As President Donald Trump fumed Thursday about a whistleblower complaint that accused him of abusing his power and endangering national security, Vice President Mike Pence was in his home state, sticking to the script.
“I came to Indiana to say it’s time for Congress to pass the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, and pass it this year,” Pence said at an Indianapolis machinery plant, where he touted a trade deal that has been put on the congressional back burner amid an impeachment inquiry into alleged misconduct by Trump.
Even as Pence distanced himself from the impeachment saga playing out in Washington, his penchant for sidestepping the Trump administration’s most controversial episodes is perhaps facing its greatest test thus far. Congress is preparing to mount an aggressive probe into allegations that Trump pressured Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 elections and that the White House sought to cover it up – and Pence’s dealings with Ukraine have already become part of the focus.
Pence did not participate in a controversial July 25 phone call in which Trump pushed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his son, according to a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
But Pence’s name has emerged in several other contexts – including as a potential successor should Trump be ousted from office – since Democrats announced this week that they were launching a formal impeachment inquiry.
The whistleblower complaint, released Thursday, said Pence canceled a planned trip to Ukraine at the direction of Trump, who was seeking to pressure the Ukrainians to help him politically.
Three people familiar with the matter confirmed that Pence’s attendance had been requested at Zelensky’s inauguration and that his office had looked at dates for a visit to Kiev.
“I learned from U.S. officials that, on or around 14 May, the President instructed Vice President Pence to cancel his planned travel to Ukraine to attend President Zelenskyy’s inauguration on 20 May,” the unidentified whistleblower wrote in the report, which alleges a pattern of misconduct by Trump and some of his top aides.
The canceled Pence trip was listed among several moves taken by Trump that may have been part of “an overall effort to pressure the Ukrainian leadership.”
A senior administration official said a trip was never officially scheduled and no advance staffers had traveled to Ukraine to prepare for a Pence visit. However, it was standard practice for Pence to get Trump’s approval before traveling abroad, according to people familiar with the matter.
“As is our practice, we don’t comment on any conversion between the president and the vice president,” said Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff.
Trump himself reminded reporters Wednesday that Pence has had extensive conversations with Ukrainian officials during the same time period covered in the whistleblower complaint.
“And I think you should ask for VP Pence’s conversation because he had a couple conversations also,” Trump told reporters Wednesday as he faced questions about the July 25 phone call. “They’re all perfect.”
Trump’s comments – which administration officials said were not seen internally as trying to undermine Pence – set off an internal debate about whether to release the vice president’s transcripts. While some in the White House were concerned about precedent, others argued that the call summaries were appropriate and would be reassuring to those worried about the U.S.-Ukraine relationship, according to a person familiar with the matter.
In forceful language, the whistleblower described Trump’s phone call as the centerpiece of a broader effort by the Trump White House to “solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.” The whistleblower said Trump’s overtures to Zelensky were seen as so politically problematic that White House lawyers directed other officials to remove the electronic transcript of the conversation from the computer system where it was stored and load it onto a separate system meant for classified information.
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