Pence Adopts Classic Trump Strategy: Deny, Deny, Deny…Your Running Mate’s Statements?

Republican vice-presidential nominee Gov. Mike Pence speaks with Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine during the vice-presidential debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Patrick Semansky/AP

Lauren Fox contributed reporting.

Tasked with defending Donald Trump’s comments and positions during the vice presidential debate Tuesday night, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence flatly rejected a number of the GOP nominee’s more high-profile comments as false, even in the most open-and-shut cases.

At the end of the night, the verdict was in: the running mate had virtually severed himself from the GOP nominee.

“The indelible image that will shape the debate in the coverage to come is Mike Pence repeatedly shaking his head, ‘No, no, no. Donald Trump didn’t say that,’” Republican strategist Steve Schmidt told MSNBC’s Brian Williams. “Almost in every instance, in fact, Donald Trump did say that.”

“To win this debate Mike Pence had to stand up for Donald Trump,” Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, Robbie Mook, told TPM in the post-debate spin room in Farmville, Virginia. “He just changed the platform. Mike Pence refused to defend him.”

Trump surrogate Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) praised Pence’s strategy in the spin room, however, saying that he “did a fantastic job not of defending Donald Trump” but of focusing on policy positions.

Here are some of Pence’s most bold denials over the course of the debate.

Taxes, taxes, taxes

“Donald Trump started this campaign in 2014 and said, if I run for president I will absolutely release my taxes,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) said, charging Trump with having “broken his first promise.”

“He hasn’t broken his promise,” Pence insisted, citing an ongoing audit as the reason behind Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns so far.

In September, Trump acknowledged that the audit was not preventing him from making his taxes public and implied there was simply no political advantage in doing so. He then pivoted to challenge Hillary Clinton on her use of a private email server as secretary of state.

“Let her release her emails and I will release my tax returns immediately,” he said, and echoed that point in the first presidential debate.

Mass deportation

Later in the debate, Kaine challenged Pence on Trump’s campaign promise to forcibly deport millions of undocumented immigrants.

“He’s trying to fuzz up what Donald Trump has said,” Kaine said. “When Donald Trump spoke in Phoenix, he looked the audience in the eye and said, no, we’re building a wall and we’re deporting everybody. He said, quote, ‘they will all be gone.'”

“He’s talking about criminal aliens,” Pence replied.

In August, Trump denied that he was walking back his hardline stance on illegal immigration even as newly-minted campaign manager Kellyanne Conway waffled, saying the candidate’s plan was “to be determined.” Days later, Trump continued to be vague about his immigration policy, but did promise to “get rid of the criminals.”

In a later speech in Phoenix, Arizona, Trump said that “anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation,” although he focused on “criminal illegal immigrants” in his deportation promises.

“You can call it deported if you want,” he said. “You can call it whatever the hell you want. They’re gone.”

Admiring dictators

Kaine charged Trump with having a “personal Mt. Rushmore” of dictators that the GOP nominee favors, specifically naming Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.

Pence’s response? “Oh, please.”

In May, Trump said that he would “have no problem” speaking to Kim Jong Un about North Korea’s nuclear program. In June, North Korean state media outlet DPRK Today returned the compliment and praised Trump as a “wise politician.”

Trump has also expressed admiration for overthrown Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, praising his skill at killing terrorists “so good.”

And the GOP nominee has a long history of lavishing praise on Putin, citing his approval ratings and lauding his “very strong control over a country” as recently as during the first presidential debate.

Getting rid of NATO

In response to a question about national security, Kaine pivoted to criticize Trump’s comments on NATO.

“Donald Trump’s claim that NATO is obsolete, and that we need to get rid of NATO, is so dangerous,” he said.

“That’s not his plan,” Pence said, laughing.

In a July interview with the New York Times, Trump did say that he thought NATO was “obsolete” and hesitated to commit to a defense of Baltic states in the case of Russian aggression, saying that it would depend on whether or not NATO allies had “fulfilled their obligations” to the United States.

Later the same day, he clarified his comments. “I want them to pay,” Trump said, adding that if NATO allies refuse then “we have to walk.”

Russian aggression

“Donald Trump, on the other hand, didn’t know that Russia had invaded Crimea,” Kaine said at one point in the debate.

“That’s nonsense,” Pence hit back.

In July, Trump categorically declared that if he was elected Putin would not “go into Ukraine,” apparently forgetting that Russia already invaded and annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014.

Trump later insisted that he was talking about preventing future Russian aggression in the region.

Russian business ties

“Donald Trump has said, ‘I’m doing business with Russia,'” Kaine pointed out, once again hitting the GOP nominee for his refusal to release his tax returns.

“No, he hasn’t said that,” Pence replied.

While Trump and his campaign have denied having any business dealings with Russia, several Trump projects in the U.S. have been funded by Russian capital. When asked by a reporter whether “there was Russian money pouring into the Trump Organization” during a July press conference, Trump dodged the question.

Praise for Putin

“Donald Trump and Mike Pence have said he’s a great leader,” Kaine said of Putin.

“No, we haven’t,” Pence insisted.

In a July interview, Trump told Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade that Putin is “a better leader than Obama.” And in September, Pence also told CNN that “It’s inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country.”

Punishing abortion

“The last thing the government should do is have laws to punish women who make reproductive choices,” Kaine said, calling it “the fundamental difference between a Clinton/Kaine ticket and a Trump/Pence ticket.”

“No it’s really not,” Pence said. “Donald Trump and I would never support legislation that punished women who made the heartbreaking choice to end a pregnancy. We just never would.”

In March, Trump said that “there has to be some form of punishment” for a woman seeking an abortion if the procedure was outlawed in the United States, confirming that he was referring to a punishment for the woman.

Later the same day, Trump’s campaign released a statement reversing his position and framing women instead as “victims” of doctors performing an “illegal act.”

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