On Thursday morning, Vice President Mike Pence suggested that the Mueller investigation has run its course. “In the interests of the country, I think it’s time to wrap it up,” Pence said on NBC’s Today. “I would very respectfully encourage the special counsel and his team to bring their work to completion.”
The timing of Pence’s call for an end to the Mueller investigation coincided with the news that the subsidiary investment arm of a firm owned by a Russian oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg, had paid Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, $500,000. This news was accompanied by a series of damaging confirmations of payments to Cohen by AT&T, Novartis, and Korean Aerospace as well as news that Vekselberg’s subsidiary investment firm had purchased alt-right domain names.
Given what we know about the investigation and Pence’s role in it, the vice president is likely being considered a witness at the very least and has the high potential to be considered a subject, or even a target. Given the facts, Pence’s call for an end to the investigation should be read as a callous political ploy and perhaps as a self-interested effort to ensure that evidence of his own potentially criminal role in this scandal does not see the light of day.
At this point, it’s important to reconsider where Pence fits into the timeline of potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia—and any efforts to obstruct the investigations into that potential collusion—which are still the subjects of Mueller’s investigation. Key questions are: What does Pence know and when did he know it? More specifically: What did Pence know about Michael Flynn and his Russian contacts in January 2017? And did he participate in the cover-up and in obstruction of justice of that investigation, which ultimately resulted in a guilty plea and cooperation deal by Flynn? Here are some of the key dates, some of which I have previously laid out in Slate and other publications:
Nov. 11, 2016: Pence becomes chair of the Trump transition team, with Flynn as vice chair. Chris Christie later claims that a “significant reason” he was replaced as chair was because he opposed Flynn’s nomination as national security adviser.
Nov. 17, 2016: It was reported that Flynn would be Trump’s national security adviser.
Nov. 18, 2016: Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, sends a letter to Pence with concerns about Flynn’s links to Russia and Turkey, and requests more information.
Dec. 1, 2016: Flynn and Jared Kushner meet Russia’s Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at Trump Tower. According to Kushner’s own testimony, he proposed a secret communication link with the Kremlin through the Russian Embassy in an effort to find a “secure line.”
Dec. 9, 2016: Consistent with a key allegation in the Steele Dossier, the Russians sell 19.5 percent of energy firm Rosneft to Qatar and Glencore, which then immediately sell off these assets in smaller parts. (A Qatar-backed firm later gave Kushner’s family company a $184 million loan).
Dec. 13, 2016: Reportedly at Kislyak’s urging, Kushner meets Sergey Gorkov, who chairs Russia’s government-owned Vnesheconombank and is Putin’s close confidant. Vnesheconombank is understood by analysts to be Putin’s slush fund and is under strict U.S. sanctions.
Dec. 14, 2016: Gorkov flies to Japan, where he is reported to have met with Putin.
Dec. 28, 2016: Obama orders new Russian sanctions for election hacking and interference. Kislyak contacts Flynn.
Dec. 29, 2016: According to details later revealed in Flynn’s plea agreement, he calls a “senior official of the Presidential Transition Team” who was with other “senior members of the [team]” at Mar-a-Lago. Flynn and this “senior official” agree that they do not want Russia to “escalate the situation.” Flynn calls Kislyak immediately and afterward reports back to the senior official. Reports suggest that this official was Jared Kushner. Was Pence, the head of the transition team, aware of these calls? Where was he during this episode?
On Dec. 30, 2016: Trump tweets to Putin, calling him “very smart” for not responding to Obama’s sanctions in kind.
January 2017: Vekselberg begins sending payments to Michael Cohen’s Essential Consulting account.
Jan. 4, 2017: According to later reporting by the New York Times, Flynn reveals to Don McGahn, chief attorney for the transition effort, that he’s under FBI investigation. Flynn is still appointed national security adviser and receives provisional security clearance. Did the top lawyer in the transition team tell the head of the transition, Pence, about the fact that Flynn was under investigation?
Jan. 15, 2017: In the wake of news reports that Flynn and Kislyak spoke during the sanctions controversy, Pence states on CBS’s Face the Nation that Flynn and Kislyak “did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.” Pence says he was told this by Flynn—who is now a cooperating witness with Mueller’s probe and the FBI—himself.
Jan. 20, 2017: Trump and Pence are sworn into office.
Jan. 24, 2017: In an interview with FBI agents, Flynn denies that he spoke about sanctions with Russian officials.
Jan. 26, 2017: Acting Attorney General Sally Yates tells McGahn, now the White House counsel, that Pence, among others, was not correct about Flynn’s Russian contacts. Did McGahn really not tell Pence?
Early February 2017: Michael Cohen reportedly delivers a Ukrainian peace proposal to Flynn that would involve ousting the anti-Putin leader and lifting sanctions against Russia. Whom did Flynn and Cohen share this with?
Feb. 9, 2017: According to Pence’s press secretary’s later account, this is when Pence learned about Yates’ warning. The Washington Post also reports on this day that Flynn had discussed sanctions with Kislyak. But Flynn continues in office.
Feb. 13, 2017: Flynn resigns.
Feb. 14, 2017: Trump meets privately with FBI Director Jim Comey and allegedly asks him to “let go” of the Flynn “thing.” (Comey testified to this under oath before a Senate panel, but Trump has denied it is true in public statements.)
May 8, 2017: According to later reporting in the New York Times, the White House disseminates a draft letter written by Trump and Stephen Miller—described by sources as a “screed”— laying out the reasons for firing Comey, including Trump’s displeasure that Comey wouldn’t publicly say Trump wasn’t being investigated in the Russia inquiry. In the Oval Office, Pence and McGahn reportedly review the draft and McGahn reportedly asks that some sections be removed. A version of this letter is sent to Rod Rosenstein, who crafts a new memo justifying the firing and attributing it to Comey’s conduct during the Clinton investigation, with no mention of Russia.
May 9, 2017: Trump fires Comey.
May 10, 2017: Pence publicly denies that the Russia investigation factored into the decision, strongly suggesting that Trump was merely “accept[ing] the recommendation of the deputy attorney general and the attorney general” (full video here).
Question: Did the president fire Director Comey to impede the Russia investigation?
Pence: … [The president] is not under investigation and … there is no evidence of collusion between our campaign and any Russian officials …
Question: But intelligence officials have said there is an investigation into potential ties between campaign officials and Russia …
Pence: That’s not what this was about …
Question: What about the president’s dissatisfaction with the Russia probe. Did that play into this, sir?
Pence: [Shaking his head no.] Let me be very clear that the president’s decision to accept the recommendation of the deputy attorney general and the attorney general to remove Director Comey as the head of the FBI was based solely and exclusively on his commitment to the best interest of the American people and to ensuring that the FBI has the trust and confidence of the people of this nation … The American people expect a president to act on the recommendations of those within the administration who are charged with oversight. In this case the deputy attorney general provides the oversight to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And while the deputy attorney general was confirmed just a few short weeks ago by the United States Senate, when he brought the recommendation to the president that the director of the FBI should be removed, President Trump provided the kind of strong and decisive leadership the American people have come to be accustomed from him. …
Question: Did the president ask the deputy attorney general to conduct a review of Director Comey?
Pence: The new deputy attorney general, who was just sworn in two weeks ago … came to work—he is a man of extraordinary independence and integrity and a reputation in both political parties of great character—sat down and made the recommendation … he brought that recommendation to the president. The attorney general concurred with that recommendation, and I personally am grateful that we have a president who is willing to decide the kind of decisive and strong leadership to take the recommendation of the deputy attorney general and the attorney general …
Notice how Pence framed the decision as if it were entirely Rosenstein’s own idea. If Pence had read Trump’s draft letter, and if it in fact focused on the Russia investigation, Pence’s answers would be misrepresentations and concealment. If Pence participated in the revision of the letter, his apparent lies afterward would constitute the affirmative acts necessary for proving misprision (deliberate concealment) of a felony.
That same day, Trump invites Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and the Russian Ambassador to the United States Kislyak to the Oval Office and reportedly tells them, “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nutjob … I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
May 11, 2017: Trump tells NBC’s Lester Holt that he fired Comey because of “this Russia thing.”
Considering this timeline, Pence was clearly a witness to Flynn’s conduct and Trump’s possible obstruction of justice. I have also suggested that Pence might be facing criminal liability for his participation in obstruction: aiding and abetting, conspiracy, and misprision of a felony. Misprision, it should be noted, is a law against concealment that in practice applies more to public officials than the general public.
The Michael Cohen news only heightens the risk to Pence. Mueller’s team has Cohen’s phones and emails, and may also have Vekselberg’s records. Whom had they contacted, and what will those people say about Pence? Vekselberg’s payments seem to have begun soon after Flynn and Kushner had contacts with Russian officials. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has soft-pedaled sanctions—the original heart of the scandal, and the reported quo in return for the Russian quid.
Even if Pence didn’t know of a potential bribery scheme, there is reason to suspect that he participated actively in the cover-up and the obstruction of the investigation. So it makes perfect sense why Pence would be calling for an end to the investigation—because he is clearly an uncomfortable witness and potentially one of its targets.