Internal White House debate stifles release of Pence-Zelenskiy call

Nearly three weeks after the vice president said he had "no objection" to releasing a transcript, administration is divided on whether it could help or hurt Trump's cause.
Image: Vice President Mike Pence listens during a meeting in the Oval Office on Jan. 31, 2019.
Vice President Mike Pence listens during a meeting in the Oval Office on Jan. 31, 2019.Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

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By Monica Alba and Carol E. Lee

WASHINGTON — It’s been almost three weeks since Vice President Mike Pence said he had “no objection” to releasing a reconstructed transcript of his phone call with the leader of Ukraine. But as House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry continues moving swiftly into its second month, the White House still has not made a decision on whether to make those details of Pence’s call public.

The internal debate has divided White House officials over whether releasing the call would help or hurt their flailing efforts to counter accusations that President Donald Trump held up military aid to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate his political rivals, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

One concern raised by some of Trump’s allies is that releasing his call with Zelenskiy was a mistake because it fueled the impeachment inquiry rather than tamp it down, these people said. Another is that a comparison of Pence and Trump’s calls with Zelenskiy could potentially make the president’s self-described “perfect” conversation appear significantly less so.

“The media, Democrats are going to pick it apart,” one of the sources said. “So there’s a concern about that.”

Earlier this month, Pence told reporters his office was discussing the potential release “with White House counsel as we speak.” An administration official tells NBC News that the issue "is still being reviewed by White House lawyers."

Some people close to the president have argued that publishing detailed notes from conversations with world leaders also sets a problematic precedent by watering down the strength of exerting executive privilege and opening up the administration to even more scrutiny.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky listens during a meeting with President Donald Trump in New York on Wednesday on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

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Releasing additional conversations during the course of the impeachment inquiry also could give leverage to any effort by Democrats to pursue other transcripts of other relevant calls or meetings.

So far, the White House has refused to comply with House Democrats’ requests for documents related to the withholding of aid to Ukraine or requests for investigations that could benefit Trump in the 2020 election.

Some people close to the vice president are arguing for the release of anything that would help “clear Pence’s name,” one person familiar with the debate said, adding that a reconstructed transcript of his Zelenskiy call could achieve that.

The vice president’s office declined to comment.

When pressed repeatedly by NBC News earlier this month about whether he was ever aware of the president’s efforts to pressure Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, Pence did not directly answer the question and instead said “I never discussed the issue of the Bidens with President Zelenskiy.”

Pence has maintained, on several occasions, that all of his conversations and contacts with Ukraine were “entirely focused on the broader issues of the lack of European support and corruption.”

A readout of his call with Zelenskiy in September praised the Ukrainian “administration for its bold action to tackle corruption through legislative reforms, and offered full U.S. support for those efforts.”

The conversation took place less than a week after nearly $400 million in security aid was eventually released.

Some in the White House counsel’s office are frustrated with the consistently bad headlines coming from the various depositions of career State Department officials on Capitol Hill and argue that circulating the Pence calls could help alleviate that.

“They don’t have a lot of bullets in the chamber to fire back with and this is one,” a former White House official said.

It’s unclear whether the White House is still considering releasing Trump’s April conversation with the Ukrainian leader, which officials have painted largely as a congratulatory call after his election.

Pence, who has been one of the president’s fiercest defenders throughout impeachment, chose his words carefully on Sunday when pressed on CBS’ Face the Nation about the issue of a perceived quid pro quo. He once again denied any wrongdoing on the president’s behalf — focusing on the transcript of Trump’s call with Zelenskiy.

“I can only tell you what I know,” Pence said. “And what I know is that the transcript of the president's call with President Zelenskiy shows that there was no quid pro quo. He did nothing wrong.”

Vaughn Hillyard contributed.