So with that as the backdrop, NBC News’s Vaughn Hillyard did yeoman’s work Wednesday pressing Pence on the matter. But Pence declined to directly answer many of the questions he was asked. Most notably, he repeatedly declined to say whether he was even aware of Trump’s interest in getting Ukraine to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
Let’s walk through it.
Q: Were you ever aware of President Trump’s efforts to pressure President Zelensky of Ukraine to investigate the Biden family?PENCE: First of all, let’s be very clear that President Zelensky said there was no pressure. I think his words were, ‘No one pushed.’ And a clear reading of the transcript shows that there was no quid pro quo in the president’s call with President Zelenksy.Q: Were you ever aware?PENCE: The American people should read the transcript, and they’d do well to do that since the chairman of the Intelligence Committee manufactured a version of the transcript and read it into the record before the committee.
Here, Pence is quibbling with how the question is framed, suggesting that the idea that Trump applied “pressure” on Zelensky is inaccurate. That may strain credulity — Zelensky saying he felt no pressure is hardly dispositive, given that he is trying to solidify his relationship with Trump, and the rough transcript is highly suggestive of pressure, to say the least — but at least here you could argue that Pence is avoiding the question because he disagrees with the premise.
That excuse does not hold as the questioning progresses.
Skipping ahead a bit:
Q: Were you ever aware, Mr. Vice President, of the interest in the Bidens, the interest in investigating the Bidens was at least, in part, the reason the aid to Ukraine [was] being held up? Were you ever aware?PENCE: I never discussed the issue of the Bidens with President Zelensky.
That was not the question — not even close.
Q: But within the administration, were you ever aware?PENCE: What I can tell you is, all of our discussions internally, between the president and our team, and our contacts and my office with Ukraine, were entirely focused on the broader issues of the lack of European support and corruption.
Again, almost completely ignoring the question. Pence said the administration was “entirely focused” on corruption, which one could read as him saying this was not really about Biden. But Rudolph W. Giuliani’s efforts to push for those specific investigations were well known for months before Pence met with Zelensky. If Pence did not know this was about Biden, you could certainly argue he was being willfully ignorant.
So let’s try this again:
Q: But you were aware of the interest in the Bidens being investigated and that being tied to aid to Ukraine being held up?PENCE: That’s your question. Let me be very clear: The issue of aid and our efforts with regard to Ukraine were from my experience no way connected to the very legitimate concern the American people have about corruption that took place, about things that happened in the 2016 election ... or about the issue that former vice president Biden had his son on the board of a major energy company in Ukraine at a time that Vice President Biden was running the United States’ efforts in Ukraine. I think the American people have a right to know what was going on. And, but all of our discussions, all of my discussions, with the leadership in Ukraine was entirely focused on President Trump’s priority --
In saying, “That’s your question,” Pence practically admits he’s not about to directly answer it. Politicians often do this, saying reporters are entitled to ask the questions they want, but that they can then answer however they want. Journalists also have the right, though, to point out when they are repeatedly avoiding the question.
When Pence does get around to offering something of an answer, he says military aid to Ukraine was not tied to corruption issues — whatever you understand “corruption” to mean — and adds “from my experience.” The “from my experience’ caveat is significant, but even the claim doesn’t really hold water.
Trump himself has suggested, in fact, that the money was held up because of corruption.
“We’re supporting a country; we want to make sure that country is honest,” Trump said shortly after this story took off. “It’s very important to talk about corruption. If you don’t talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt? … So it’s very important that, on occasion, you speak to somebody about corruption.”
Again, skipping ahead a bit:
Q: But the president himself has said he wants a foreign country to investigate his rival. Is that okay with you?PENCE: I don’t believe that’s the case.Q: He said it.PENCE: And again, I know that’s the way Chairman Schiff characterized it in his manufactured version of the transcript, but 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.
However you feel about Schiff’s exaggerated summary of that July 25 phone call (which Schiff admitted was exaggerated before he said it), Trump did ask a foreign country to investigate his potential rival. He told Zelensky, according to a rough transcript released by the White House, that “there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.”
But spinning this is one thing; avoiding talking about what he knew and when is quite another. You could make an argument that Pence must have known that this was really about the Bidens and about Trump’s conspiracy theories involving the Russia investigation’s origins, because Giuliani and Trump had made that pretty clear. But the fact that he cannot just come out and say that he was or wasn’t aware of Trump’s true interest suggests that he knows he’s in a tough spot here.
And it’s difficult not to read this as Pence at least understanding exactly what “corruption” meant to Trump.