WASHINGTON ― With Michael Flynn’s guilty plea bringing fresh
attention to what Vice President Mike Pence knew about possible
Russian collusion and when he knew it, Pence’s office has a
ready answer: Not much and really late.
So far Pence has remained at the periphery of special counsel
Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
He’s repeatedly toed the Trumpian line that any suggestion of
collusion between the campaign and the Russians was
nonsense. But he’s also pointed out that he wasn’t chosen
as Donald Trump’s running mate until after the campaign started
making contact with Russian officials. And he’s been careful to
couch his own remarks about Russia with phrases like “I’m not
aware” and “the president has made it very clear.”
Now, Flynn’s guilty plea to a single count of lying to the FBI
regarding his contacts with Russian officials moves Pence
closer to the spotlight.
When Flynn, Trump’s original national security adviser and
longtime campaign aide, was fired just three weeks after the
president took office, the purported reason was that Flynn had
lied to Pence about his contacts with Russia during the
transition ― a transition led by Pence himself.
A White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity
said Pence felt “vindicated” by Flynn’s guilty plea as proof
that Flynn had lied not only to Pence, but to federal
authorities as well.
That latest distancing remark follows a statement from Pence
last month, after revelations that the president’s son,
Donald Trump Jr., had
worked with WikiLeaks to publicize stolen emails to hurt
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. U.S. intelligence has long
considered WikiLeaks a virtual arm of Russian
intelligence; an official January report specifically
named the organization in finding that Russia had acted to help
Trump win last year’s presidential election.
In October of last year, Pence was asked if the Trump campaign
had been working with WikiLeaks, and he denied it. On Nov. 13
of this year, the day that Trump Jr.’s cooperation with
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was reported, Pence’s office
released this statement: “The vice president was never aware of
anyone associated with the campaign being in contact with
WikiLeaks. He first learned of this news from a published
report earlier tonight.”
Those statements, though, will not be the end of the matter for
Pence. His lawyer reportedly met with Mueller’s team this
summer. And on Friday, the ranking Democrat on the Senate
Judiciary Committee asked Pence for information and documents
pertaining to Flynn’s dealings with a number of foreign
entities during the transition, including a scheme to kidnap
and deliver a dissident cleric living in Pennsylvania to the
government of Turkey.
“Who on the Trump transition team was aware of Mr. Flynn’s
relationship with the following entities,” wrote Connecticut
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who then named Russia, Turkey, China
and two lobbying firms.
Flynn had a long career in military intelligence before he was
fired by then-President Barack Obama from his job running the
Defense Intelligence Agency. The retired Army general became
one of Trump’s earliest high-profile supporters, earning a
starring role at the Republican National Convention last summer
where he encouraged chants of “lock her up” regarding Clinton.
President Trump hired Flynn as his top national security aide
even though he had reportedly been warned against it by both
Obama and Trump’s original transition chief, New Jersey Gov.
Curiously, it was Flynn’s lying to Pence about conversations
with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that was offered as
the reason for Flynn’s firing, not the conversations
themselves. Kislyak and Flynn talked about new sanctions
that Obama had imposed on Russia for interfering in the
presidential election. According to a document filed in
the special counsel’s case on Friday, Flynn contacted
transition team officials at Trump’s Palm Beach resort,
Mar-a-Lago, on Dec. 29-31 to inform them of his
conversations with Kislyak ― days on which Pence, who was still
governor of Indiana, was in Indianapolis.
“Mike Flynn is a fine person, and I asked for his resignation.
He respectfully gave it. He is a man who ― there was a certain
amount of information given to Vice President Pence, who is
with us today. And I was not happy with the way that
information was given,” Trump said at a Feb. 16 news
conference. “He didn’t have to do that, because what he did
wasn’t wrong ― what he did in terms of the information he saw.”
The FBI interviewed Flynn about those conversations with
Kislyak just four days after Trump took office, and the White
House was warned about them on Jan. 26, when Acting Attorney
General Sally Yates went to the Oval Office.
Trump fired her days later. The stated reason was her refusal
to defend his travel ban against several majority-Muslim
nations in court.
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