The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump involved Pence in efforts to pressure Ukraine’s leader, though officials say vice president was unaware of allegations in whistleblower complaint

Vice President Pence met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Warsaw on Sept. 1 for a World War II commemoration. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump repeatedly involved Vice President Pence in efforts to exert pressure on the leader of Ukraine at a time when the president was using other channels to solicit information that he hoped would be damaging to a Democratic rival, current and former U.S. officials said.

Trump instructed Pence not to attend the inauguration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in May — an event White House officials had pushed to put on the vice president’s calendar — when Ukraine’s new leader was seeking recognition and support from Washington, the officials said.

Months later, the president used Pence to tell Zelensky that U.S. aid was still being withheld while demanding more aggressive action on corruption, officials said. At that time — following Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelenksy — the Ukrainians probably understood action on corruption to include the investigation of former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

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Officials close to Pence insist that he was unaware of Trump’s efforts to press Zelensky for  damaging information about Biden and his son, who had served on the board of an obscure Ukrainian gas company, when his father was overseeing U.S. policy on Ukraine.

Pence’s activities occurred amid several indications of the president’s hidden agenda. Among them were the abrupt removal of the U.S. ambassador to Kiev; the visible efforts by the president’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, to insert himself in the U.S.-Ukraine relationship; as well as alarms being raised inside the White House even before the emergence of an extraordinary whistleblower complaint about Trump’s conduct.

Perhaps most significantly, one of Pence’s top advisers was on the July 25 call and the vice president should have had access to the transcript within hours, officials said.

Trump’s deployment of Pence is part of a broader pattern of using both executive authority and high-ranking officials in his administration to advance his personal or political interests — even in cases when those subordinates appear not to know that another agenda is in play.

President Trump met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sept. 25 in New York, after the release of a rough transcript of their July call. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

Officials close to Pence contend that he traveled to Warsaw for a meeting with Zelensky on Sept. 1 probably without having read — or at least fully registered — the transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with the leader of Ukraine.

White House officials said that Pence probably would have received the detailed notes of the president’s call in his briefing book on July 26. The five-page document also should have been part of the briefing materials he took with him to Warsaw to prepare for the meeting, according to the officials, who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.

But officials said Pence and his staff weren’t aware that the call had provoked alarm inside the White House — even though his national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, had been monitoring it. It’s also not clear whether Pence failed to read the White House account of the call in his briefing book or read it and found it unremarkable. 

A Pence aide disputed the notion that the vice president was poorly prepared for his meeting with Zelensky, and pointed to the eventual outcome — that the Trump administration ultimately released the aid — as a sign of a productive meeting. The White House Counsel’s Office did not alert the vice president’s office to the existence of the whistleblower complaint until the day before it became public, the aide added.

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In his meeting with Zelensky, Pence conveyed the news that hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid to Ukraine was not going to be released amid concerns about the country’s lagging efforts to combat corruption. He also emphasized Trump’s frustration that he thought the European Union was not doing a sufficient job in helping to provide aid. A participant in the meeting said Zelensky was “crestfallen” by the news, though a second participant described the meeting as “cordial” and Zelensky as understanding of U.S. concerns.

At that point, Ukraine’s president had already spoken to Trump and was familiar with the president’s demands. Pence did not mention Biden or the dormant probe of Burisma, the company for which his son had served as a board member. But former officials said that Pence’s emphasis on corruption probably would have been interpreted by Zelensky as “code” for that issue, whether the vice president intended it or not. 

A top Pence staffer rejected the charge that the vice president was conveying an inappropriate — or coded — message from the president.  

“The president consistently raised concerns about corruption and the lack of burden-sharing by European partners, so having run on an anti-corruption campaign, Zelensky was receptive to those messages,” said Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff. “The vice president, as your reporting says, reported back to the president after the meeting and the aid was released.” 

Pence often seems to be the last to be aware of  major problems or scandals — a phenomenon that depicts the vice president as out of the loop at times. But it also helps insulate him from controversy within the White House. 

Pence’s staff was weighing whether the vice president should lead a delegation to attend Zelensky’s inauguration in May, an important vote of confidence for the new Ukrainian president whose nation has come to view the United States as a bulwark against Russian aggression. Russia has annexed Crimea, a part of Ukraine, and continues to foment a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.  

The date of the inauguration had been in flux, the White House still had not dispatched advance staff and Secret Service to Ukraine,  and no visit had been officially confirmed when the president instructed Pence not to attend, according to officials. A current and former official confirmed Trump’s instructions, which were also mentioned in the whistleblower report.

“We do not comment on conversations between the president and the vice president,” Short said.

Instead of traveling to Kiev for the May 20 inauguration, Pence attended a Trump campaign event in Jacksonville, Fla., and made an official trip to Canada later that month, officials said.

A senior administration official said Pence was not among the handful of officials at the White House and the State Department who listened in on Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky, which is a key element of the whistleblower report and the impeachment inquiry.

In the call, Trump asked for a “favor” and urged Zelensky to cooperate with Attorney General William P. Barr to look for compromising information about Hunter Biden. Without evidence, Trump alleged that Joe Biden used his influence as vice president in 2016 to kill an investigation into the gas company and his son. 

A few weeks before the call, Trump had ordered the suspension of all military security assistance to Ukraine.

Kellogg, Pence’s top national security adviser, listened in on the call from the Situation Room, which was the standard practice, but did not see it as unusual or flag any concerns about it to the vice president, officials said.

White House lawyers, alarmed by the call, quickly moved detailed notes of it from a widely shared internal computer network to one reserved for “codeword-level” records about CIA covert action programs and other highly classified material.

The whistleblower, a CIA officer who learned about the call from dismayed White House officials, moved swiftly behind the scenes to assemble material from multiple sources and prepare a complaint. 

In late August, with a hurricane bearing down on Florida, Trump canceled a trip to Poland, where he was scheduled to attend a World War II commemoration and meet with Zelensky to discuss the frozen U.S. aid.

Instead he sent Pence, with instructions to “take the measure” of the Ukrainian leader and inform him that the administration wasn’t going to release the aid until it had assurances that Zelensky was committed to fighting corruption, U.S. officials said.

Just before the Sept. 1 meeting with Zelensky in Warsaw, Pence declined to respond to a question from a reporter about whether the Trump administration would still allocate the security aid to Ukraine.

“We will continue to stand with the people of Ukraine on your security, on territorial integrity,” he replied.

Zelensky replied that his administration was poised to “defeat corruption.”

Once the meeting began, Pence faulted the E.U. for not providing more security aid to Ukraine, just as Trump did on the July 25 call, and also reiterated the administration’s position that Zelensky needed to do more to fight corruption. 

When Zelensky asked about the aid, Pence replied that the administration was “still looking at it,” a U.S. official said.

At a news briefing the next day, Pence reiterated the administration’s “great concerns about issues of corruption” and expressed confidence that Zelensky was moving to address the problem.

Upon his return to Washington, Pence told Trump that Zelensky seemed to have a “good heart” and “was good on anti-corruption and pushing back on the oligarchs,” said a U.S. official. The vice president expressed confidence that Zelensky seemed to be surrounding himself with “good people,” two officials said, and encouraged Trump to release the aid.

A few weeks later — under pressure from Democrats and Republicans in Congress who saw the aid to Ukraine as critical to standing up to Russia and with Pence’s assessment that he should provide Ukraine with the support — Trump relented and released the aid to Ukraine. Pence and Zelensky spoke again on Sept. 18 in a call that U.S. officials described as somewhat perfunctory.

Zelensky expressed gratitude for the aid and Pence wished him well on his upcoming meeting with Trump at the United Nations. Later that evening, The Washington Post first reported that the whistleblower complaint, which was being withheld from Congress, involved Trump and a conversation with a foreign leader.