Robert Costa and Philip Rucker write in today’s Washington Post about how nervous many Republicans are to defend President Trump’s actions on Ukraine.

But perhaps nobody is as nervous as Vice President Pence.

Pence appeared on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday — a day mostly reserved for the successful operation to take out Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But toward the end of her time with Pence, CBS’s Margaret Brennan pressed him on the still-unfolding Ukraine scandal. And Pence’s answers were painfully telling.

Brennan noted that the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine, William B. Taylor, last week became the fourth U.S. official to confirm a quid pro quo with Ukraine involving investigations that would be politically helpful to Trump. So she asked Pence whether those people, who testified under oath to the quid pro quo, were lying.

Pence had no real answers, much less good ones.

He repeatedly tried to steer the conversation to only what he could personally vouch for — his own conversations with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, along with the rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky. There was no quid pro quo in either of them, Pence said, but he strained to avoid ruling out a quid pro quo in other communications.

Let’s walk through it.

BRENNAN: Are they all lying?
PENCE: Well, I can only tell you what I know. And what I know is that the transcript of the president’s call with President Zelensky shows that there was no quid pro quo. He did nothing wrong.

Pence does say, “He did nothing wrong,” but the context of his remarks suggests that he’s talking only about Trump’s phone call with Zelensky.

“I can only tell you what I know” is also a heck of a starting place. Generally speaking, the president’s spokespeople will vouch for him even if there may be certain things they can’t personally attest to. But people around Trump have often attributed their denials to him and avoided putting them in their own words — apparently for fear that they may pay a price if something comes out contradicting the denial.

Pence himself has been stung by this, including when he vouched for Michael Flynn not having discussed sanctions with Russia’s ambassador (which it later turned out Flynn had done). But regardless of how well-worn this strategy is, this is still Trump’s vice president declining to completely vouch for Trump. And that’s remarkable.


BRENNAN: But did you have the knowledge of the deal that these U.S. officials have described under oath?
PENCE: What I can tell you is, all of my interaction on this issue with the president of the United States and President Zelensky focused entirely on three things, number one, the United States of America’s support for Ukraine following the Russian invasion of Crimea and the war that Russia has been fomenting there. We actually — this administration, different from the last one, have provided lethal weapons for Ukraine.

A second non-denial. Brennan then tries to cut in but doesn’t get anywhere, as Pence charges forward with his three talking points:

BRENNAN: But that — that conflict never came up...
PENCE: And we've stood with them.
BRENNAN: ... in the phone call.
PENCE: Margaret, we've stood with them.
BRENNAN: These officials, did — did you have knowledge of what they’re describing, or no?
PENCE: We stood with them — we stood with them to restore their sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Number two, President Zelensky was elected in a historic landslide and won parliamentary elections on an agenda to end corruption in Ukraine. And we very much wanted to understand the progress he was making on that.
And, thirdly, President Trump believed that it was time for the European community to step up. Those are the issues we made clear to President Zelensky and Ukraine.

Okay, so maybe Pence just wanted to get through those talking points.He continues:

PENCE: And I think, as the — as the facts continue to come out, the American people again will see there in the president’s transcript, my interactions, there was no quid pro quo. There was no pressure. It was entirely focused on issues ...

Again, he’s conspicuously referring only to his interactions and to Trump’s phone call. He’s not talking about other communications.

So Brennan rightly presses him (key part in bold):

BRENNAN: I haven’t gotten a clear answer ...
PENCE: ... of importance to the American people.
BRENNAN: ... from you on that though, sir. I do have to leave the interview there.
But are you saying that you did not ever hear of such a deal? Is that what I understand you're describing?
PENCE: I I I’m telling you that all of my interactions with the president, all of my conversations with President Zelensky were entirely focused on issues of importance to the American people, ending corruption, enlisting more European support...
PENCE: ... and supporting Ukraine in a way that would restore its territorial integrity and stand by Ukraine for its sovereignty.

For a third time, Pence keeps his denial very narrow, focused on what he is personally involved in.

It’s crystal clear why Pence is doing this. It doesn’t mean he knows there was a quid pro quo, necessarily. But it’s pretty evident that he’s not at all comfortable completely denying it.