Mike Pence’s excellent adventure has now entered a stretch of rocky road. Joining Team Trump always promised to be a wild ride, but now Vice President Pence has found himself within the scope of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, while serving with the current imprimatur of history’s most volatile president. What comes next will be fascinating.
For the past year, Pence appeared to have successfully straddled the percolating controversies engulfing Donald Trump. In February, President Trump fired national security adviser Michael Flynn for lying to Pence after just 25 days on the job.
Flynn pleaded guilty to one count of lying to the FBI on two occasions. There is rampant speculation that Flynn cut a deal with Mueller and the events of Friday bring the Mueller probe deeper into the Trump White House inner circle and the transition team. ABC News reported that Flynn has promised special counsel “full cooperation” in Russia probe, noting that Flynn felt “abandoned” by Trump in recent weeks. If Flynn has an axe to grind, it may be with Pence as the sourced cause of his firing.
A Trump tweet created a sensation: “I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI.” Almost all of Trump’s legal and political problems began on the Twitter Machine.
On Nov. 11, 2016, Pence replaced New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as head of the transition team. Christie said Wednesday one reason he was booted was because of his opposition to Flynn joining the administration because of his ties to Russia. “Suffice to say, I had serious misgivings, which I think have been confirmed by the fact that he pled guilty to a felony in federal court,” Christie said.
A key question is this: Was Pence a transition committee figurehead who was out of the loop? Or, as the Trump Tower photos of the era reveal with Pence holding binders of papers, was he the main man, fully in charge? On Jan. 15, Pence told CBS about Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador last December that has fueled the collusion allegations, saying, “They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose a censure against Russia.”
But we now know that Flynn had lied.
CNN anchor Chris Cuomo interviewed former FBI special agent Asha Rangappa, who now teaches national security issues at Yale University, and she sees some timeline problems for Pence. “Here’s why it’s problematic either way,” Rangappa said. “The sanctions conversations were a matter of normal, incoming transition policy. If that’s true, Vice President Pence is the head of the transition team and he’s the incoming vice president. So, you would think he would know about policy discussions taking place. So, if he didn’t know, then something about those conversations, if he’s kept in the dark, something about those conversations was just not right.”
Politico offered up Team Pence’s Sgt. Schultz “I know noth-ing!” version of events: “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.”
“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 … puts him in key places at key times,” William Jeffress, the attorney who represented Scooter Libby during the Valerie Plame CIA leak investigation, told Politico.
The second point of fascination came May 8, when Pence participated in an Oval Office meeting with White House counsel Don McGahn, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and the president. Trump had decided to fire FBI Director James Comey two days earlier for failing to profess “loyalty” and not shelving the Russia probe. At this meeting, they reviewed what the New York Times and Washington Post describes as a multi-paged termination letter drafted by adviser Stephen Miller that was described as a “screed” and “rant” against Comey.
As the question of obstruction of justice comes up for Trump, this meeting will draw intense interest from Mueller’s investigators. Harvard University constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe, who has advocated for Trump’s impeachment, tweeted, “Pence hid what he knew about a serious federal crime. That looks like active concealment.” And Fordham University law professor Jed Shugerman suggested in September that Pence’s receiving the original letter laying the groundwork for Comey’s firing may put him in legal jeopardy, explaining three potential felonies: 1) conspiracy to commit the obstruction of justice; 2) aiding and abetting the obstruction of justice; 3) and misprision of a felony.
The operative word in the last paragraph is “may.” Those of us who have known Mike Pence for decades believe that while overtly ambitious, he has been not been corrupt. I’m certainly not suggesting that here. In covering the Russia collusion case, U.S. Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., urged me to do what he is doing, which is to wait for the Mueller final report before drawing judgments and conclusions. That is my advice to you.
But the fact is, Pence has become a political moth, fluttering very, very close to flame.
Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at howeypolitics.com. Send comments to email@example.com.