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Teflon veep: Pence emerges largely unscathed as Sondland, Dems say he knew of quid pro quo

Trump’s No. 2 has left it to surrogates like Jim Jordan and Marc Short to swat away allegations

Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified Wednesday during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified Wednesday during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Lawmakers and witnesses this week repeatedly brought up Vice President Mike Pence during public impeachment hearings, but President Donald Trump’s No. 2 has emerged mostly unscathed.

Wednesday was a rough one for Trump, with testimony from a top U.S. diplomat implicating him in a quid pro quo. But no House Democrat during the public sessions has suggested articles of impeachment against Pence.

Trump appeared on edge Wednesday as Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, told lawmakers he was acting on orders from the president. Trump started Thursday with an anti-inquiry Twitter rant.

Contrast that to Pence, who has remained measured when pressed about the impeachment saga and his role. He largely has gone about his business, trying to sell a proposed U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade pact while also doing some 2020 campaigning.

[Trump’s relationships and other takeaways after Gordon Sondland’s testimony]

“The people of Wisconsin deserve to know that things are getting a little tied up in Washington these days,” Pence said Wednesday at a Fincantieri Marinette Marine facility in Marinette as Sondland appeared to implicate him.

“While Democrats in Congress continue to spend all their time on endless investigations and a partisan impeachment, they haven’t been able to find time to fund our national defense or give us the increases that President Trump knows that we need,” Pence said of the latest government spending standoff. “Well, I think the American people deserve better.”

‘In the loop’?

Back in Washington, Pence’s name was brought up 19 times during Sondland’s nearly six hours of testimony.

Mark Rom, a Georgetown University professor and former congressional aide, said Sondland came to Washington to name names — including that of Michael Richard Pence.

“He has 10 fingers, and he pointed them all,” Rom said of Trump’s top EU envoy, who said he took on a bigger role on Ukraine policy after Trump fired Marie Yovanovitch as the U.S. ambassador to the Eastern European country.

One of the wealthy hotel magnate’s digits was directed right at the vice president, including his assertion he brought up the stalled aid package before a group of American officials met with Ukrainian leaders on Sept. 1.

“I recall mentioning that before the [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskiy meeting. During the actual meeting, President Zelenskiy raised the issue of security assistance directly with Vice President Pence, and the vice president said that he would speak to President Trump about it.”

Sondland was more than willing to implicate other U.S. officials, from Trump to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to former national security adviser John Bolton to Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.

His mention of Pence during his opening remarks got the attention of Schiff and other members. Schiff later asked if Pence reacted at all to Sondland’s comments during a meeting prior to huddling with the Ukrainians.

“The vice president nodded like, you know, he heard what I said, and that was pretty much it, as I recall,” Sondland said.

Daniel Goldman, a committee Democratic attorney who has questioned witnesses, tried painting Pence as in the know. 

“Well, he didn’t say, ‘Gordon, what are you talking about?’” he asked. Sondland replied: “No, he did not.” Goldman tried again, asking: “He didn’t say, ‘What investigations?’” Sondland shot back: “He did not.”

‘None of them’

Pence spent part of the week outside Washington, far from the impeachment hearings. He has left it to aides and GOP lawmakers to defend him.

[House Republicans overlook oversight in Trump defense]

Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan offered cover during the Wednesday hearing.

Jordan rejected Democrats’ contentions that Ukrainian officials asked about the military aid during summer meetings, noting Pence’s attendance at the Sept. 1 session, saying: “[In] none of those meetings … did the linkage to security assistance dollars and an announcement or a start of any investigation ever come up.”

Pence’s aides have been more aggressive this week in defending him and rebutting some witnesses’ claims, especially those uttered by Sondland. His chief of staff, Marc Short, directly disputed Sondland’s claims — almost in real-time.

“The vice president never had a conversation with Gordon Sondland about investigating the Bidens, Burisma, or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations,” Short said in a statement. “This alleged discussion recalled by Ambassador Sondland never happened.”

Short gave a more detailed defense of his boss during a prime-time interview on Fox Business Network.

“There was never a moment when Ambassador Sondland was alone with the vice president. He testified that he made these comments in a pre-brief that I attended,” said Short. “The others that also attended that I asked today, nobody recalls any conversation that Sondland suggested today that he had in that environment.”

Monday brought a sign of the Pence team’s plans. Katie Waldman, the VP’s spokeswoman, made clear that Pence wanted to distance himself from Jennifer Williams, one of his national security aides, who testified Tuesday.

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“Jennifer Williams is on a current detail from the State Department that began April 1,” Waldman said in a statement. “No, she doesn’t directly report to the vice president.” During public testimony, Williams never implicated Pence.

‘Great to be here’

On Wednesday, 960 miles away, Pence was back in a battleground state buttering up voters.

“I got a chance to walk on that ship a few minutes ago, and the handiwork, the craftsmanship … that’s been produced in this shipyard is truly extraordinary,” he said. “It’s also an honor to be here with so many other hardworking Americans.”

Pence took in the scene there, far from the spectacle inside the Longworth Building.

“It is great … to be here. And it is great to be back in the Badger State. It really is,” said Pence, who has no events on his public schedule Thursday.

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