Mr. Complicit

Mike Pence isn’t avoiding Trump’s misconduct. He’s abetting it.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence
Vice President Mike Pence at a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, April 29, 2017.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters

In the past week, as reports of Watergate-level misconduct have raised the possibility of President Trump’s impeachment, eyes have turned toward Mike Pence, the man who would succeed him. Pence bills himself as an upstanding Christian stuck in a spiraling situation not of his making. Anonymous flacks are trying to distance the vice president from the administration’s collapse. They say Pence was “kept in the dark” about the treacherous shenanigans of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. A source “close to the administration,” and apparently quite close to Pence, tells NBC News that there’s a suspicious “pattern”: In one scandal after another, Pence “was never, either intentionally or unintentionally, made aware of the facts.”

The pattern is suspicious, all right. But it’s not a pattern of Pence being deceived. It’s a pattern of his willful blindness and misrepresentations. Pence refuses to learn from the treachery of the people around him. He continues to vouch for President Trump and others who conspire, lie, and hide corruption. Pence isn’t a victim. He’s an accomplice.

To grasp the extent of his complicity, you have to see how all the incidents fit together. Here’s the whole sorry history.

1. The Access Hollywood video. Pence joined Trump’s ticket in July 2016 as a character witness. He testified to Trump’s family values, religious faith, and respect for women. In the Oct. 4 vice presidential debate, Pence laughed off Sen. Tim Kaine’s recitation of Trump’s bigoted comments, as though they had never happened. When reporters asked about Trump’s sexist remarks, Pence accused them of “taking these little lines out of context.”

On Oct. 8, that story collapsed. A leaked video showed Trump bragging, during an off-mic exchange on Access Hollywood in 2005, about grabbing women sexually without consent. The video blindsided Trump’s aides because he had refused to let them investigate his personal history, as candidates normally do. Pence’s camp told reporters that Trump’s running mate was distraught and “beside himself.” There was speculation he might leave the ticket.

Instead, Pence went right back to vouching for Trump’s credibility. He belittled the video as “just talk.” As women came forward to report sexual assault and harassment allegations against Trump, Pence dismissed their stories. When Trump denied the accusations, Pence said: “I believe him.”

If you buy Pence’s story that the video shocked him, then this episode was the beginning of his complicity. This was the warning that Trump couldn’t be trusted. Pence refused to listen.

2. Pizzagate. On Nov. 11, three days after the election, Trump announced that Pence would take charge of the transition. A week later, Trump named Flynn as his national security adviser. Flynn brought his adult son into the transition, and that was a problem: Flynn’s son had circulated racist tweets and conspiracy theories, including a fantasy about a human trafficking ring, which duped a man into firing shots in a Washington pizza restaurant on Dec. 4.

On Dec. 6, Pence was asked on MSNBC about the younger Flynn’s role in the transition. Twice, he insisted that Flynn Jr. had “no involvement in the transition whatsoever.” That turned out to be false. Hours later, Pence told CNN’s Jake Tapper: “I said this morning that his son had no involvement in the transition, but I have talked to Gen. Flynn, and his son was helping him a bit with scheduling and administrative items.” Pence seemed to think this was the end of the story. But it wasn’t. Tapper told him: “You must be aware that the transition team put in for security clearance” for the younger Flynn.

Pence was flustered. He repeated what Flynn had told him. He didn’t answer whether Flynn had mentioned the security clearance. In retrospect, it seems a small matter. But this episode signaled what Pence would do in the scandals to come. He firmly denied reports that turned out to be true. The most charitable interpretation was that he spoke with confidence about things he hadn’t bothered to check. And when he did check, he was willing to stake his assurances, gullibly if not cynically, on the word of a man who plainly hadn’t been honest.

3. The Russian call. On Dec. 29, three weeks after the Pizzagate eruption, Flynn spoke on the phone with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States. The conversation remained secret until Jan. 12, when Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, ominously citing a U.S. official, suggested that during the call, Flynn might have hinted that Trump would soon lift sanctions imposed by the Obama administration for Russia’s interference in the election.

Pence defended Flynn. On Jan. 15, in a pair of TV interviews, he denied that Flynn and Kislyak had discussed the sanctions. “I talked to Gen. Flynn yesterday,” the vice president explained, “and the conversations that took place at that time were not in any way related” to the sanctions. Again, Flynn turned out to be lying. On Feb. 9, the Post reported that Flynn had discussed and undercut the sanctions in his call with Kislyak. On Feb. 13, the Post added that Trump and others in the White House had been warned in late January that Flynn’s story was bogus.

Pence’s apologists depict this episode as his first brush with Flynn’s dishonesty. But it wasn’t. It was a repeat of the Pizzagate incident, this time with much higher stakes. Why had Pence been fooled a second time? Or was he lying? If he was fooled, it wasn’t just Flynn who had played him. Trump and others in the White House had known about Flynn’s deception in late January. Pence said he hadn’t found out till Feb. 9, when the Post reported it. That meant his colleagues in the administration had concealed Flynn’s deception from Pence for two weeks, during which they had sent him out to do TV interviews on the very subjects about which he had been deceived.

But Pence refused to turn on Trump. When a reporter asked the vice president whether he felt “misled” and whether Trump had assured him “that something like this will not happen again,” Pence blamed Flynn, praised Trump, and affirmed his “great confidence” in the administration. He was asking the public to believe once more in a president who had concealed the truth, and a vice president who had relayed falsehoods.

4. The Comey meeting. On Feb. 14, Pence joined Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, FBI Director James Comey, and other national security officials in the Oval Office for a briefing on terrorism. At the end of the meeting, Trump told everyone but Comey to leave the room. According to Comey, once they were alone, Trump tried to talk him into dropping the FBI’s investigation of Flynn, who had resigned the day before at Trump’s request.

To understand what this incident says about Pence, you have to remember where it fits in his narrative about Flynn. This was the day after Pence supposedly learned that Trump had kept him in the dark about Flynn’s conversation with the Russian ambassador. So Pence should have been wary of Trump. And he should have suspected that Trump’s agenda in speaking to Comey was about Flynn, since Pence knew (according to Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus) that the FBI had interviewed Flynn. Trump was plainly upset that he had been forced to make Flynn resign. Two days later, in a press conference, Trump was still fuming about it.

According to Michael Schmidt, the New York Times reporter who broke the story about the Trump-Comey one on one, Sessions tried to stick around as Trump was angling to get Comey alone, and Trump had to order Sessions out of the room. Pence apparently made no attempt to stay. Maybe Sessions was just curious. Or maybe he sensed, as Pence should have, that Trump might lobby the FBI director to go easy on Flynn. The next morning, Trump attacked the FBI on Twitter. A brave vice president would have tried to find out what Trump had said to Comey. There’s no sign Pence did.

5. The Turkish connection. On Nov. 18, the transition office received a letter from Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee. The letter, addressed to Pence, presented evidence of another one of Flynn’s deception:

Recent news reports have revealed that Lt. Gen. Flynn was receiving classified briefings during the presidential campaign while his consulting firm, Flynn Intel Group Inc., was being paid to lobby the U.S. government on behalf of a foreign government’s interests. Lt. Gen. Flynn’s general counsel and principal, Robert Kelley, confirmed that they were hired by a foreign company to lobby for Turkish interests.

Cummings’ letter cited published reports about the lobbying arrangement, any one of which Pence’s staff could have shown to him. Another letter, sent to the FBI by two senators and released to the public on Dec. 14, sought a review of Flynn’s security clearance due to his moonlighting for Turkey. And on Jan. 4, Flynn told Don McGahn, the transition team’s chief attorney (who is now the White House counsel), that the Justice Department was investigating the lobbying contract.

Somehow, Pence missed all of these red flags. Even after supposedly discovering, to his dismay, that Flynn had misled him about Flynn Jr. and the Russian call, Pence apparently didn’t look to see what else he had missed about Flynn. Not until March 9, when reporters discovered that Flynn had officially filed as a foreign agent, did Pence say anything about the Turkish connection. “Hearing that story today was the first I heard of it,” the vice president told Fox News. His aides suggested that he had never seen Cummings’ letter (even though Cummings got a confirmation notice that the letter was received), and Pence told Cummings that he had no memory of it. For the third time, Pence was claiming to have been blindsided by the same man.

6. The Rosenstein memo. On May 3, Comey testified before Congress about his investigations of the Trump-Russia nexus and Hillary Clinton’s emails. Comey’s testimony enraged Trump. According to the Times, Trump vented his ire to Pence, and Pence forcefully endorsed the idea that the director should be fired. The Post reports that on May 8, Trump told Pence that he was ready to sack Comey.

But before he went through with it, Trump wanted to talk to Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Trump met with Sessions and Rosenstein that day and asked them to put in writing the case against Comey. The next day, May 9, Rosenstein issued a memo criticizing Comey’s management of the Clinton investigation, and Trump cited the memo in a letter firing the director. The letter was a sham. In an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, Trump later conceded that he had decided to fire Comey before the memo was written, and for completely different reasons, some of them related to the Russia investigation.

No one peddled the sham more vigorously than Pence. The morning after Comey was dismissed, Pence staged an impromptu press conference to tell reporters that Rosenstein had initiated the decision and had recommended that Comey be fired. Neither statement was true. Seven times, Pence falsely declared that Trump had fired Comey based on Rosenstein’s memo. When a reporter asked whether Trump had prompted the memo, Pence insisted that Rosenstein had launched the process on his own and had “brought that recommendation to the president.”

Pence didn’t just misrepresent Trump’s rationale and the sequence of events. He affirmed something else Trump had alleged in his dismissal letter. “The president himself was informed several times by the former director of the FBI that he himself is not under investigation,” said Pence. One of those alleged occasions was the Feb. 14 meeting from which Pence and Sessions had been excluded. Pence was claiming that Trump, the man who had kept witnesses out of that meeting, and who had supposedly kept Pence in the dark about Flynn’s call to the Russian ambassador, should be trusted. And once again, Pence’s assurance was worthless. Comey’s contemporaneous notes—which are consistent with other people’s recollections of Trump’s remarks in similar conversations—suggest that Trump’s account of the meeting is false.

After all the lies and all the shilling, Pence and his spokesmen now ask us to spare him. They say they were unprepared for Trump’s unstable behavior, and they claim that vital information about Flynn—for example, that he had disclosed to the transition office that he was under FBI investigation—was hidden from them. “That’s an egregious error—and it has to be intentional,” an ally of the vice president protests. “It’s either malpractice or intentional, and either are unacceptable.”

The same could be said of Pence’s tenure as stooge and mouthpiece. Either it’s malpractice, or it’s intentional. Either is unacceptable. When Trump goes down, Pence goes with him.