Of the many ways in which Vice President Pence differs from his boss, few are as immediately striking as his ability to offer precisely the most practiced response to any probing question no matter the circumstances. President Trump is known for dropping huge boulders into small ponds just to see what happens; Pence’s job is often to take a rippling body of water and coax it back into smoothness. Pence doesn’t usually make news; he unmakes it.
On Thursday morning, in an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, he made news.
“Bob Mueller,” Mitchell began, referring to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. “You knew him; he must have briefed you when you were a member of Congress. He’s a Marine. He’s a lifelong Republican. Do you think he can be trusted? Do you think he’s a bad guy?”
“You know,” Pence replied, “our administration has been fully cooperating with the special counsel and …”
“Do you think his investigation is a hoax?” Mitchell interjected.
Like a Boston Dynamics robot after a swift kick, Pence pressed forward as if nothing had happened.
” … and will continue to,” he said. “What I think is that it’s been about a year since this investigation began. Our administration’s provided over a million documents. We’ve fully cooperated in it and, in the interest of the country, I think it’s time to wrap it up. And I would very respectfully encourage the special counsel and his team to bring their work to completion.”
There is an obvious reason that Pence would like to see the Mueller probe wrap up: It is the oft-stated position of his immediate superior. Trump’s opposition to the Mueller probe predates the probe itself, including allegedly pressing then-FBI director James B. Comey to help “lift the cloud” of the Russia investigation even before Comey was fired a year ago this week — the act that spurred Mueller’s appointment.
More broadly, though, Pence’s argument that the investigation needs to end quickly “in the interest of the country” helps reinforce a rhetorical point that’s acquired some urgency.
Trump has long held that the Mueller probe and the Russia investigation are hoaxes, witch hunts or both, an argument that quickly permeated his base. But the constant reiteration of objections to Mueller’s investigation, humming along quietly and unseen in the background like the preparations for D-Day, has had some effect.
A poll from CBS News released this week found the portion of Americans who view the probe as politically motivated has increased from 48 to 53 percent since December — meaning that a majority of the country now views it that way. There has been a deliberate effort by Trump and his allies (including those at Fox News) to present the Mueller team and the FBI more broadly as saturated with anti-Trump bias. Those arguments have certainly had some effect.
For all of the White House’s cooperation with Mueller touted by Pence, there’s one central and imminent way in which it hasn’t been helpful: Mueller hasn’t talked to Trump. Ending the investigation over, say, the next week would probably have the happy side effect of ending it before Trump can be asked about his role in and approach to the campaign and the response to the investigation. Ending the investigation without interviewing key actors would not particularly worry the White House; it has embraced the report from the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee that exonerated Trump’s campaign of any coordination with Russian actors in 2016 despite that report lacking input from a number of key figures.
All of that said, it’s worth picking out Pence’s assertion about the “interest of the country.” What this means isn’t clear, except that Trump is eager to be viewed more positively by the American public than he is and certainly sees the Russia investigation as an impediment to that. It seems clear that America will not soon mend its partisan differences and unify around any political leader, much less a president who has never been viewed with approval by even half the country. The “interest of the country,” according to an April poll from The Washington Post and ABC News, is to continue the Mueller investigation, a position held by nearly 7 in 10 Americans, including 43 percent of Republicans.
What Pence is really saying is that a politically inconvenient thing should go away. There’s not much more to it than that, and one need not read too far into things to get that message. What’s striking, though, is how far that deviates from recent Republican attitudes toward investigations into their political opponents.
There’s the Benghazi investigation, of course, which extended from the attacks in Libya in 2012 until about a month after the 2016 election. It was instrumental in affecting the 2016 election, not because it implicated Hillary Clinton in her role as secretary of state but because it exposed the private email server she used during that period, leading to the FBI investigation that reemerged right before Election Day.
But it wasn’t just Benghazi. There was also the investigation into a failed 2009-2010 ATF program nicknamed Fast and Furious, which involved selling guns to criminals in an effort to uncover trafficking networks but resulted in putting guns into criminals’ hands with tragic results.
Republicans seized on Fast and Furious as a significant scandal in the early days of the administration of President Barack Obama. Beginning in January 2011, shortly after Republicans regained control of the House, Republican members of Congress began pressing the administration hard on the issue. A preliminary report was issued that June.
That wasn’t the end of the investigation. When Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. refused to provide documents related to the investigation, he was held in contempt by the House. That was in June 2012, about 18 months after Congress first started asking questions.
Among those voting to hold Holder in contempt? Pence, then a member of the House from Indiana.
The probe kept going. In July 2012, Republicans released another report on their investigation, part one of three. In September, the Department of Justice’s inspector general released a report. The second part of the congressional report was released in late October 2012.
The third and final part? It came out last June in conjunction with a public hearing on the subject. Six years after questions began, questions continued.
Extricating politics from Congress’s oversight role can be tricky. But clearly Republicans felt as though an extended dive into the Obama administration’s handling of the ATF program was warranted. There were clearly partisan elements to the investigation but also clearly issues that deserved more investigation.
The Mueller probe began about a year ago, picking up on an investigation that began in late July 2016. The overall Russia investigation, then, is a little less than two years old. In that period of time, Mueller’s team has already secured over a dozen indictments and four guilty pleas. The scope of the inquiry began at a much broader scope than the “Fast and Furious” investigation and has only grown since then. While it’s been portrayed as partisan (often for partisan reasons), there’s no indication that Mueller’s leadership of the investigation is motivated by any partisan bias.
For Trump, it’s inconvenient at best that the probe continues, just as it was inconvenient for Obama that the House kept poking around on Fast and Furious. But that’s not a reason to curtail an investigation.
Of course Pence wants the probe to end. Were he still in the House and were the investigation focused on a President Hillary Clinton? One can suspect that Pence’s measured response to an interview question would not be that the probe needed to end “in the interest of the country.”