special counsel Robert Mueller is a wild card, presenting Washington with a unique and unpredictable moment. And as the House of Representatives launches investigations that will take us through the spring and summer — possibly leading to impeachment proceedings in the fall — the vice president will find himself in a peculiar, even dangerous, position.
He might also find opportunity.
For a sense of what’s to come, note this event from last month. Senators Chuck Grassley and Ron Johnson sent a letter to the attorney general, asking that the Department of Justice investigate an alleged “attempt by the FBI to conduct surveillance of President-elect Trump’s transition team.” What caught the eye of many Trump supporters was this text message from former FBI official Peter Strzok:
Strzok: If Katie’s husband is there, he can see if there are people we can develop for potential relationships.
The texts and sources reveal that Strzok had one significant contact within the White House – Vice President Mike Pence’s Chief of Staff Joshua Pitcock, whose wife [Katie] was working as an analyst for Strzok on the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server.
Carter goes on to imply that the vice president’s office may have used Pitcock as a back-channel to the FBI.
During the time Pitcock served as chief of staff, [then-National Security Advisor] Flynn became the highest profile target of the now debunked investigation into the campaign.
Was the vice president secretly working with the “deep state” against Michael Flynn? Inquiring minds want to know.
For his part, Pence felt compelled to respond forcefully to the senators’ letter, telling Axios:
I was deeply offended to learn that two disgraced FBI agents considered infiltrating our transition team by sending a counter intelligence agent to one of my very first intelligence briefings only 9 days after the election.
So is VP Pence denying that he knew his chief of staff was married to Peter Strozk's assistant? Or is he denying that his aide set up the meeting with McCabe with doctored 302s that led to Flynn's ouster? Or both? https://t.co/VVGnq39jy9
— Emerald Robinson ✝️ (@EmeraldRobinson) April 27, 2019
The president would be correct to wonder if there would even be a special counsel if not for Michael Flynn. The former national security adviser’s pre-inauguration communications with the Russian ambassador, which effectively undermined U.S. efforts to respond to Russian election interference, were inappropriate and may have been illegal. His deception about those contacts — to the FBI, the vice president-elect, the chief of staff, and the press secretary — exposed him to blackmail. The president’s later attempts to interfere with the investigation into those contacts opened him to a federal investigation, and may lead to his impeachment.
The vice president must have wondered why Michael Flynn lied to him about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. According to the special counsel, Flynn’s deputy K.T. McFarland was informed in real time. Was the president himself in the loop? Circumstantial evidence presented in the Mueller report suggests he may have been. (Emphasis mine.)
McFarland had spoken with incoming Administration officials about the [Obama Administration-announced] sanctions and Russia’s possible responses and thought she had mentioned in those conversations that Flynn was scheduled to speak with Kislyak. Based on those conversations, McFarland informed Flynn that incoming Administration officials at Mar-a-Lago did not want Russia to escalate the situation. At 4:43 p.m. that afternoon, McFarland sent an email to several officials about the sanctions and informed the group that “Gen [F]lynn is talking to russian ambassador this evening.”
Approximately one hour later, McFarland met with the President-Elect and senior officials and briefed them on the sanctions and Russia’s possible responses. Incoming Chief of Staff Reince Priebus recalled that McFarland may have mentioned at the meeting that the sanctions situation could be “cooled down” and not escalated. McFarland recalled that at the end of the meeting, someone may have mentioned to the President-Elect that Flynn was speaking to the Russian Ambassador that evening. McFarland did not recall any response by the President-Elect. Priebus recalled that the President-Elect viewed the sanctions as an attempt by the Obama Administration to embarrass him by delegitimizing his election.
It’s evident that senior officials on the Trump transition team, if not the president himself, knew about Flynn’s discussions about sanctions with the Russian ambassador. But why did Flynn lie to the vice president? Is it because Flynn feared Pence would have seen his actions as contrary to the national interest?
On January 26, 2017, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed the president’s inner circle about Flynn’s deception of both the FBI and senior officials. Yet as the Mueller report describes, no immediate action was taken. The false information relayed to the public by Vice President Pence and Press Secretary Sean Spicer was allowed to stand.
Conspiracy-minded defenders of the president will zero in on what happened next. As described by the Mueller report: (again, emphasis mine)
On February 9, 2017, the Washington Post reported that Flynn discussed sanctions with Kislyak the month before the President took office. After the publication of that story, Vice President Pence learned of the Department of Justice’s notification to the White House about the content of Flynn’s calls. He and other advisors then sought access to and reviewed the underlying information about Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak. FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who provided the White House officials access to the information and was present when they reviewed it, recalled the officials asking him whether Flynn’s conduct violated the Logan Act…
After reviewing the materials and speaking with Flynn, McGahn and Priebus concluded that Flynn should be terminated and recommended that course of action to the President.
Here we have a vice president who, having been betrayed and deceived, meets with FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe to learn the truth about Flynn’s actions. Pence and others then use the information obtained from the FBI to call for the national security adviser’s firing. Recall that Trump later accused McCabe of “treason” for “plotting a coup” against him.
“The biggest abuse of power and corruption scandal in our history, and it’s much worse than we thought. Andrew McCabe (FBI) admitted to plotting a coup (government overthrow) when he was serving in the FBI, before he was fired for lying & leaking.” @seanhannity @FoxNews Treason!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 19, 2019
In his book The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump, McCabe expressed appreciation for the vice president, calling Pence “a gentleman. And manners count for a lot.” Also note the former FBI official’s description of the vice president’s demeanor when he learns about Flynn’s treachery.
McCabe describes Pence reading the FBI briefing materials on Flynn's lies: "Immediately his face changed. His expression turned very cold. It hardened … His head shook, but barely — tiny shakes of no … He said a few things along the lines of I can't believe this." P. 203
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) February 19, 2019
This may not have been the end of the vice president’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering against Flynn. As reported by veteran investigative journalist Murray Waas, when Pence and senior aides asked Trump to fire his national security adviser, he “refused to commit to doing so.”
To the vice president, his chief of staff, and the White House counsel, the president’s refusal to fire Flynn was inexplicable. Priebus, McGahn, and a White House attorney named John Eisenberg, who had listened to the intercepts six days earlier, were concerned that Trump was protecting Flynn, and speculated among themselves and with their subordinates that this might be because the president knew in advance of Flynn’s dubious, back-channel diplomacy with Russia, or had even authorized it. Priebus and McGahn then shared their views with Pence. Their concerns were intensified because if this was the case, Flynn had significant leverage over Trump, even the power to subtly blackmail him, to keep his job.
Indeed, it would take several more days and a bombshell report in the Washington Post — headlined “Justice Department warned White House that Flynn could be vulnerable to Russian blackmail, officials say” — for the national security adviser to finally be dismissed. Did the vice president and top White House officials authorize this leak? Again, Murray Waas:
I have learned that, in order to force the president’s hand in firing Flynn, two senior government officials instructed aides over the weekend that followed to leak sensitive information to The Washington Post and other news organizations in order to underscore that Flynn had likely lied about his conversations with Kislyak, and that there were concerns at the highest levels of the Justice Department and the FBI about Flynn’s conduct. These two officials believed that they were, in the words of one person familiar with the effort, “protecting Trump’s presidency from himself” and the country’s “national security from the president.” I have no information that Vice President Pence was involved in the leaking of this information, but Pence had certainly by then become a strong advocate of Flynn’s firing and, together with Priebus and McGahn, was extremely frustrated that the president had taken no action.
The leak to the Washington Post would break the dam of the president’s resistance. Flynn resigned later that day, setting in motion events that led to the appointment of a special counsel and talk of impeachment. As noted by Waas,
The very next day, February 14, the president met privately in the Oval Office with then-FBI Director James Comey and, according to Comey’s testimony to Congress, pressured the FBI director to shut down an investigation of Flynn.
How will the president and his loyalists respond when they put the pieces together?
- A text message from the FBI’s Peter Strzok which could be interpreted to reference an intelligence relationship with the vice president’s chief of staff;
- The vice president and top White House aides — both deceived by the national security adviser — secretly meeting with the FBI’s Andrew McCabe, then demanding Flynn’s firing;
- And when the president doesn’t move quickly enough, a mysterious leak to the Washington Post, which has the intended effect.
And to top it all off, the very day after the New York Times reported that President Trump asked FBI Director James Comey to “let[ ] Flynn go,” the vice president filed papers to organize a Leadership PAC. Trump adviser and notorious dirty trickster Roger Stone responded by tweeting “no vice president in modern history had their own PAC less than 6 month into the president’s first term…Hmmmm.”
There’s more than just the vice president’s troubled relationship with the president’s national security adviser.
Clinton stated privately this month that she is quietly pushing for a Pence takeover. She stated that Pence is predictable hence defeatable.
Two IC officials close to Pence stated privately this month that they are planning on a Pence takeover. Did not state if Pence agrees.
The vice president denied Assange’s claims.
— CNN (@CNN) March 14, 2017
Former FBI deputy director McCabe also told CBS’ Scott Pelley that Department of Justice officials discussed “whether the vice president and a majority of the cabinet could be brought together to remove the president of the United States under the 25th Amendment.” Again, Vice President Pence denied any involvement in those discussions.
One can only imagine the vice president’s sense of vindication when Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI. That must have been reinforced when troubling allegations emerged about Flynn’s undisclosed work on behalf of the Turkish government, and his reported involvement in a conspiracy to kidnap a Turkish exile who now lives as a permanent American resident.
Did the vice president feel betrayed again when a report indicated the president wished he could hire Flynn back? Or when the president asked Flynn’s former deputy to tell him to “stay strong”? Does it offend Pence’s honor that so many of the president’s defenders see Flynn as a victim, while ignoring how he abused not only the vice president’s trust, but the public’s? Did the president even apologize for the shabby way Pence was treated?
It’s only a matter of time before these dormant resentments are brought into the open. The more vulnerable and unpopular Trump feels, the more likely he is to lash out. It seems likely that Trump and his allies will blame the vice president for their political predicament. That he behaved honorably will not protect him. Quite the contrary. Trump’s outside supporters might soon be agitating to have Pence replaced by a more loyal, canine running mate.
Does Pence have it in him to flip? Will he seize the moment and position himself as the Gerald Ford to Trump’s Nixon? It’s fun to speculate, but the prospect seems doubtful.
Nevertheless, an increasingly feverish Trumpist media is going to connect these dots, and even if Pence isn’t leading the Deep State Resistance, they’re going to suspect he might be. With re-election already looking difficult (if you believe matchup polling) it’ll be one more strike against Pence. Which is a shame, because the vice president has been sincerely helpful to the cause of governing.