There are more than a few people who look at Vice President Pence and see President Pence — possibly sooner than later. For wistful Democrats, it would be the end result of President Trump stepping aside or being impeached; for wistful Republicans, some dream of a more serious, less error-prone Republican president actually succeeding at passing a conservative agenda.
But as The Post’s Abby Phillip began documenting last week, Pence has hardly been immune from Trump’s foibles and from saying untrue things about them. And now twice in the past week, his defenses of the White House he serves in have been pretty directly contradicted in ways that seriously call into question his credibility.
Below are three big instances in which Pence said something that turned out to be highly misleading at best and clearly false at worst, starting with the newest one.
1) Michael Flynn’s status as a foreign agent for Turkey
In early March, it was reported that former national security adviser Michael Flynn had filed as a foreign agent for Turkey after failing to do so when he should have. Asked about it by Fox News’s Bret Baier on March 9, Pence said twice that it was the “first I heard of it”:
BAIER: The story today that former national security adviser Michael Flynn has filed with the Department of Justice as a foreign agent for making more than $500,000 as a lobbyist, essentially, for Turkey. Your reaction to that, given that, doesn’t that mean, Mr. Vice President, that even if he didn’t lie to you about what the Russian ambassador said or didn’t say, that you would have had to fire him anyway?
PENCE: Well, let me say, hearing that story today was the first I’d heard of it. And I fully support the decision that President Trump made to ask for General Flynn’s resignation.
BAIER: You’re disappointed by the story?
PENCE: The first I heard of it, and I think it is, uh, it is an affirmation of the president’s decision to ask General Flynn to resign.
But just a day later, The Washington Post and others reported that Flynn had informed Trump’s legal team that he might need to register as a foreign agent even before Trump was inaugurated. And late Wednesday, the New York Times reported that Flynn also had disclosed that he was under federal investigation for it. That’s what he told soon-to-be White House chief counsel Don McGahn on Jan. 4, per the Times.
There are two possible defenses for Pence here. The first is that maybe McGahn didn’t pass this information along to Pence. This doesn’t make much sense, though, given that Pence was leading the transition effort. That would be gross negligence on McGahn’s behalf.
The second is that, even if Pence knew about it, perhaps he was referring strictly to the reports about Flynn having just filed as a foreign agent when he said it was the first he’d heard of it. But that would be highly, highly misleading — at best. And Pence went on to pretend that this was all new information that bolstered Trump’s decision to ask for Flynn’s resignation.
Update: Pence’s office has issued a statement on this. It seems to suggest that Pence was indeed never told of Flynn’s ties to Turkey back in January: “The vice president stands by his comments in March upon first hearing the news regarding General Flynn’s ties to Turkey and fully supports the president’s decision to ask for General Flynn’s resignation.”
It’s not totally clear, though. “The news” could also refer specifically to reports that Flynn had just registered as a foreign agent. So is this saying it was the first Pence was hearing of that specific news or the first Pence had heard of Flynn’s ties to Turkey? I am seeking clarification.
2) The explanation of James Comey’s firing
While defending Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey last week, Pence asserted that the president had acted upon the recommendation of the Justice Department and said the decision wasn’t about the FBI’s Russia investigation:
“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 interests of the American people and to ensuring that the FBI has the trust and confidence of the people [of] this nation.”
“There is no evidence of collusion between our campaign and any Russian officials. That’s not what — let me be clear with you — that was not what this is about. That’s not what this is about.”
Trump himself blew all of that up a day later, telling NBC News’s Lester Holt that he had already decided to fire Comey and would have done it regardless of the DOJ’s recommendation. Trump also said clearly that the Russia probe was on his mind. “When I decided to [fire Comey], I said to myself, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,” he said.
Pence could argue that Trump technically did accept the recommendations of the Justice Department. But, again, that would be highly misleading, based on Trump’s own comments that he had already made up his mind.
About the most charitable reading here is that Pence was delivering the White House’s talking points before Trump lighted them on fire. But again, Pence is putting his credibility on the line when he offers X as the explanation rather than Y, and it turns out it was indeed Y. He signed up for this, and it’s up to him to demand the truth from his boss before he goes out there to defend him.
Jan. 15: Flynn talking about sanctions with Russia
Going back a little further, the explanation for Flynn’s forced resignation in February was that he has lied to Pence about his contacts with Russia — lies that Pence went on TV and promptly emphasized as the truth.
Pence assured CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Flynn hadn’t discussed U.S. sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — talks that could have run afoul of the law given that Flynn wasn’t yet a White House official:
“They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia. … What I can confirm, having spoken to him about it, is that those conversations that happened to occur around the time that the United States took action to expel diplomats had nothing whatsoever to do with those sanctions.”
This turned out to be flat-out wrong. Again, it’s quite possible that Pence was indeed given bad information by someone else — Flynn, in this case. But he’s still going out there and making broad assertions about what went down.
In all three instances, Pence said something to defend the administration that in retrospect looks very suspect. Precisely what’s happening here is up for debate, but none of it is good for Pence’s political future.