The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pence remains above the fray, but is he outside the inner circle?

What led to Mike Flynn's undoing? (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

For nearly two full weeks, nobody told Vice President Pence that he had been misled by national security adviser Michael Flynn.

After privately being assured by Flynn that he had never had any discussions about Russian sanctions with that country’s ambassador, Pence went on TV in mid-January and publicly parroted Flynn’s denial. But on Jan. 26, President Trump and a small group of senior aides learned that the Justice Department had evidence that Flynn had, in fact, discussed sanctions and misled the vice president.

Yet it would take almost a fortnight for Pence to learn the truth — and only then because of a report in The Washington Post, according to Marc Lotter, a spokesman for the vice president.

Throughout the campaign and now in office, Pence has largely managed to avoid the infighting and warring factions of the young White House by keeping his head down and soldiering loyally forward. But the incident with Flynn reveals both the benefits and risks of his approach — he has emerged largely unharmed by the scandal that led to Flynn’s resignation, but his influence within the West Wing has come increasingly into question given how little he knew about his own situation.

“Does this episode strengthen Pence or weaken Pence?” asked William Kristol, editor at large of the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine and who served as chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle. “That’s what everybody is trying to figure out.”

Senate Republicans: Intelligence Committee will investigate Flynn contact with Russia (Video: The Washington Post)

Pence’s decision to try to stay out of the cliques that have plagued the White House has allowed him, so far, to maintain his standing as a neutral player committed to forwarding Trump’s agenda on Capitol Hill. But it also appears to have left him at times outside the inner circle of Trump’s brain trust.

Aides to both the president and vice president say the two men speak on the phone or in person multiple times a day. But despite their frequent communication, the president never told his No. 2 that he had been misled by Flynn — and that in defending him on the Sunday shows had put himself in a publicly compromising and embarrassing situation.

Pence did not learn that Flynn misled him on Russia until last week

“The vice president became aware of incomplete information that he had received on Feb. 9, last Thursday night, based on media accounts,” Lotter told reporters Tuesday. “He did an inquiry based on those media accounts.”

Several people close to him were more blunt, saying he was “blindsided” and “frustrated.”

But even as Flynn flailed, Pence did not urge Trump to fire him, or lash out against him. Instead, said two officials familiar with the situation, Pence was disappointed and suggested that Flynn could publicly apologize. Others within the White House, however, thought what Flynn had done was egregious and unacceptable.

“The vice president is a very forgiving man,” said one White House official.

On Friday, Pence, chief of staff Reince Priebus and White House counsel Don McGahn held a conference call with Flynn — who had originally denied any improper communications with the Russian envoy — to go over his story again, according to two officials familiar with the call. Flynn was at Mar-a-Lago, Trump's private club in Palm Beach, Fla., during the call, while the other three men were in Washington.

Pence left the conversation troubled, as did Priebus, who expressed dismay both with Flynn’s answers and the dawning reality that Flynn had deceived Pence.

By Monday, Pence was in full agreement with Priebus and others that it would be best for Flynn to go and remained involved in all top-level talks that day.

Asked how the vice president could be kept in the dark about the Flynn controversy for so long, two White House officials said it was a result of the muddled and uncertain way events unfolded rather than an intentional desire to keep him out of the loop.

On Jan. 26, when acting attorney general Sally Yates contacted McGahn about discrepancies of Flynn’s account of his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States, McGahn took the information directly to Trump in the Oval Office that day. Trump quickly brought in chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and Priebus to join the discussion with McGahn, said two White House officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly.

McGahn then conferred with Yates again the following day to try to glean more information about what Yates knew and to probe the matter further.

But McGahn, who has been friends with Pence since the vice president was a House member, did not share the information beyond that group because he had already informed the president and his top two advisers, with the expectation that anyone else who needed to know would be informed by those principals.

Several other people within the White House described the situation as “unfortunate” and “unintended,” saying that Trump and McGahn did not mean to exclude Pence but were reacting to Yates — whose information was initially viewed with some skepticism — and trying to keep the information about Flynn within a tight group. At that point, Flynn was still maintaining that he had discussed nothing improper with the Russian ambassador.

Flynn’s swift downfall: From a phone call in the Dominican Republic to a forced resignation at the White House

Nonetheless, the two-week lag between when Trump, Bannon and Priebus learned of Flynn’s misdirection and when Pence himself found out through news reports has raised speculation as to Pence’s true clout — or lack thereof — within the White House.

In 2010, when Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, President Barack Obama’s military chief in Afghanistan, made disparaging remarks about some of Obama’s senior civilian advisers, including Vice President Joe Biden, Obama’s response was swift and decisive. Within 40 hours, he called McChrystal back to Washington and fired him.

Pence is not the type to demand that sort of response. Those who know him said he is thinking ahead, believing that as vice president, he is likely to outlast advisers whose positions may be more tenuous. 

“Pence is trying to play a long game, keeping his head down and keeping his powder dry, assuming some of the more flamboyant types will blow up or blow out and he will be there as a trusted counselor a year or so from now,” Kristol said. But, he added, “the long game can mislead you. If you end up keeping your powder dry and never using it, you end up being just another guy in the White House.”

A Republican who works closely with Hill lawmakers said that Pence has repeatedly gone to the Capitol to assuage fears, only to have his reassuring words upended by a tweet from Trump and upheaval within the West Wing.

The question that legislators are trying to figure out, that Republican said, is if Pence — like most everyone else — is simply a victim to a rash and erratic president, or if he is deliberately being shut out by senior White House advisers.

The latest incident with Flynn, he added, further undermines the vice president. “This is hurtful to Pence,” he said, speaking anonymously to offer a candid insight. “It’s another example of him not being totally in the loop.”

Pence, however, is still well-liked by lawmakers, many of whom view him as their most direct line into the White House and their best hope for enacting a conservative, Republican agenda. And they remain hopefully optimistic that he is a pivotal West Wing player.

“I think Pence has a lot of respect by the president and by a lot of us who have known him,” said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.). “He’s solid, he’s measured, and he fits the job beautifully.”

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said that Pence’s influence within the White House was evident simply from Flynn’s downfall. “As it turned out, misleading the vice president doesn’t look like it was a very good thing to do.”

Read more:

Flynn episode ‘darkens the cloud’ of Russia that hangs over Trump administration

Flynn departure erupts into a full-blown crisis for the Trump White House

Dan Balz: In the early weeks of the new administration, the humbling of a president

Jenna Johnson, Abby Phillip and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.