Pence caught in the Ukraine undertow
He’s not pulled directly in, but he swirls on the edges
WASHINGTON – As the White House scrambled in late August to swap Vice President Mike Pence into a preplanned presidential trip to Poland, there was one meeting Pence was adamant stay on the schedule: a sit- down with Ukraine’s new president.
Nearly $ 400 million in U. S. military assistance that Ukraine was desperate for as a counter to Russian aggression had been on hold for weeks.
When Pence and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met Sept. 1 in a windowless conference room of Vice President Mike Pence has broadly denied knowing about the allegations at the center of the impeachment inquiry. But Pence’s name came up during the testimony of about a dozen of the 17 people who have testified either in public or in private. the Marriott in downtown Warsaw, the stalled aid was the first issue a frustrated Zelensky raised.
Pence, surrounded by both sides’ aides and Cabinet members, did not specifically discuss with Zelensky the reasons behind the hold, according to testimony in House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. Instead, Pence assured Zelensky that the United States was fully behind Ukraine and that he would talk to Trump to try to get the assistance released.
It was diplomat Gordon Sondland who, in an anteroom with a senior Ukrainian official after the formal meeting, relayed that Ukraine could boost efforts
to unfreeze the money if officials would announce an investigation into Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company that Hunter Biden worked for when his father, Joe Biden, was vice president.
Sondland also testified that, in a briefing he joined before the Zelenksy meeting, he told Pence he was concerned the delay in aid had become tied to investigations Trump wanted.
Pence has disputed Sondland’s account of raising concerns about the aid. Even more, he has broadly denied knowing about the allegations at the center of the impeachment inquiry.
Still, an accumulation of public testimony, including from Sondland and other diplomats and aides, suggests heavy involvement by Pence in Ukraine generally, though no one seems to be accusing Pence of participating in or facilitating the effort to push Ukraine into taking up the investigations.
Pence has disputed the notion that he was in the loop, telling WISN 12 News in Wisconsin after Sondland’s testimony that he was “not aware of the allegations that U. S. aid to Ukraine was tied to investigations at any point before those matters became public in September.”
Pence’s office had been warned months before by a top National Security Council official concerned that something was going on with Ukraine that appeared to involve Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer.
“I flagged to his staff, to General Kellogg that there were some issues, you know, kind of noise going on around Ukraine that was worrisome and that we’d need to get to the bottom of,” former National Security Council official Fiona Hill testified about her interaction with retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, Pence’s national security adviser.
Kellogg and Jennifer Williams, a national security adviser on loan to Pence from the State Department, listened in on Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky in which Trump asked Zelensky to talk to Giuliani and to undertake investigations into the Bidens. A transcript of that call – which sparked the whistleblower complaint that became the center of the impeachment inquiry – was included in Pence’s daily briefing book.
Williams also testified that Pence’s office had been instructed by Trump not to send Pence to Zelensky’s May inauguration, another detail noted in the whistleblower’s complaint.
Pence’s name came up during the testimony of about a dozen of the 17 people who testified in October and November either in public or in private depositions later made public, though only a handful talked in detail about their interactions with Pence on Ukraine.
Witnesses described Pence as active in foreign policy and particularly eager to be involved in Ukraine, a strategic U. S. ally at war with Russia.
Hill testified that she worked closely with Pence’s team, including Kellogg and Williams. Despite Pence’s small staff, Hill said, the vice president played an important foreign policy and diplomatic role.
“Vice President Pence has been, you know, extremely good about stepping up when asked,” Hill said in her initial deposition with the House intelligence committee. Pence, she also said, “wanted to play a role on Ukraine.”
Hill said she tried to keep Pence’s office as informed as possible and would wave red flags for meetings his team should avoid or things it needed to be aware of that could affect the integrity of the vice president and his office.
That included, she testified, sharing with Kellogg her concerns about Giuliani and the abrupt dismissal of Marie Yovanovitch from her post as U. S. ambassador to Ukraine in the spring.
“I wanted to make sure that they knew that there were issues and they should be very careful,” she said.
After Zelensky was elected in April on promises to root out corruption in the former Soviet state and to help solve the deadly conflict with Russia, the State Department wanted Pence to attend Zelensky’s inauguration, according to David Hale, the department’s No. 3 official.
Pence’s staff had been in the preliminary planning stages for that, still uncertain whether the May date would fit his schedule when, Williams testified, she was told by an assistant to Pence’s chief of staff that Trump didn’t want Pence to go.
None of the witnesses said they knew the reason behind that direction.
Pence later received in his daily briefing book a transcription of Trump’s July call with Zelensky, in which Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart to “do us a favor” by investigating a theory that Ukraine had meddled in the 2016 presidential election and asked for help investigating the Bidens.
Williams testified that the call struck her as “unusual and inappropriate.”
But she said she didn’t express concern at the time with anyone in Pence’s office because her supervisor, Kellogg, also was listening in on the call. Kellogg, who has not testified, said in a statement that he “heard nothing wrong or improper on the call.”
Pence has said he doesn’t remember reading the transcript. “But had I read it, it wouldn’t matter because the president did nothing wrong,” he said on Fox Business Network in November. “There was no quid pro quo.”
Pence’s meeting in Poland
When Pence subbed for Trump on the Poland trip so the president could deal with the threat of Hurricane Dorian in the USA, Pence was eager to speak to Zelensky to convey support for him, Morrison said. “It was really the one meeting that the vice president was adamant he take,” he testified.
Pence brought up Trump’s focus on corruption reform in Ukraine and conveyed Trump’s desire that countries besides the United States also provide security assistance to Ukraine, according to Morrison.
Pence tried to encourage Zelensky, Morrison said, but “there was only so much he could say” to allay the concerns about whether the assistance would be forthcoming.
The next day, Pence didn’t directly respond when asked by reporters whether he could assure Ukraine that the freeze was not related to efforts by Giuliani and others to dig up dirt on the Biden family. He has also sidestepped the question of whether he was ever aware of those efforts, saying the question of military aid was “from my experience” not connected.
Even if Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry believe Pence is implicated, they appear to be staying squarely focused on Trump. But Pence’s reputation could still take a hit in the court of public opinion.
“It strains the bonds of credulity to the breaking point to assume that Mike Pence knew nothing about any of this,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment who served as a State Department adviser for both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Vice President Mike Pence, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and their delegations meet Sept. 1 in Warsaw, Poland.