In Russiagate, Keep Your Eye on Pence

(Photo: AP/Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Vice President Mike Pence leaves the Senate chamber on May 10, 2017.

On December 1, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to one count of lying to the FBI regarding conversations with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and vowed to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Mueller's indictment has also fueled speculation about the role played by other senior White House officials with regard to Russia, including Vice President Mike Pence, who on January 15 denied that Flynn's conversations with Kislyak had taken place. The Prospect reprises Stan’s prescient column suggesting that Democrats take a closer look at the vice president’s role during the presidential transition.

If Donald J. Trump loses his grip on the presidency, his logical replacement will be Vice President Mike Pence, the religious-right stalwart and favorite of the billionaire Koch brothers. Once in the White House, Pence may not be so easy to dislodge, given the propensity of the right-wing evangelical base of the Republican Party to turn out to the polls in large numbers.

Yet the notion that Pence had no place inside the Trump administration’s burgeoning Russia scandal is too readily accepted by reporters and lawmakers alike, starting with the explanation for Pence’s January 15 denial on CBS’s Face the Nation that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia during several December conversations with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States. Because the conversations, during which Flynn is reported to have discussed with Kislyak a review of sanctions issued by the Obama administration in retaliation for Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, took place while Obama was still in office, Flynn’s actions represent a profound breach of protocol.

During the time of those conversations, Pence served as head of the Trump transition team, which was charged with vetting the incoming administration’s picks for high-level positions. He also received national security briefings.

When Flynn was finally forced to resign—18 days after the White House was advised by then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates that Flynn had discussed sanctions with Kislyak—the reason given for his leaving was not the substance of the discussions themselves, but that he had lied to the vice president about the nature of them.

In fairness to Flynn, I should note that in his letter of resignation, Flynn never says he outright lied; he says he inadvertently left out details of those calls in his briefings with Pence. For his part, Pence signed onto the explanation. Now the notion that Flynn lied to Pence is accepted as fact, since both men say that Pence was misled by Flynn. But the truth is, we really don’t know what Pence did or didn’t know about Flynn’s discussions with Kislyak. What we do know is that Pence is more important to Trump’s political fortunes than was Flynn, who, as a military man, may have accepted an order to fall on his sword.

Mike Pence owes the lofty perch he occupies today to none other than Paul Manafort, the short-lived Trump campaign manager who was forced out of that public role in Trump World after The New York Times reported apparent records of millions of dollars in payments to Manafort for his work on behalf of the pro-Russia political party of Ukraine’s former president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin—the same Vladimir Putin who put his thumb on the scales of the U.S. presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. It was Manafort who engineered Pence’s selection as Trump’s running-mate, knocking out New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who, according to reports, had already been offered the slot. And even though Manafort, who has since been revealed to have had other business dealings with other oligarchs from the former Soviet bloc, officially left the Trump campaign in August, he remained an advisory presence during the transition, and was said to talk with Pence regularly, according to a report in The Daily Beast.

In November, a former Trump campaign official told reporters Olivia Nuzzi and Asawin Suebsaeng that Trump himself was likely on the phone with Manafort “every day.” And given the vetting process presumably taking place during that time, and Flynn’s and Manafort’s mutual connections to Kislyak and other Russian figures, it seems unlikely that any concerns to that effect regarding Flynn’s appointment to a high-level security post would never have come up.

Given all of this, it seems questionable to me that Pence was blissfully ignorant of Flynn’s transgressions. What we do know is that Pence was delivered to office in part because of the handiwork of Vladimir Putin, and that he’s the likely successor to the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue should the current one cut short his stay.

That alone should warrant a robust investigation.

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