What Did the Vice President Know, and When Did He Know It?

Brynn Anderson/AP Images

Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a rally in Miami. 

If anyone still buys the notion that Vice President Mike Pence is some kind of a Boy Scout, a spin through the speech delivered on Saturday by President Donald Trump’s biggest fan to a roomful of religious-right activists should disabuse them of that dream: Pence peppered his address with demonstrable lies. If truth were still a thing, I suppose the Pence speech would have been news—scandalous news. But neither the footsoldiers nor the leaders of the right—religious or otherwise—care much for truth; they care more about a federal judiciary filled with far-right judges appointed for a lifetime. 

God apparently hates abortion and feminists and gays and transgender people and the enfranchisement of black people far more than he hates liars. It’s all about the net gain—which makes Pence, the performatively pious prevaricator, the perfect embodiment of the Lying for Jesus theological construct that is all the rage among right-wing evangelical leaders.

Communications professionals will tell you not to repeat the false claims made by your enemies, lest you serve merely as their amplifier. That makes it kind of hard to lay out the facts underlying this essay’s assertion that the vice president is a proven liar. So let’s suffice it to say that, in his speech, the vice president lied, once again, about something Joe Biden said in a 2018 speech to the Human Rights Campaign, when Biden condemned some of those who attack LGBTQ people as coming from “the dregs of society.” Trumpers immediately falsely claimed that Biden had applied the term to Trump supporters, leading one to wonder why they would volunteer themselves for that characterization. (But, hey, if the shoe fits …) 

And Pence lied when he said Democrats want to kill “babies” that survive late-term abortions, accusing them of infanticide. And he lied when he said that Planned Parenthood had been “selling” fetal remains to research institutions. He lied when he blamed Democrats for the humanitarian crisis on the Southern border, referring to the deaths of Alberto Martinez and his daughter, Angie Valeria Martinez, an image of whose dead bodies, shown face-down in the Rio Grande, was captured in a photograph seen around the world. (It’s the Trump administration, not Democrats, who have made it more difficult for refugees to claim asylum at ports of entry, leading to more attempts by those fleeing violence and hunger in Central America to enter the U.S. at dangerous crossings.)

“They denied funding for additional resources to care for the vulnerable families flowing across the border,” Pence said of the Democrats, never mentioning the tearing apart of those vulnerable families at the hands of his own administration. He deemed the “care” delivered by ICE and the Border Patrol to be “compassionate,” despite recent documentation by immigration attorneys of the harsh and unsanitary conditions in which children separated from their families are held: no soap, toothbrush, bed or supervision, with lights left on 24 hours a day—a tactic used by torturers. 

Of course, this despicable outrage of a speech by the nation’s number-two executive, this excrement-coated dingleberry of verbiage, isn’t really newsworthy when you have a number-one executive, a foul-mouthed wannabe dictator, who lies to the world often multiple times in a day. I bring up all of this vice-presidential lying in no vain attempt to make news, but rather to ask: If Mike Pence can’t even tell the truth to the religious right—his administration’s most loyal supporters—why should we take his word for anything, like, say, what he knew of the Trump campaign’s involvement with Russian agents and officials, especially during that whole presidential transition thing he led?

You’ll recall that Pence claimed retired General Michael Flynn, the Trump administration’s first national security adviser, lied to Pence after having spoken with Sergey Kisliak, then the Russian Federation’s ambassador to the United States, about sanctions relief for Russia before Trump was inaugurated. In fact, Flynn had several conversations with Kisliak. 

Pence claims to have known nothing of those conversations when he reassured the American public on January 15, 2017, that no one on the transition team, which he chaired, had had contact with Russians involved in the Federation’s efforts to throw the presidential election to Trump. He said that any potential lifting sanctions on Russia—which were imposed by the Obama administration in response to the election meddling—had not been discussed with Russian officials by Flynn or anyone else on the Trump team.

When Flynn—Pence’s vice chair on the transition team—resigned his national security post just 24 days into his White House tenure, he agreed to say that he had lied to Pence about the whole thing. The media swiftly construed this as a true fact, since both men had corroborated it. Never mind that Flynn could have been given an incentive to fall on his sword, and that Pence is known to be less than truthful. And never mind that the Mueller report tells a rather different story of the incidents that led up to Flynn’s resignation, in Flynn’s own recounting, with Flynn telling Trump he didn’t think he had lied to Pence. (Pence was not interviewed by the Mueller team.)

With Flynn’s exit, his deputy, Andrea Thompson, needed a new post, so she moved into the vice president’s office as Pence’s own national security adviser. A few months later, she got married in a wedding officiated by Paul Erickson, the boyfriend of Maria Butina, a darling of the National Rifle Association who is currently in prison after declaring her guilt in response to charges that she was an unregistered agent of the Russian government. Butina was in attendance at Thompson’s wedding, which took place two months after The Daily Beast broke this story by Tim Mak about Butina’s relationship with Torshin. That bit of information comes to us through the reporting of Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin, who also details the way in which Erickson helped Butina stoke influence in U.S. conservative circles on behalf of Alexander Torshin, a deputy at Russia’s central bank who is said to be close to Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. Rogin also cites The New York Times’s 2017 report on Erickson’s attempts to serve as a broker during the campaign for a potential meeting between Putin and Trump.

Now, none of these details prove that Pence knew anything about the Trump campaign’s contacts with agents of the Russian government, or of Flynn’s promises to Kislyak prior to Trump’s inauguration. But they do prove that there is much we don’t know about Pence’s role, if any, in the Russia scandal. 

What we do know: 

1.    Thompson hid her connection to Erickson and Butina—During her 2018 confirmation hearing for her current post as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, Thompson failed to disclose the presence of Erickson and Butina at her wedding, even though the story of Butina’s ties to Torshin and the NRA had been known by then. (According to the Post’s Rogin, Thompson is currently responsible for US arms control negotiations.) So, why the sin of omission?

As Rogin writes:

Thompson’s failure to disclose her contacts and her husband’s business dealings with Erickson is viewed inside the administration as a serious lack of judgment—considering that her former boss, then-national security adviser Michael Flynn, was fired for lying about his contacts with Russian officials.

2.    Pence is known to lie. (Just watch his speech to the Faith and Freedom Coalition, embedded below, if you can bear it.) So, why do we take his word for the assertion that he knew nothing about his transition team’s pro-Russia activities?

Given the fact that the Mueller team inexplicably failed to interview the vice president, Congress needs to step up, and bring the vice president to testify to the relevant committees. This should be done in open session, so that the American people can hear Pence either admit to complicity in the Trump campaign’s footsy-playing with Russia, or prove his utter cluelessness as to what people who work for him are up to when he’s not watching.

Either way, it’s not a good look on him. More than that, whether through incompetence or mendacity, Pence is doing his bit to undermine the democracy of the United States of America.

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