Halfway through Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial, on the same day the Senate refused to dismiss two charges against him, Vice President Al Gore arrived at an airport hangar in St. Louis to greet Pope John Paul II before he returned to Rome.
This time, Mike Pence is going straight to Rome himself.
The current vice president will meet with Pope Francis in Vatican City this week while his own boss’ impeachment trial is underway — ditching Washington for a trip that will keep him thousands of miles away from the high-stakes saga threatening to upend not only Trump’s political future, but increasingly his own.
Apart from Trump himself, few politicians have as much to gain or lose over the next few weeks as the man second in line for the presidency. Though the outcome of Trump’s trial has appeared preordained for weeks — conviction and removal from office would require an unrealistic 20 Republican defections— potential witnesses and new evidence released by House Democrats last Tuesday could entangle the vice president in a mess he has deliberately tried to sidestep as he considers a White House bid of his own in 2024.
But despite his best efforts, Pence keeps getting pulled into the scandal at the heart of impeachment — that the president withheld financial aid as leverage to pressure Ukraine to announce politically advantageous probes. Pence met with Ukraine’s president in Trump’s place during the period the aid was being withheld, Trump has suggested reporters press Pence about his communications with the Ukrainian leader and several figures have accused Pence of knowing about the scheme, which the vice president denies.
“It’s trickier for him to be in all-on defense mode when he’s been implicated in the underlying allegations,” said Michael Feldman, a former senior adviser to Gore.
Pence’s predicament in some ways mirrors the situation Gore had to navigate in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Clinton’s No. 2 faced the dicey issue of having to castigate his boss for moral shortcomings — something he begrudgingly did at the urging of his aides — while simultaneously running to succeed him. In Pence’s case, Trump still has a second term he’s trying to win, meaning his vice president won’t be making any public moves of his own until after this November, once it’s clear he’d be campaigning in 2024 as an incumbent or a former officeholder.
Pence is also grappling with other unknowns. If new witnesses are called during the Senate trial, such as former White House national security adviser John Bolton, will they further implicate him in the administration’s effort to pressure Ukraine for political help? Could new evidence stain his reputation right as he is thinking about his own future presidential aspirations?
“If there came a point where Mike was seriously forced to weigh his own career against his loyalty to Trump,” mused a person close to the vice president, “that would be one hell of a twist.”
Five Pence allies and administration officials who spoke with POLITICO on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic described Pence as loyal from the start — and to the end. He believes his own capacity for future success will be determined by Trump’s survivability now. To help Trump stay afloat, Pence plans to go to the mat for him during the Senate trial on television and on the campaign trail, but not on Capitol Hill. People familiar with his plans said the vice president, whom the White House has previously dispatched to the Senate’s weekly closed-door conference lunches to promote Republican unity, will avoid directly discussing impeachment with members of the upper chamber during the trial.
In a statement about his plans, Pence spokeswoman Katie Waldman said: “While radical congressional Democrats focus on overturning the will of the American people through a partisan impeachment based upon a sham investigation, the vice president will continue his aggressive schedule traveling across America advancing the winning agenda of the Trump-Pence administration that is keeping America prosperous and safe.”
Behind the scenes, Pence has declined to discuss contingency plans. But despite the improbability of Trump’s removal, a vice president can’t just go to sleep during an impeachment trial. If a two-thirds majority, or 67 senators, votes to convict Trump, Pence would immediately assume the most powerful post in the country.
“The president ceases to be president upon the moment of conviction,” said Michael Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor and impeachment expert who early in his career served as deputy media director for Gore’s first Senate campaign.
Planning an Oval Office takeover was out of the question for Gore, too. One week after the House voted to impeach Clinton, he told CNN the president was “more likely to be hit by a meteor than he is to make a decision to resign.” On other occasions, Gore told reporters he felt badly for the Clintons and was confident the Democratic president would “finish his term with a distinguished record”
“The chief job description for a vice president is absolutely loyalty and to work in advance of the president’s agenda,” Gerhardt said. “I don’t see how you have a vice president preparing to be president unless the president is planning to resign.”
If he can help it, Pence will do everything in his power to avoid such an occurrence.
Like Gore was to Clinton, the former Indiana governor has been a stalwart ally to the man who put him in power. The day the White House released a transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which he urged Zelensky to “look into” unsubstantiated claims against Joe Biden and his youngest son, Pence declared on Fox Business that Trump “did nothing wrong” and only “spoke about issues that were appropriate” with the Ukrainian leader.
As House managers were delivering the two articles of impeachment against Trump on Thursday, Pence continued his defense of Trump in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. Recalling then-Sen. Edmund Ross’ critical decision to buck his party and vote against President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment in 1868, the vice president suggested Senate Democrats should “stand up to the passions of their party” and oppose conviction. (A historian who recently published a book about the Johnson trial says the Ross analogy is far off the mark, noting that the Kansas senator engaged in a “quid pro quo” in exchange for his vote favoring the president’s acquittal).
Then there is the uniquely Trumpian reason that Pence can’t been seen as eyeing the Oval Office — the president demands unquestioning loyalty from his subordinates.
“I can’t imagine anything that would drive Trump more crazy than watching his VP scheme openly behind his back, so expect him to go out of his way to defend the president as much as possible,” said a former White House official, noting that Pence remained above the fray even when Trump tried to distance himself from the Ukraine controversy by suggesting reporters question his vice president instead.
“I think you should ask for Vice President Pence’s conversations, because he had a couple conversations also,” Trump said during a late September news conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Pence claimed in October that he was working with White House attorneys to release the transcripts of his phone calls with Zelensky, but none of them have yet been made public.
Still, the vice president has been sucked into the impeachment scandal in other ways. Last May, Pence canceled plans to attend Zelensky’s inauguration, resulting in a three-person delegation led by then-Energy Secretary Rick Perry to go in his place. The decision to pull Pence from the trip to Kiev came directly from Trump, according to Jennifer Williams, a top Pence national security aide who testified about the matter last November to House impeachment investigators. She added that she never received an explanation for the reversal.
Additional details about Pence’s knowledge of the administration’s pressure campaign on Ukraine came to light last week when Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, sat for an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. The Soviet-born businessman, who helped Giuliani navigate his way through the Ukraine political world, explained that the decision to not send Pence to Zelensky’s swearing-in came after the incoming administration made it clear they wouldn’t be opening an investigation into Biden, a top 2020 Democratic presidential contender.
“I remember Rudy going, ‘OK, they’ll see,’” Parnas said. “And basically, the next day … to my awareness, Trump called up and said to make sure Pence doesn’t go there.”
In September, when the president called off travel plans to Poland that included an expected meeting with Zelensky, he sent Pence in his place. After Pence met with the Ukrainian leader, he was asked whether the two discussed Biden. The vice president replied only that the conversation covered U.S. financial support for the Eastern European country and “corruption.”
Parnas later claimed that Pence “couldn’t have not known” when he met with Zelensky that the withholding of U.S. aid to Ukraine was linked to the country’s refusal to announce investigations into Trump’s rivals.
Pence and Parnas were photographed together as part of a group that included Trump and Giuliani at the White House’s annual Hanukkah party in 2018. Still, Pence and his aides insist the vice president has no relationship with Parnas, whose documents and recent interviews have fanned the impeachment flames heading into the president’s Senate trial.
“I don’t know the guy,” Pence said Thursday to reporters traveling with him in Central Florida. The vice president added that Parnas’ charge that he was aware of the Trump team’s outreach to Ukraine to obtain a Biden probe was “completely false.”
Pence chief of staff Marc Short also shot back at Parnas, who was indicted in October on campaign finance charges, arguing that he “will say anything to anybody who will listen in hopes of staying out of prison.”
Part of Pence’s balancing act will include sticking to a series of previously scheduled campaign events in key 2020 states. In addition to his overseas trip to Italy to see the pope — which will also include a stop in Israel — the vice president was in Memphis this past weekend to tour a civil rights museum and deliver remarks honoring Martin Luther King Jr. ahead of the federal holiday commemorating the civil rights leader’s birthday. Next week, he will travel to Iowa for a series of campaign events with military veterans and evangelical conservatives.
“Because it’s an election year, he will be on the campaign trail since a lot of that stuff is planned in advance,” said a former Pence aide. “But a lot of people will be watching what he’s doing, which will obviously cause him to have an even more loyal posture since you don’t want anyone to misconstrue your intentions.”
Gore was similarly under close scrutiny by reporters, voters, and the president’s Democratic allies while the Senate deliberated the articles of impeachment against Clinton. The former vice president kept a packed schedule. He swore in a new batch of 34 senators, delivered remarks at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and visited Iowa to discuss pork production, domestic violence, education, drugs and alcohol abuse.
In one-on-one interviews — something Pence will do during his overseas trip this week, according to people familiar with his plans — Gore portrayed himself as Clinton’s biggest cheerleader.
“I know there is a big disconnect between part of the Republican party, including the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, for example, and the rest of the American people where President Clinton is concerned,” Gore told the Associated Press in Des Moines on Jan. 9, 1999, two days into the president’s trial and a little more than a week after the Tennessee Democrat filed the official paperwork required to run for the White House.
It wasn’t easy for the vice president to run a presidential campaign and mount a full-scale defense of his boss. He was chided for campaigning on the administration’s accomplishments while barely addressing the president’s controversial actions.
Gore’s difficulties could be foretelling as Pence sets out to make his case for a second term. The vice president’s detractors say he similarly champions Trump’s record without even acknowledging the omnipresent scandals.
And interestingly enough, some of the people who went after Gore over the issue will be deciding Trump’s fate.
“It is hard for Vice President Gore to take credit for everything going well and take none of the blame for the national embarrassment that Bill Clinton has caused,” future Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander told The Washington Post at the time, as he plotted his own ill-fated White House bid.
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