Pence caught in the Ukraine un­der­tow

He’s not pulled di­rectly in, but he swirls on the edges

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Mau­reen Groppe

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 tes­tified ei­ther in public or in pri­vate. the Mar­riott in down­town War­saw, the stalled aid was the first is­sue a frus­trated Ze­len­sky raised.

Pence, sur­rounded by both sides’ aides and Cabi­net mem­bers, did not specifically 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 official af­ter the for­mal meet­ing, re­layed that Ukraine could boost efforts

to un­freeze the money if officials 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 tes­tified that, in a briefing 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 effort 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.”

Early warn­ings

Pence’s office had been warned months be­fore by a top Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil official 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 official Fiona Hill tes­tified 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 briefing book.

Wil­liams also tes­tified that Pence’s office 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 tes­tified 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 tes­tified 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 office 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 affect the in­tegrity of the vice pres­i­dent and his office.

That in­cluded, she tes­tified, 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 official.

Pence’s staff had been in the pre­lim­i­nary plan­ning stages for that, still un­cer­tain whether the May date would fit his sched­ule when, Wil­liams tes­tified, 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 tes­tified 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 office be­cause her su­per­vi­sor, Kel­logg, also was listening in on the call. Kel­logg, who has not tes­tified, 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 tes­tified.

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 efforts 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 efforts, 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.

Sond­land

Pence

Ze­len­sky

STR, AFP/ GETTY IM­AGES

Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence, Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Volodymyr Ze­len­sky and their del­e­ga­tions meet Sept. 1 in War­saw, Poland.

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