Speaking in Iowa Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence was pressed by reporters on the administration’s attempts to get Ukraine’s help in discrediting former Vice President Joe Biden, and what he knew about it. He dodged questions about his own role and denied that President Trump had requested an investigation of Biden — something the president acknowledged just days ago on the White House lawn.
The vice president said he wasn’t opposed to transcripts of his own conversations with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky being released, an idea first broached by Trump.
“I’d have no objection to that, and we’re discussing that with White House counsel as we speak,” said Pence when asked if he would release transcripts of his conversations with the Ukrainian president.
Reporters reminded Pence of his comments in 2016 that “foreign governments cannot participate in the American political process.” Pence said he stood by the remarks.
“But the president himself has said that he asked a foreign government to investigate his domestic political rival,” said a reporter. “So is that OK with you?”
“I don’t believe that’s the case,” Pence said stiffly. “I know that’s the way [House Intelligence Committee] Chairman [Adam] Schiff characterized it in his manufactured transcript.”
“The president said it on the lawn,” replied a reporter, referencing Trump’s call last week for China and Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son Hunter. Some of the president’s allies have attempted to say he was joking, but he also asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to do the same thing in a private June conversation.
“But the American people should read the transcript, and they will see that the president did nothing wrong,” said Pence in response. “There was no pressure. There was no quid pro quo. The president simply raised the issues of importance and interest to the American people.”
Pence was echoing two key White House talking points about the burgeoning scandal, which led to the impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives. One is that the request for an investigation of the relationship, going back to 2016, among Joe Biden, Hunter Biden and the Ukrainian gas company Burisma Holdings reflected Trump’s determination to root out corruption, and it was only sheer coincidence that the former vice president is a leading candidate in the Democratic primary to run against Trump in 2020.
That would justify Pence’s denial that Trump “asked a foreign government to investigate his domestic political rival.” Biden was just collateral damage in Trump’s war on corruption.
The other defense is to subtly shift the issue from the ethics of Trump asking for Ukraine’s help to the existence of a “quid pro quo” in the form of restoring American military aid to Ukraine that had been frozen on order of the White House. Hence Pence’s response to a question that hadn’t been asked: “There was no pressure. There was no quid pro quo. The president simply raised the issues of importance and interest to the American people.”
Pence made frequent references to the White House’s release of a transcript of Trump’s July conversation with Zelensky, but that was not a transcript; instead, it was a rough memo based on recollections of those listening in on the call. CNN reported Wednesday that as soon as the call ended, there was a scramble to contain the fallout, which eventually led to the whistleblower report and the call being concealed on a special classified server. During the call, after Zelensky mentions buying arms from the United States, Trump asks for a favor, seeking his cooperation in pursuing a debunked conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, in cooperation with Democrats, that attempted to influence the 2016 presidential election — rather than Russia, seeking to aid Republicans, as charged in the report by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine, expressed explicit concern that there was a quid pro quo being proposed, writing in a Sept. 9 text: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
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