ROBERT COSTA: Vice President Mike Pence is a constant at President Trump’s side, but he faces new challenges over impeachment and foreign policy. This is the Washington Week Extra.
Good evening. I’m Robert Costa. As President Trump clashes with congressional Democrats over his possible impeachment, and members of his own party on Syria, Vice President Pence remains a staunch ally. But that alliance could be tested in the coming months, forcing the VP to navigate his own views, his future, and an embattled president. The president’s decision this week to remove U.S. troops from Syria is the latest flashpoint. It prompted an outcry among some Evangelical Christian leaders who are close to VP Pence. Tom LoBianco, in his new book Piety & Power, notes that Pence has long called himself, quote, “A Christian, a conservative, and a Republican…in that order.” As the VP stands by the president on Syria, a decision that has roiled his own base, he is also facing questions about his phone calls and meetings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. During his trip to Iowa this week, where I was the pool reporter, the VP told reporters he is open to releasing the transcripts of his calls pending approval of the White House counsel, and he defended the president.
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: (From video.) The American people should read the transcript and they will see that the president did nothing wrong. There was no pressure. There was no quid pro quo. The president simply raised issues of importance and interest to the American people.
MR. COSTA: To underscore his support for the president, Vice President Pence also appeared at that Trump campaign rally in Minnesota this week, offering effusive praise.
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: (From video.) President Donald Trump is the real deal. He’s a man who says what he means and means what he says. And I see every day he gets up and fights to keep the promises that he made to the people of Minnesota and the people of all this country.
MR. COSTA: Joining me tonight, Margaret Brennan, Face the Nation moderator at CBS and CBS News senior foreign affairs correspondent; Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times and author of Confirmation Bias; Toluse Olorunnipa, White House reporter for The Washington Post; and Abby Phillip, White House correspondent for CNN.
Abby, White House correspondent, you keep an eye on President Trump but also from time to time an eye on Vice President Pence. What is this moment for him as he deals with the fallout on the Syria decision in particular?
ABBY PHILLIP: Well, it’s a classic Mike Pence moment. He’s doing exactly what he often does. It doesn’t matter that Pence was peppered with questions about whether he raised Joe Biden with the Ukrainians; he wouldn’t answer those questions, and it was clear that he was refusing to answer them without making a judgment about whether it was appropriate or not, and he doesn’t really care if he looks bad in the – in the service of making Trump look good. And so that’s what this is all about with Pence. That’s what’s actually really kept President Trump loyal to him. President Trump, you know, admires that Pence has been willing to do that time and time again, and this is no different.
MR. COSTA: Toluse, is Vice President Pence worried about his standing with President Trump, based on your reporting?
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Well, he wants to show at every instance, as Abby said, that he is loyal to the president, that he’s willing to take a bullet for the president, that he’s willing to abandon even some of his core principles in order to serve the president and to stand with the president, and this is a trying time in which he has to do that. You have to remember that if President Trump gets impeached, it would be a President Pence situation, and you have to think that a number of Republicans would rather have a President Pence who would sign the same judges, would sign the same bills and tax cuts, without all of the added drama. So Vice President Pence needs to show Trump that he is not being disloyal, that he’s not plotting behind his back, that he’s not, you know, causing some of these Republicans to think that they could have a better alternative in him, while also being caught up in some ways in this Ukrainian scandal because he did meet with President Zelensky at the time that the Trump administration was holding back aid from the Ukrainians. There’s a lot of interest in what happened in that meeting behind closed doors and whether or not there was any kind of quid pro quo. So Pence has to protect himself; at the same time, he has to protect the president and his relationship with the president, and he’s trying to walk that fine line right now.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And it’s tough because you can – he’s showing he’s lockstep with the president, yet saying he doesn’t know what the president was doing or is accused of.
MR. COSTA: An impossible position to be in.
MS. BRENNAN: It’s an impossible position, but that is essentially the argument that’s being made, is he was by the books and he was focused in these Ukrainian conversations on just the policy. And remember, there is a hot war in Ukraine, and yet the call partial record that we have read makes no mention of it. Instead, it is all about 2016. It is a mention of Joe Biden frequently throughout it. If you’re having a call with a leader of a country who you’re giving military aid to because they’re fighting, you know, basically to reclaim their territory from Russia, that might come up. But a lot of those thornier parts of policy get pushed to Vice President Pence’s desk. He handles the Afghanistans. He handles some of those more substantive and thorny parts because the president, when he engages with foreign leaders, you hear time and time again doesn’t take the briefing, doesn’t talk about the policy. And so it’s an interesting, you know, way that the two fit together in managing these things, but it has also delivered the Ukraine problem to Vice President Pence’s desk, and they continue to say that, no, he wasn’t ordered by Trump not to attend the inauguration of the Ukrainian president; it was just a scheduling issue. That is something Congress is going to ask a lot of questions about.
CARL HULSE: It’s just a classic vice presidential dilemma. Ask George H.W. Bush or Al Gore; you really have no idea what’s going on, and then all of a sudden you’re in trouble for it. (Laughter.) I think that Mike Pence owes Donald Trump so much. Mike Pence’s political career was in real danger, and all of a sudden he’s plucked out of an Indiana governor’s race that he might lose to become vice president, all of a sudden he’s in the White House. I did laugh because the president, of course, made a fairly inappropriate comment about Vice President Joe Biden and maybe over-fealty to Barack Obama during his townhall last night, and Nancy Pelosi called him a potty mouth because of that. (Laughter.) But I mean, it’s – he’s criticizing Joe Biden for being too obsequious? I mean, come on, let’s –
MS. PHILLIP: Yeah, there as a little bit of – there was a little bit of projection there.
MR. HULSE: Yeah, let’s get real.
MS. PHILLIP: I thought also, for Pence, you know, he claims, as Margaret said, that he doesn’t know, but we do know. The transcript of this call was in Pence’s briefing book. He received it. Presumptively, he read it – unlike Trump, he does read his briefing materials. He has actually a pretty full-fledged national security staff that helps him work through these issues, so.
MS. BRENNAN: And who were on the call.
MS. PHILLIP: And who were on the call. H.R. McMaster was on the call. So the idea that –
MR. COSTA: Maybe Keith Kellogg?
MS. PHILLIP: Or, I’m sorry, Keith Kellogg, I apologize. But –
MR. COSTA: That would have been news if H.R. McMaster was on the call. (Laughter.)
MS. PHILLIP: Exactly. But I mean, it just goes to show some of this stuff is hard to believe – how could Mike Pence have absolutely no idea what Rudy Giuliani has been telling everybody within shouting distance he’s been doing for months? It’s almost too good to be true, and I think that’s why Congress is going to be asking a little bit more deeply about really what did Mike Pence know.
MR. COSTA: Well, that’s such a good point because it comes to this idea that the vice president – what was the vice president’s awareness of everything? He is always careful, it appears, in his conduct, but what was he aware of and should he have spoken up?
MR. OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, there is a lot of evidence that in many cases he’s not aware of what’s happening within the Trump White House. There are many cases where he’s been asked about the scandal of the day and he’s just said, you know, I just learned about this or you’re just breaking this news to me, so there is this sort of aloofness that he has used as a shield and has kept him out of some of the other drama, from the Mueller investigation, to the Rob Porter scandal, to other scandals of the past in this administration.
But now Congress is involved, and they have already sent a subpoena, they’ve already sent a demand for documents over to the White House. They’ve asked for evidence specifically from the vice president’s office because they want to know what happened in his meeting with the Ukrainians, whether or not he cancelled the attendance at the inauguration at Trump’s request, whether or not he was part of this pressure campaign on the Ukrainians, on this new Ukrainian president in order to get political dirt on a rival for 2020, and what his role was in that process. And he was the point man for the Ukrainian negotiations, so Congress is going to want to know that.
MR. HULSE: I think it’s funny that – I don’t think Donald Trump will let Mike Pence not be part of this. He was pretty quick – (laughter) – he was pretty quick to say, oh, by the way, Mike had quite a few phone calls, too. You might want to check on those. So the president is going to keep him close on this one I think.
MR. COSTA: Will VP Pence stay close with Republicans and Evangelicals who are concerned about the Syria decision?
MR. HULSE: Yeah, I think he’s probably an important connection there, and that he can speak credibly to them. And I think – you know, Mike Pence has always been an assurance – and a little bit of insurance – for the president with some of those on the right, and I think he will continue to do that.
MR. COSTA: And he has made speaking up about Christians in the Middle East one of the pillars of his vice presidency, so this has to be a test for his own views.
MS. BRENNAN: That’s exactly right, the Christians in that part of northern Syria – and the extension of that has been, and by the way, when you are protecting minorities also, by the way, we have an alliance with the Kurds, and we shouldn’t abandon them either. This has been something that has rallied a lot of Republicans to this argument that more should be done.
What’s interesting is if you want to find the connection to 2020, it is that. It is alienating Evangelicals, and it is also the idea that if ISIS does resurge, if it comes out that there is a terrorist attack that you can link to Syria, and not just the high-value fighters, but those who are running around in eastern Syria in camps or breaking out of prisons – if you can attach that to the president, Democrats are going to use that as a talking point; that the president’s decision here not only, you know, alienated Evangelical Christians – I’m tongue-tied tonight –
MR. COSTA: It’s Friday night, Margaret. We’re all tongue-tied.
MS. BRENNAN: It is Friday night, and it has been a busy week. But also that it perhaps elevated terrorists.
MR. COSTA: A final thought on Vice President Pence. When I saw him in Iowa, Abby, he was touting the USMCA, the new version of NAFTA that is stalled on Capitol Hill. It continues to be stalled, but he wants to be out there as part of this effort to pressure Democrats to hold a vote. Is that a safe zone for him politically, to just be the USMCA proponent?
MS. PHILLIP: He’s the only person doing it. President Trump is not doing that part of the job. This is a president who goes and does campaign rallies all over the country, but he’s not disciplined on his own policy, and so Pence has had to take on that portfolio in the president’s stead. It happens to also keep him in Iowa and in these politically important states, which I think some people view as just Pence keeping his own political livelihood alive. But no one in the White House is doing that part of the job.
When the president goes to a rally, he’s doing what he did last night: talking about Peter Strzok and Lisa Page – these FBI agents who he has been attacking for months, talking about Joe Biden and Hunter Biden. He is all over the map, and Pence knows that what other Republicans want from the White House is a more disciplined message that’s focused on things that don’t make independents, and moderates, and suburban voters feel like the White House is just the center of a lot of chaos in Washington.
MR. COSTA: That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our Washington Week website. While you are online, check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us. See you next time.