Pence aide’s testimony renews focus on VP’s Ukraine role

WASHINGTON (AP) — He knew nothing about the Ukrainian backchannel, his aides say.

He was unaware of a pull-aside meeting in Ukraine set up by a member of his own delegation, they insist.

And he was in the dark about a months-long campaign to push Ukraine’s leader to investigate President Donald Trump’s Democratic rivals, they attest — even as he met with and held calls with that leader.

Questions about what Mike Pence knew about the events that sparked the House impeachment investigation — and when he knew key facts — are back in the spotlight as an aide to the vice president testifies this week at a public hearing of the House Intelligence Committee. The inquiry centers on whether Trump abused his office for his own political gain by withholding crucial security aid from Ukraine as aides pressed the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to announce an investigation into the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and into the business dealings of the son of former Vice President Joe Biden.

Pence’s team, for its part, is walking a thin political line in trying to make the case that the vice president was out of the loop on questionable aspects of Trump’s Ukraine policy while also presenting Pence as an influential voice in prodding the president to release the military aid.

Jennifer Williams, a career foreign service officer who was detailed to Pence's office from the State Department, is set to testify Tuesday. She compiled briefing materials for Pence on Ukraine, was in the room when he met with Zelenskiy in September and was among the staffers in the Situation Room who listened and took notes during Trump's July 25 call with Zelenskiy.

In closed-door testimony to impeachment investigators earlier this month, Williams said Trump's discussion of specific investigations in the July phone call struck her “as unusual and inappropriate.” The requests, she said, seemed tied to Trump's personal political agenda instead of broader U.S. foreign policy objectives, and seemed to point to "other motivations" for holding up the military aid.

Yet Williams said she never raised her concerns with anyone at the White House, including her boss, Pence national security adviser Keith Kellogg.

Williams said she included a copy of the call’s rough transcript in the vice president’s briefing book, but she had no way of knowing whether Pence read it. Pence has said that nothing about the transcript struck him as off-base, but hasn’t said when he first focused on it.

As the impeachment inquiry moves forward, Pence is broadly following the careful approach he took during much of the first two years of Trump’s presidency, as special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election hung over the administration. At times, he seemed cut off from how decisions were being made.

After the sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey, Pence echoed administration talking points that the decision by Trump to fire Comey came only after the president received a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Days later, Trump undercut Pence and others by saying he was planning to fire Comey even before the memo and had considered it since the start of his administration.

Pence’s aides have spent recent weeks trying to distance him from the impeachment inquiry, as Pence himself insists the president did nothing wrong.

Pence spokeswoman Katie Waldman has said the vice president was unaware of efforts to push Zelenskiy to release a statement announcing investigations. And Pence has said no such push came up during his September meeting with Zelenskiy in Warsaw, even as the leaders discussed the U.S. military aid that was under review.

Waldman also said Pence was unaware of the “brief pull-aside conversation” that Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, reported having with a top aide to Zelenskiy following the Pence-Zelenskiy meeting. Sondland has said he told Andriy Yermak that the “resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.”

Pence would hardly be the first vice president to find himself out of the loop.

Matt Bennett, who was serving as an aide to Vice President Al Gore when news of President Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern broke, recalled the vice president being caught offguard by the revelation. Bennett remembers Gore asking, “Who the hell is Monica Lewinsky?”

Compared with his recent predecessors, Pence has had less of an impact in shaping presidential policy initiatives, says Bennett. He said Trump often operates as a team of one.

George W. Bush, for instance, leaned heavily on Vice President Dick Cheney in carving out the rationale to launch the Iraq war and in designing the war on terrorism. Cheney was tasked to help vet potential running mates for Bush as a presidential candidate and ultimately ended up with the job himself.

Barack Obama asked Biden to spearhead his push to draw down troops from Iraq and deputized Biden to do the heavy lifting on an unsuccessful push to overhaul the nation’s gun laws following the rampage at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 26 dead. On the campaign trail, Biden often boasts that he was the “last person in the room” with Obama before every major decision.

Pence has instead largely served as an emissary for Trump, representing him on the global stage, defending his decisions and serving as a sounding board behind the scenes.

Some aspects of Pence’s involvement with Ukraine are still to be sorted out.

Williams’ closed-door testimony contradicted Pence aides who insisted the vice president canceled a planned trip to Ukraine for Zelenskiy’s inauguration in May because of logistical difficulties. Williams said under oath that a colleague had told her the trip was called off because Trump no longer wanted Pence to attend after initially pushing for him go, confirming previous reporting by The Associated Press.

But aides to Pence dispute that assertion, saying Ukraine’s Parliament formally set the date of Zelenskiy’s inauguration just a week before it took place on May 20. With the date up in the air, Pence’s team decided to instead send him to Canada to promote the benefits of the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.

In an email obtained by The Associated Press, Williams told State Department officials and officials at the embassy in Kyiv on May 13 that she regretted “that the Vice President’s schedule has changed and he will not be able to attend President-elect Zelenskyy’s inauguration.”

Pence aides also said Williams only would have heard about the cancellation fourth-hand at best. And they notably did not defend her from Trump’s tweeted attacks over the weekend, insisting Pence doesn’t know who she is.