As the White House contends with questions about who knew about former national security adviser Michael Flynn lying to the FBI, people close to Vice President Mike Pence are trying to make clear that President Donald Trump’s No. 2 knew nothing at all.
He was at a homeless shelter in Indiana, clad in an apron and doling out hot meals, the day last December when Egypt submitted a U.N. resolution that drew Flynn and Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner into international back-channel dealing.
He was celebrating his son’s wedding a week later when President Barack Obama slapped sanctions on Russia over its election meddling, setting off a chain of events that would culminate with Flynn pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials.
Pence’s aides have maintained for months that their man was out of the loop, blissfully ignorant to contacts between the Trump campaign and various foreign actors, from the Russian ambassador to WikiLeaks.
Their story has been consistent, even as it has left outside observers wondering how Trump’s running mate and transition head could have known so little.
“It’s remarkable as close as he was to the transition, as close as he was to the president, [that] at least what’s come out so far very little that puts him in key places at key times,” said William Jeffress, the attorney who represented Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby during the Valerie Plame CIA leak investigation.
Pence’s office declined to comment for this story.
Past vice presidents have often pushed back against the idea that the person a heartbeat away from the Oval Office doesn’t have much of a formal role in running the U.S. government. But for Pence, who has taken on a sprawling portfolio, being an occasional outsider in Trump’s White House helps him maintain distance from the growing Russia probe.
Within Pence’s circle, there have been efforts to frame Friday’s indictment of Flynn as a vindication of the vice president.
Pence had initially defended Flynn during the transition, dismissing the notion that he discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador as false. When the content of those conversations was later revealed, Flynn was fired for having misled the vice president. Friday’s revelation that Flynn lied to the FBI was seen in Pence world as additional evidence of the former national security adviser’s mendacity.
It was the latest example of the Pence team deploying a playbook that has kept the vice president clean so far.
After it was revealed that Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian lawyer in June 2016 promising damaging information on Hillary Clinton, for example, the Pence team put out a blunt statement.
“He was not aware of the meeting,” his then-press secretary Marc Lotter said at the time. “He is also not focused on stories about the campaign — especially those pertaining to the time before he joined the campaign.”
When the Atlantic reported in November that Trump Jr. had communicated with WikiLeaks in the fall of 2016—after Pence declared in an interview that the campaign had not coordinated with the organization—Pence’s office repeated that the then-running mate simply hadn’t known what others in the campaign were up to.
“The Vice President was never aware of anyone associated with the campaign being in contact with Wikileaks,” said Pence’s press secretary, Alyssa Farah, in a statement when the Atlantic story appeared. “He first learned of this news from a published report earlier tonight.”
But Flynn’s overtures to foreign governments took place in the midst of a transition that Pence was leading.
“Either he didn’t know about it and then there’s why didn’t he know about it, or he did know about it and he’s lying. Neither is tenable for him,” said Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist and former communications director for Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) presidential bid. “One speaks to a lack of character and one speaks to a lack of competence — neither of which we want in a vice president, or a future president.”
But the strategy seems to have kept Pence out of the crosshairs of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. While he has retained outside counsel, he has yet to be interviewed by investigators.
“Normally you would take from that one of two things,” Jeffress said. “Either you would say they’re working up from the bottom and they’re going to interview the top people at the conclusion…Or you could say Mueller really doesn’t have a lot of information about Pence’s participation that he needs to interview him about.”
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