Transcript: What About Pence?

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, What About Pence?
Image: U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visits Turkey
Vice President Mike Pence attends a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey on Oct. 17, 2019.Huseyin Aldemir / Reuters

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Article II: Inside Impeachment

What About Pence?

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Friday, November 8th, and here's what's happening. (MUSIC)

Mike Pence: We have made America great again. And to keep America great, we're gonna reelect President Donald Trump for four more years.

Archival Recording: Four more years. Four more years.

Kornacki: Vice President Mike Pence was in New Hampshire on Thursday to add President Trump to the state's primary ballot.

Pence: For this small town boy from southern Indiana, it's a very humbling day for me.

Kornacki: But he couldn't escape the news from 500 miles away.

Archival Recording: Welcome to the Granite State once again, sir.

Pence: Thank you, John.

Archival Recording: Turning back to Washington, was there any role that you had in the discussions with Zelenskiy?

Kornacki: Pence was immediately asked about his role in the Ukraine scandal.

Archival Recording: Or do you feel that the President's call was perfect, as he has said many times?

Pence: You know, the American people have the transcript of the President's call. And they can see there was no quid pro quo. The President did nothing wrong.

Kornacki: Meanwhile.

Archival Recording: Today, defiance on Capitol Hill. Jennifer Williams is testifying against White House orders.

Kornacki: Jennifer Williams is the special advisor for Europe and Russia for Pence. She was on that July 25th phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Zelenskiy.

Archival Recording: This is the first time impeachment investigators are hearing from someone in Mike Pence's office.

Archival Recording: She might be able to provide information about what Pence knew about the holdup of military aid.

Kornacki: Vice President Mike Pence has been a side character throughout the impeachment inquiry. So today on Article II, we're asking: Was Vice President Pence an unwitting bystander to the Ukraine scandal? Or will he become a key figure as the inquiry moves ahead? Vaughn Hillyard is a political reporter for NBC. Vaughn, thanks for joining us.

Vaughn Hillyard: Thank you for having me.

Kornacki: So we want to get into how Pence fits into or doesn't fit into the impeachment inquiry, all of the questions that are there. I think to start though we just wanted to take a step back and talk about his role in the Trump administration, his relationship with the President, just sort of the state of that and our understanding of that.

I remember this partnership in 2016 when they teamed up just before the Republican convention. It seemed like a bit of an odd pairing. A couple years later, a couple years into the Trump administration, what do we know about Mike Pence's relationship with Donald Trump right now?

Hillyard: So, first, he served those 12 years in Congress from 2000 to 2012. He then went on to become the governor of Indiana. You know, he's the old classic Christian conservative from Columbus, Indiana, a place of 40,000 people, a true Hoosier. And so when he suddenly was elevated to be Donald Trump's running mate, he was shot onto the scene.

It was the night that he was selected as Donald Trump's running mate. In his first interview, it was with Sean Hannity. And I've looked back at this moment a lot over the last three years. Sean Hannity asked him, said, "How will you disagree with President Trump, and what does that look like?"

Sean Hannity: What do you do when you disagree?

Pence: Well, you know, I've been in positions before like that. I served in the leadership of the Congress. You know, you shut the door, you tell the boss exactly what you think, but when the door opens, the job of the vice president is stand right next to the president and implement the policy that he's decided.

Hillyard: And over the course of the three years, you've seen him pretty much do just that.

Kornacki: Do we have a sense how Trump regards him?

Hillyard: You know, there's been talks over the time, right? Would he look to replace Mike Pence? But every step of the way, Pence has been in lockstep, walking that very tight wire and essentially always defending the President. When you're looking at Trump, he has not spoken a bad word about Pence.

And if you look across this administration, there's not many that have made it this far. And pence knew getting into this that he was gonna have to do that in order to stick around. And it looks like he's in it and he's prepared to do whatever it takes to stay a part of it.

Kornacki: What is Pence's relationship with Republican leaders on Capitol Hill like? Has he been a conduit for them to the administration? Has the nature of that changed now that he's a loyal partner of Trump? What's his reputation there?

Hillyard: This is what it was during the 2016 campaign when there were a lot of hesitant Republican officials. It was Mike Pence, the one that was going and massaging those relationships. He was the one that was carrying on the fundraisers. He did it during the midterms.

He was the one that largely went out from congressional district to congressional district fundraising and campaigning on behalf of conservative lawmakers. He has been the one that has continued to be sort of that quiet voice to help that relationship between the White House and still a Republican Party that is still obviously grappling with how it's gonna handle itself into the future.

Kornacki: So let's talk about Pence and Ukraine, Pence and this Ukraine investigation. He enters the picture on this, as I understand it. Maybe you can flesh this out. Back in May, is that right? In May, Zelenskiy is supposed to be sworn in and Pence is supposed to play a role?

Hillyard: Exactly. We should note the Vice President has not answered a slew of these questions directly, and we're still trying to figure out. But it was in May. It was the inauguration of Zelenskiy. And the initial plan was to have Vice President Pence go to that inauguration. Ultimately, what we do know is that he never went there.

The question is: Did the President or anybody around the President directly request that the VP or to his office that he not attend that inauguration? I think this is the larger Mike Pence story: To what extent is it willful ignorance or complicity?

And when I say "willful ignorance," did the Vice President ever ask the administration, "Why am I not going to this inauguration now?" We don't have that answer yet. Or did the Vice President's office just take the administration's word and not attend? Rick Perry, the Energy secretary, ultimately went in his place.

Kornacki: There's testimony this week from a Pence aide, from Jennifer Williams. She was on the July 25th call, Trump and Zelenskiy, that famous July 25th call. Pence himself wasn't. Do we know if she told him about that call, if he found out anything about it?

Hillyard: She comes from the foreign service background. She is somebody who is not a political figure. And she was one of those two individuals that was on that Zelenskiy call from the Vice President's office. And that call is important in what Jennifer Williams knows because ultimately it was on September 1st that Vice President Pence went and had his own meeting with Zelenskiy.

And so the question is: Did Vice President Pence ever read the transcript of that July 25th phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy in which President Trump urged investigations into the supposed DNC server and the Bidens? Or did Williams ever brief the Vice President of the United States about President Trump's words? That is what we are looking to understand as to what Jennifer Williams knows.

Kornacki: Right. So that seems like a key question. We've all read the transcript or the summary of the transcripts that is out there, but you're talking about this period between the phone call and the start of September. And the transcript at that point is not publicly available. Nobody knew about it. The question of whether Pence had read it in that period, you've asked him about that. What's his response been like?

Archival Recording: Mr. Vice President, did you read the Trump-Zelenskiy phone call transcript on July 25th before your September 1st meeting, Mr. Vice President? It'd be great to talk with you, Mr. Vice President.

Hillyard: I asked him this exact question here because originally President Trump was gonna go be the one to have that meeting over, it was in Poland, on September 1st. Ultimately, Mike Pence went in his place. One would think that before going in to a meeting with the Ukrainian president that they would be wholly aware of what President Trump's interactions and directives would have been.

And that's part of that conversation as to it would frankly be a little bit of a surprise if nobody ever briefed the Vice President about Trump's desire to have the Bidens be investigated or the supposed DNC server be investigated. Again, that goes to the question, "Is this willful ignorance? Or is this complicity by the Vice President?"

It was just one month ago on October 9th in Iowa. I asked the Vice President over the course of about 75 seconds repeatedly the same question. Was he ever aware of interest within the administration to have Ukraine investigate the Bidens?

Pence: I never discussed the issue of the Bidens with President Zelenskiy.

Hillyard: But within the administration, were you ever aware within the administration?

Pence: What I can tell you is that all of our discussions internally, I mean the President, and our team, and our contacts in my office with Ukraine were entirely focused on the broader issues of the lack of European support and corruption.

Hillyard: But you were aware of the interest in the Bidens being investigated and that being tied to aid to Ukraine being held up?

Pence: Well, that's your question. Let me be very clear.

Hillyard: To this day, as we speak here right now, Steve, the Vice President has not rejected the notion that he was aware that President Trump or individuals within the administration were urging Ukraine to investigate the former Vice President and his family.

Kornacki: There were also phone calls between Pence and Zelenskiy. What do we know about that, when those took place, how many of them there were, what the content was? What do you know about Pence, Zelenskiy, and just phone calls?

Hillyard: Truthfully, Steve, we're not sure what those dates were and we're not sure how many of them there were. We know that these calls took place because Vice President Pence said calls took place. And he was even asked directly whether he would release the transcripts of those calls like President Trump did of his July 25th phone call.

Archival Recording: Will you do the same with your phone calls?

Pence: Well, I've said I have no objection at all. And we're working with White House counsel about that.

Hillyard: A month later, those transcripts still have not been released, and it's not quite clear if they ever will be.

Kornacki: So his public statement on that has been, "I'm fine with that," and there's been no official word from the White House about, "Hey, we're not gonna do it because of X"? That question of releasing the transcripts is just kinda hanging there?

Hillyard: You know, President Trump says his call with Zelenskiy was perfect. There's the chance that, you know, Vice President Pence's call may actually have been perfect. And so by releasing his transcripts, you could more easily compare the way in which a Vice President Pence and a Donald Trump go about foreign affairs.

Kornacki: So we know that in the course of this saga Pence had a trip to Zelenskiy's inauguration that was canceled, he had an unspecified number of phone calls with Zelenskiy, he had an aide who was on the Trump-Zelenskiy call, and he had a personal meeting with Zelenskiy during the period in which the aid was frozen. Putting all of this together, ask it this way first. What does Pence say about sort of that picture?

Hillyard: Well, how about this? There are a series of questions, Steve, that I have made explicitly clear to this administration that we feel should be answered. And the Vice President has had no interest ever since I went back and forth with him on October 9th in engaging.

I think that these questions, the ones that you and I are talking about right now, they are not secret, yet the Vice President has refused to address them. You know, at any point before that meeting with Zelenskiy on September 1st, did he read the transcript memo of Trump's call with Zelenskiy? We don't know that.

Did Zelenskiy ever address Trump's aid being held up with him? We do not know that. And to what extent was Pence briefed on Trump's desire for the investigations before September 11th? We don't know that. We should note the Vice President is also not complying with this impeachment inquiry himself.

Kornacki: You've framed it this way a couple times, I think, where you said the question was: Was he involved? Was he sort of willfully ignorant of it? I think that in general it's a question in situations like this that comes up a lot. I'm maybe a little bit old here, so I'm always thinking of a former vice president who got caught up in another administration scandal, George Bush Sr., Iran Contra. His famous defense of himself back then was he said, "I wasn't in the loop."

Dan Rather: This is what leads people to say, quote, "Either George Bush was irrelevant, or he was ineffective. He said himself he was out of the loop." Now, let me give you an example.

George H.w. Bush: May I explain out of the loop?

Rather: You said ask a question.

Bush: May I explain out of the loop? No operational role. Go ahead.

Kornacki: And that was one of the things that was said about him back then was that he maybe sensed something was going on and so he didn't ask questions, didn't want to know more because he didn't want, you know, his fingerprints all over it. Is that something that might have happened here?

Hillyard: Exactly. Did he have no idea that Rudy Giuliani was engaged in diplomacy efforts with Ukraine? Because based off of the testimony and the public statements that have been made to date, it seems like that was a pretty well-known fact. So did the Vice President have no knowledge of this?

And if he did know that Rudy Giuliani was involved, did he ever raise his hand within that administration and say, "What is a private citizen who does not have the security clearance and is using personal devices running diplomacy that our State Department should be conducting?"

Because if you're the number two in the country, if you're the vice president of the United States, and all of this is happening, my question is: At what point has Vice President Pence stood up inside of that White House and said, "I need a full understanding of what we have had in terms of conversations with Ukraine and what conversations Rudy Giuliani and other associates have had with Ukraine"? And to date, we have not had that from this Vice President.

Kornacki: And, again, we mentioned just that Pence has these longstanding relationships with Republicans on Capitol Hill. Certainly his reputation entering this administration was he was more of sort of a conservative establishment figure. I remember when the Access Hollywood tape came out a few weeks before the 2016 election there was that 24- to 36-hour window where you had Republicans speaking up and saying, "Trump's gotta go. Trump's gotta drop out. Let's put Pence in. Let's put Pence at the top of the ticket." Are you picking up on any of that kind of thinking among Republicans in Washington now when it comes to this impeachment question? "Hey, maybe move Trump out, put Pence in, run a more standard-issue Republican in 2020"?

Hillyard: To date, at this point you haven't seen enough Republican senators, the individuals that ultimately have to convict the President or remove him from office, speak in that way. And a good number of those individuals are up for reelection frankly.

You've got Joni Ernst in Iowa. You've got Susan Collins in Maine. You have a lot of these competitive races here. The fact of the matter is President Trump is still largely a popular figure. And so it would take quite the political courage and the risk to make that sort of a move and understanding that President Trump, if he were to be removed, isn't going anywhere.

Kornacki: Vaughn, we always ask our listeners to submit questions, and we do have two here. They're basically along the same lines, and I want to run them by you. David wrote to us on Twitter. Always say you could tweet your questions to us. David did it. He's from Spain.

Hillyard: Hey.

Kornacki: Just outside of Barcelona. That is our most exotic locale yet. David tweeted this. He said, "Could Vice President Pence be impeached for his involvement in the Ukraine scandal?" I was just asking you from the angle there of, "Would Trump be impeached and then Pence replace him and Republicans go for that?" Is there a scenario where Pence could be in danger of impeachment?

Hillyard: I think that the question here, and I think this is the hard part for the Vice President, right? It's that willful ignorance or complicity. The question is: You would probably theoretically remove President Trump first, and then Pence becomes president. But at that point, let's say if Pence becomes president, then in order to find a vice president, that individual has to get approval from both the House and the Senate.

So good luck finding this House of Representatives, Steve, and the Senate agreeing on who would be the number two to Mike Pence. And then if you were to impeach and remove Mike Pence from the presidency, this is going down a rabbit hole. Boy oh boy, I don't know how you ever get there.

Kornacki: Well, and that gets to into a follow-up question. We had a listener who wanted to go a step further down that rabbit hole. Lori from Whidbey Island, Washington, she asks, "If Pence is found to be caught up, is also impeached and convicted along with the President," she says, "does Nancy Pelosi as the House Speaker finish out the term?"

Because you've got, you know, that line of succession: President, Vice President, Speaker of the House. That would take a simultaneous I guess Trump-Pence impeachment removal with no time in that process for anybody else to be pushed through to confirmation. Seems like it might be a dream scenario for some Democrats.

Hillyard: My grandma was born on Whidbey Island. And I think that there is a greater chance of my grandma, myself, and Vice President Pence coming to Whidbey Island for a barbecue than there is Nancy Pelosi becoming president under this circumstance because you would have to have a Republican Senate agree to remove Donald Trump and Mike Pence and allow Nancy Pelosi to become President of the United States. And under this current makeup, that's pretty hard to fathom at this point.

Kornacki: That is probably a good way to put it and probably a good way to end this conversation. Vaughn Hillyard, thank you so much for joining us. Learned a lot from you. Appreciate it.

Hillyard: I appreciate it, Steve. (MUSIC)

Kornacki: 2,677. That's the number of pages of testimony from closed door hearings that House investigators released this week. And today, we got the transcripts of testimony from two National Security Council officials: Fiona Hill, who left her post over the summer; and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, who still serves in the White House.

One big takeaway from their accounts: Both Vindman and Hill said Mick Mulvaney was behind the decision to hold up military aid to Ukraine over the summer. Remember, Mulvaney is the director of the Office of Management and Budget. He is also the President's Acting Chief of Staff. He was scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill today under subpoena. But as expected, he didn't show up. Vindman is expected to testify again in public this time next week.

Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Allison Bailey, Adam Noboa, and Barbara Raab. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornacki. We'll be back on Monday.