What Did The Vice President Not Know And When Did He Not Know It?

Start your day with TPM.
Sign up for the Morning Memo newsletter

As wave after wave of scandal has broken over the Trump administration, one man has stayed suspiciously dry—Vice President Mike Pence.

Pence and his allies have repeatedly asserted that was not in the loop, not informed, not present, or otherwise not implicated in the various controversies—everything from former national security adviser Mike Flynn’s unauthorized lobbying for Turkey and conversations with Russian officials to the decision to fire FBI Director James Comey.

An anonymous source close to the administration complained to NBC on Friday about a “pattern … vis a vis Pence, that he was never, either intentionally or unintentionally, made aware of the facts.”

“It has to be intentional,” the source said of Pence’s repeated exclusion.

But the narrative that Pence’s hands are clean strains credulity. In some cases, it is contradicted outright by reports and documents establishing that the Vice President was in fact involved in the key moments that have defined the first four months of the Trump administration.

Last to learn that Flynn talked sanctions with Kislyak

Pence’s debut as chief White House know-nothing arrived just a few weeks after Trump’s inauguration. During the transition, he publicly, fervently defended national security adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, saying they merely exchanged “Christmas wishes.”

“They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia,” Pence told CBS.

The Washington Post revealed on Feb. 9 that Flynn and Kislyak had, in fact, discussed loosening U.S. sanctions.

“I was disappointed to learn that … the facts that had been conveyed to me by Gen. Flynn were inaccurate,” Pence said in a news conference shortly after Flynn was dismissed for misleading him and other senior administration officials. “But we honor Gen. Flynn’s long service to the United States of America, and I fully support the President’s decision to ask for his resignation.”

As it turns out, the President and other White House insiders knew about the nature of those conversations long before the vice president did, but inexplicably chose to keep him in the dark.

Pence’s press secretary told NBC that he did not learn about the inappropriate communications until the day the Post story was published. Nor did he know about an urgent warning delivered by acting Attorney General Sally Yates that Flynn was “compromised with respect to the Russians” and was lying to the administration.

Trump and other unnamed senior officials learned 15 days earlier, on Jan. 26, hours after Yates first briefed White House Counsel Don McGahn about her concerns.

As Yates testified before the Senate, a core part of her concern was that “the Vice President was unknowingly making false statements to the public” and going on the record with statements about Flynn’s contacts with Russia “that we knew to be untrue.”

Never heard of this widely-reported Flynn Turkey lobbying business

One of the least plausible denials made by Pence is that he was completely unaware that Flynn was receiving a hefty paycheck as a lobbyist for Turkey while working for the Trump campaign.

A flurry of press reports about Flynn’s lobbying work for Inovo BV, a Dutch firm run by a Turkish businessman with close ties to Russia, first started appearing immediately after the November election. Pence, who was serving as chairman of the Trump transition team, was sent a letter on Nov. 18 by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the ranking member on the House Oversight Committee, warning him about the potential conflicts of interest posed by Flynn’s lobbying.

“Flynn was receiving classified briefings during the presidential campaign while his consulting firm, Flynn Intel Group, Inc., was being paid to lobby the U.S. Government on behalf of a foreign government’s interests,” Cummings wrote.

“I’m not sure we saw the letter,” a source close to the administration told NBC on Thursday. The House Oversight Democrats answered by tweeting out the receipts proving this was false.

“Thank you very much for your letters,” the transition team’s office of legislative affairs wrote to Cummings, pledging to “carefully” review them, according to a copy of their email posted on Twitter.

Cummings alleged Friday that Pence was either lying about what he knew or “running a sloppy shop.”

In a March interview, after Flynn belatedly registered as a foreign agent for his Inovo lobbying, Pence told Fox News that the news reports on Flynn’s registration were “the first I’d heard of it.”

Kept out of loop as transition chief about Flynn probe tipoff

Pence stuck to this same line after The New York Times reported that Flynn informed the transition team in January that he was under federal investigation for his lobbying work for Turkey. Though Pence was the chairman of the transition team at the time, weighing in on key cabinet appointments and coordinating with the outgoing Obama administration, he apparently was not told the news.

Pence’s office issued a statement Thursday insisting that he “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.”

Who knew what and when is still unclear.

The New York Times reported that Flynn briefed McGahn on the investigation on Jan. 4 and Flynn’s lawyers provided additional information to transition lawyers on Jan. 6. The White House called this account “flat wrong” in an anonymous statement 22 hours after the Times report appeared.

In the dark (or not) on Comey’s ouster

Additional questions remain about Pence’s role—or lack thereof—in the decision to fire FBI Director James Comey.

This week, amid a cascade of revelations and developments, the world learned that Trump asked Pence to leave the room before his fateful conversation with Comey in which he asked the FBI director to drop its investigation of Flynn.

After Trump fired Comey, Pence told CNN that the decision stemmed from a desire to “restore trust and confidence of the American people in the Federal Bureau of Investigation” and was based solely on “the recommendation of the Deputy Attorney General and the Attorney General.

It was not, Pence emphasized, motivated by Comey’s investigation into ties between the Trump administration and Russia.

“He is not under investigation and there is no evidence of collusion,” he said. “So that’s not what this is about.”

But even as Pence said this, he was apparently well aware Trump had long been mulling a plan to push Comey out. The New York Times reported on May 10, the same day as Pence’s statement, that Trump had been “venting his anger” about Comey to a small circle that included Pence. Pence and the others in that clique reportedly “all told him they generally backed dismissing Mr. Comey.” 

Later that same week, Trump revealed in a TV interview that Comey’s firing was indeed related to the Russia investigation, completely undercutting Pence’s public insistence that it was not. 

“In fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,’” Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt.

On Friday, the New York Times published an account of the White House’s internal notes from that Oval Office meeting, in which Trump told the visiting Russian officials that he decided to fire Comey because “he was crazy, a real nut job.”

“I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off,” Trump said.

Latest DC
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: