Will Pence’s loy­alty to the pres­i­dent be re­cip­ro­cated?

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - Dan Balz THE SUN­DAY TAKE dan.balz@wash­post.com

The most im­por­tant re­la­tion­ship in the White House should be the one be­tween Pres­i­dent Trump and Vice Pres­i­dent Pence. By the ac­counts of those around the two lead­ers, that bond is ex­tremely strong. Which makes it even more in­ex­pli­ca­ble that Pence was kept in the dark dur­ing what be­came one of the big­gest headaches to hit the new ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Pence is in Europe this week­end, rep­re­sent­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion at the Mu­nich Se­cu­rity Con­fer­ence and later at sev­eral meet­ings in Brus­sels with U.S. al­lies. He of­fered as­sur­ances Satur­day, in the name of the pres­i­dent, that the U.S. com­mit­ment to NATO is un­wa­ver­ing, while also call­ing on Euro­pean coun­tries to step up their fi­nan­cial con­tri­bu­tions to the al­liance.

With ques­tions about Trump and Rus­sia swirling, Pence said the ad­min­is­tra­tion would hold Rus­sia ac­count­able for its ag­gres­sion in Ukraine while also not­ing the pres­i­dent’s de­sire for a bet­ter re­la­tion­ship with Moscow.

Pence’s mes­sage was sim­i­lar to that de­liv­ered ear­lier in the week by De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mattis and no doubt was wel­comed by Euro­pean al­lies un­easy and un­nerved by what Trump has said over many months about NATO, Europe, Rus­sia and Brexit — Bri­tain’s vote to leave the Euro­pean Union.

Those al­lies also are won­der­ing whether any­one truly speaks for Trump. On that ques­tion, Pence ar­rived in Europe shad­owed, at least to some ex­tent, by what had just hap­pened back home with re­gard to for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Michael Flynn.

Ba­sic facts are well known. In Jan­uary, Flynn per­son­ally as­sured Pence that he had not talked about U.S. sanc­tions dur­ing a De­cem­ber phone call with Rus­sian Am­bas­sador to the United States Sergey Kislyak. Pence re­peated that ver­sion on na­tional tele­vi­sion. Trump and se­nior White House of­fi­cials were later told by the Jus­tice Depart­ment that Flynn had in fact dis­cussed sanc­tions and there­fore had lied to the vice pres­i­dent.

No­body in the White House both­ered to tell Pence that, if only to pre­vent him from re­peat­ing what he had said ear­lier. In­stead, Pence learned that Flynn had mis­led him two weeks later, af­ter The Wash­ing­ton Post pub­lished a re­port re­veal­ing that sanc­tions were dis­cussed and in which Flynn backed off his pre­vi­ous de­nials.

But if ba­sic facts are known, they are not fully known. If there is a sim­ple ex­pla­na­tion for what hap­pened to Pence, White House of­fi­cials have not been will­ing to share it. Some of those con­tacted about the mat­ter did not re­spond. Oth­ers said they could not say ex­actly who made the de­ci­sion not to share with Pence that he had been mis­led. No one was will­ing to speak on the record about sen­si­tive in­ter­nal de­lib­er­a­tions.

That leaves ques­tions: Was it a de­lib­er­ate de­ci­sion to keep the vice pres­i­dent out of the meet­ing where the in­for­ma­tion was first shared? Why didn’t the pres­i­dent ever men­tion this to his vice pres­i­dent? Was it poor judg­ment on the part of some se­nior of­fi­cial not to tell Pence what had been learned? Was it the re­sult of a sloppy White House op­er­a­tion? Fi­nally, what role did Pence play in trig­ger­ing Flynn’s forced res­ig­na­tion?

One per­son who knows Pence de­scribed the vice pres­i­dent as seem­ing to be as ag­gra­vated over the Flynn episode as some­one with Pence’s calm and mod­er­ate Mid­west­ern tem­per­a­ment ever gets. Oth­ers closer to the vice pres­i­dent say that’s an ex­ag­ger­a­tion of the out­ward emo­tions the vice pres­i­dent has dis­played over the past week or so, as events fi­nally forced the pres­i­dent to dis­miss Flynn.

One ac­count has Pence weigh­ing in force­fully Mon­day, once the pres­i­dent was back from a week­end in Florida, to reg­is­ter his dis­plea­sure at be­ing mis­led and that his dis­plea­sure has­tened Flynn’s down­fall. An­other ac­count sug­gests there was no no­table dif­fer­ence in Pence’s de­meanor be­tween Fri­day morn­ing, when he con­fronted Flynn about be­ing mis­led, and Mon­day, when the dis­cus­sions har­dened into the de­ci­sion to cut Flynn loose.

What rec­om­men­da­tion Pence gave to the pres­i­dent is also not known. Aides say the two men talked re­peat­edly about the mat­ter over a pe­riod of days, once it was pub­lic knowl­edge that Flynn had talked to Kislyak about sanc­tions. The pres­i­dent asked Pence what he should do, ac­cord­ing to one Pence ad­viser, but the vice pres­i­dent, through that ad­viser, de­clined to share any of his pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions with the pres­i­dent.

The pres­i­dent has con­trib­uted to some of the con­fu­sion about the de­ci­sion to let Flynn go. The day af­ter the res­ig­na­tion, White House press sec­re­tary Sean Spicer said Flynn was forced to re­sign be­cause there had been a lack of trust that had built up be­tween the na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser and the pres­i­dent.

On Wed­nes­day, at a joint news con­fer­ence with Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, Trump praised Flynn and said the me­dia had treated him un­fairly. Trump’s praise may have been an ef­fort to mol­lify Flynn, who was re­port­edly in­censed over Spicer’s ver­sion of events at Tues­day’s brief­ing.

By Thurs­day, at his lengthy news con­fer­ence, the pres­i­dent was back to the Spicer ex­pla­na­tion: that he had lost trust in Flynn in large part be­cause of what Flynn had done to Pence. Still, no one has said why Pence had to learn about Flynn’s false­hood to him through the me­dia.

What hap­pened to Pence raised ques­tions in the minds of peo­ple who know and care about the role of the modern vice pres­i­dent, a model that has ex­isted since Wal­ter F. Mon­dale served as vice pres­i­dent to then-Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter.

Joel Gold­stein, a pro­fes­sor at Saint Louis Univer­sity School of Law and au­thor of “The White House Vice Pres­i­dency,” said that, at a min­i­mum, Pence should have been in the room when White House coun­sel Don McGahn briefed Trump and other se­nior of­fi­cials about what the Jus­tice Depart­ment had told him about Flynn.

“The vice pres­i­dent’s use­ful­ness to other peo­ple de­pends in part on his stand­ing with the pres­i­dent,” Gold­stein said. Look­ing to Pence’s trip this week­end, he added, “Some of those peo­ple [in Europe] must be won­der­ing what does it mean that the pres­i­dent didn’t even give him a heads up.”

Pence’s aides said the vice pres­i­dent en­joys the same re­la­tion­ship and un­der­stand­ings with Trump that vice presidents since Mon­dale have en­joyed with their presidents. He has a stand­ing weekly lunch or pri­vate meet­ing with the pres­i­dent. His chief of staff at­tends daily White House se­nior staff meet­ings. When Pence is not able to at­tend a na­tional se­cu­rity meet­ing, his na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser at­tends.

Whether Pence has unim­peded ac­cess to all in­for­ma­tion avail­able to the pres­i­dent — as Richard Moe, who was Mon­dale’s vice pres­i­den­tial chief of staff, said all past vice presidents have had — is called into ques­tion by the fail­ure to alert him to what the Jus­tice Depart­ment had con­veyed to the White House.

Aides said Pence goes in and out of the Oval Of­fice reg­u­larly when he and Trump are in the White House. Be­yond that, one se­nior ad­viser said, the pres­i­dent and vice pres­i­dent have be­come good friends, de­spite hav­ing started out their jour­ney barely know­ing each other. They say they have not pushed back against the idea that Pence is some­how out of the loop, be­cause it’s some­thing they have no wor­ries about.

“It is pur­posely set up that both the pres­i­dent’s op­er­a­tion and the vice pres­i­dent’s op­er­a­tion work to­gether,” one Pence ad­viser said. “I would say this was an hon­est mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion early in an ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

On Fri­day, Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell (R-Ky.) was asked whether he thought Pence had been treated badly in the Flynn episode. “Mike Pence had been the in­dis­pens­able player,” he said. “Yeah, he’s a huge value added for us. We all know him. He has, I think we’ll all stip­u­late, a very dif­fer­ent kind of per­son­al­ity from the pres­i­dent and he’s in the mid­dle of ev­ery­thing and it’s been great. I mean, I think he’s been ter­rific.”

That’s a view widely shared among con­gres­sional and other Repub­li­cans and is vi­tal to their abil­ity to re­tain con­fi­dence in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. Per­haps this episode was, as Pence’s team says, “an anom­aly” in a White House whose grow­ing pains have been on clear dis­play. Pence is un­ques­tion­ably loyal to the pres­i­dent. But for Pence to be in­dis­pens­able in his role, he needs a re­li­able part­ner in the pres­i­dent, some­one who is con­sis­tent in his views and doesn’t un­der­cut those around him. Whether Pence can count on that is an open ques­tion.

MICHAEL DALDER/REUTERS

Vice Pres­i­dent Pence walks with mem­bers of his del­e­ga­tion ahead of bi­lat­eral talks dur­ing the Mu­nich Se­cu­rity Con­fer­ence in Ger­many. Pence also will at­tend sev­eral meet­ings in Brus­sels with U.S. al­lies.

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