Vice President Mike Pence has so far avoided being dragged into the muck of the Russia probes that have engulfed President Donald Trump, his top aides and his family members. It’s no accident.
Unlike his boss, Pence’s Twitter feed is silent about a “Russia hoax” and “witch hunts.” He’s denied having knowledge of critical discrepancies in Michael Flynn’s story — gaps that have landed the former national security adviser in prosecutors’ crosshairs. And he’s taken pains to note he wasn’t even part of the Trump ticket at a controversial June 2016 meeting where a Kremlin-linked lawyer offered dirt on Hillary Clinton in a meeting with Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort.
The Vice President’s office has also instituted strict rules against speaking to the press, and any staffers have to clear it with Pence’s new chief of staff, Nick Ayers, his communications director or press secretary before talking to reporters. And unlike in the West Wing, where staffers have taken to slinging arrows and airing unattributed grievances through the media, the rules have held firm in Pence’s orbit, where infighting is rare.
While Pence has become known for his aw-shucks persona, the former Indiana governor and longtime congressman is also a cunning politician who has developed a playbook for staying clean over his decades in the spotlight.
Ryan Streeter, who served as Pence’s deputy chief of staff when he was governor, said Pence has a way of creating “barriers” between himself and wrongdoing, or even the appearance of wrongdoing.
Streeter said Pence used to tell staffers: “If there’s a line you don’t want to cross, you don’t even walk up to it — you stop three feet in front of it.”
“He possesses the judgment to stay away from things that can create problems later,” Streeter said about Pence’s time as governor, which included his controversial flip on a religious freedom bill but was generally scandal-free.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Pence has stayed squeaky clean in the White House – or that he will be able to stay out of the Russia scandal as the probes intensify. At the very least, he will be a target for investigators eager to question key players in Trump’s orbit.
“He’s in the middle of something, even though he may not be in the middle of it,” said Stanley Brand, a white-collar defense lawyer who represented George Stephanopolous during the special counsel investigations into President Bill Clinton’s Whitewater land deals.
Politically, Pence’s credibility on the Russia probe has taken some hits — especially when his answers on Russia have been contradicted by facts that later emerged. “Where he’s gotten himself in trouble is making statements defending Trump, then having other facts come out,” said William Jeffress, a white-collar attorney who represented Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, during the Valerie Plame CIA leak investigation.
The contradictions have happened more than once. Pence said during the transition, for example, that Flynn had not discussed sanctions during calls with the Russian ambassador. That was later revealed to be untrue, and Pence pleaded ignorance.
Pence also defended Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey by pointing to the recommendations made by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein that were widely circulated by the White House. But Trump soon announced he would have fired Comey regardless of the recommendation, again landing Pence in an awkward spot.
And despite Pence’s attempts to steer clear of Russia-related landmines in the White House, his mere proximity to Trump and presence in the West Wing makes him of keen interest to investigators – and it’s unknown what the questioning could uncover.
“All the senior staff are potential grand jury witnesses,” said Adam Goldberg, a former Clinton White House special associate counsel.
Pence, for example, can eventually expect to face a range of questions from special counsel Robert Mueller and others investigating the Russia probe over conversations he had during the transition period with Flynn, as well as Trump’s firing of Comey.
On the Flynn front, there is a record showing Pence got a heads up about some of the retired lieutenant’s controversies through his role leading the Trump post-election transition, even though he previously claimed he wasn’t aware of the activities.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent Pence a letter on Nov. 18 raising alarm about Flynn’s conflicts of interest, namely his work lobbying on behalf of the Turkey government and his December 2015 paid trip to Moscow. The transition team that Pence led acknowledged the letter 10 days later.
But in early March, Pence told Fox News that he was just learning of Flynn’s lobbying activities. “Well, let me say, hearing that story today was the first I’d heard of it,” he said.
Pence being caught unaware also doesn’t square with a Feb. 19 interview then-White House chief of staff Reince Priebus gave to NBC where he was asked about Flynn’s firing — and the two-plus week gap between the White House knowing about the national security adviser’s remarks to Pence concerning sanctions and his firing.
“The vice president is in the loop on everything,” Priebus replied.
With Comey, Pence can expect to face questions from federal and congressional investigators about what he was told by the president both before and after Trump pulled the FBI director aside in the Oval Office after a Feb. 14 meeting that had included the vice president, Priebus, Sessions and Kushner. He’s also likely to be questioned in the obstruction of justice investigation centering on Comey’s firing, given that his statement about the justification clashed with Trump’s.
There’s another reason Pence may be called to answer questions. In multiple interviews, he’s dismissed any contact between the Trump campaign and Russian election meddlers.
“Of course not,” Pence said in a mid-January interview with CBS just days before the inauguration. “And I think to suggest that is to give credence to some of these bizarre rumors that have swirled around the candidacy.”
“All the contact by the Trump campaign and associates were with the American people,” he told Fox News Sunday that same day.
Recognizing the legal stakes ahead, Pence has hired a prominent lawyer, Richard Cullen, a former Virginia attorney general and U.S. attorney under President George H.W. Bush. But still unclear is how the vice president will pay for the help.
Pence is hardly wealthy. As vice president, he’s making $230,700 a year, which comes on top of his May 2017 financial disclosure that show he was making $109,749 a year as Indiana governor, along with three state pensions for retirement. His wife had no income and his own bank account had between $1,001 and $15,000. Pence also had at least $105,000 in student loan debt for his children’s education.
Jarrod Agen, who recently got a promotion from communications director to deputy chief of staff, said Pence had ruled out using taxpayer funds or money raised through his political action committee to pay for his lawyer.
Legal experts say they don’t think Pence’s legal bills have gotten too big at this early stage of the process. To start, Pence likely has provided documents to his lawyer but hasn’t spent much time preparing to give testimony or answer questions under oath. “You can get to $10,000 real quick and even $50,000. But I don’t see Pence as incurring some huge legal bill,” Jeffress said.
Pence has made one significant move that could signal an awareness of the perilous political path ahead. He recently replaced his longtime aide and chief of staff Josh Pitcock with Ayers, a 34-year-old Republican operative from Georgia who was a top Pence aide during the 2016 campaign.
The move seemed to show that, in Trump’s Washington, there’s more of a premium on the skills of a political knife-fighter than a policy wonk. Trump’s White House, after all, does remain under a state of siege over the Russia probe, and the talk that the president could fire Mueller prompted Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham to recently warn that such a move could be the “beginning of the end” of the Trump administration.
Pence is not, however, in an entirely unprecedented position.
Past vice presidents from Gerald Ford to George H.W. Bush and Al Gore can attest to the challenge of maintaining one’s personal political fortune — and limiting legal liability — while also demonstrating loyalty to a president caught in serious scandal.
Robert Bennett, a white-collar attorney who represented President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones cases, said Pence appears to be doing a fine job of navigating the situation — so far.
“He appears to be out of the news, so somebody is doing something right,” Bennett said. “There’s an old expression: ‘Mushrooms don’t get hit by lightning’—that’s because they grow underground.”