Apparently, Vice President Mike Pence gets nettled when people lie to him, especially if he then gullibly repeats the lie on national TV. If so, this makes him a real square peg in the Trump administration, where lies are the basic communication mode—not only in public but quite possibly in private, too. Does anyone believe that Kellyanne Conway, for instance, shuts down her genius for spouting batshit gobbledygook at the drop of a hat just because no cameras are around? It’d be like telling Mozart to quit humming.
Back before Trump’s inaugural, as you’ve probably heard, now disgraced ex-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn lied to Pence about his transition-period conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. So Pence dutifully assured Face The Nation’s viewers that the two men hadn’t discussed Obama’s sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s playground. Once it came out that indeed they had, Press Secretary Melissa McCarthy—er, Sean Spicer—explained that misleading Pence, not the discussions’ content (which happens to be against the law), was the reason Flynn had to go. “What this came down to was a matter of trust,” Spicer said.
Funnily enough, that too was a lie, or at least a whopping exercise in misdirection, because it turned out that Trump and other White House higher-ups had known for almost two weeks that Flynn had lied to Pence and had done nothing about it, including informing the Veep. Only The Washington Post breaking the story on February 9 forced them to dump Flynn overboard. If trust is the issue, Pence’s own trust in the administration in which he’s the No. 2 player must be absolutely fantastic right now.
If Trump were capable of regret, he might be thinking twice about belittling the intelligence community.
Pence has yet to comment publicly about any of this, and reports of how steamed he is vary. But one reason it would be interesting to know his reaction is that, thanks to Michael Flynn, it suddenly doesn’t seem impossible that Mike Pence will be President of the United States inside a year. If he hasn’t memorized the 25th Amendment by now, he’s even dumber than his reputation suggests, which is plenty. “I used to eat salads at the Rayburn [Congressional Office Building] cafeteria that had more brains than Mike Pence,” one former Capitol Hill staffer told the Huffington Post last summer, soon after Trump had put him on the ticket.
Then again, Gerald Ford was no Mensa standout either. If that comparison is suddenly on everyone’s mind, it’s because, within hours of Flynn’s ouster, the fateful word Watergate was on everyone’s lips—except Sean Hannity’s, of course. The same way it had when some Cuban exiles bungled a “third-rate burglary” at DNC headquarters in 1972, any illusion that Flynn was a loose cannon went out the window fast.
By Wednesday, bombshell reports had emerged that Trump campaign aides and other associates of his had been in “constant” contact with Russian government officials, members of its intelligence services included, during most or all of 2016. The information’s sources weren’t named, but identified by CNN, among others, as a mix of current and former U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement officials. That, in turn, revived the larger issue of Trump’s own murky Russia connection, from his bewildering praise of Putin to the famous, still unverified “golden showers” dossier compiled by a former British spy that makes a case POTUS is fatally compromised by his vulnerability to Kremlin blackmail.
Early on, the Capitol Hill GOP went into its already familiar “Nothing to see here, please move along” mode. Shoring up his already formidable credentials as the putziest member of Congress, House Oversight Committee chair Jason Chaffetz declined to look into Flynn’s case. “It’s taking care of itself,” he said. But on the Senate side, a few key Republicans broke ranks and joined Democrats’ calls for an investigation of the whole business, obliging Mitch McConnell to concede that one was “highly likely.” No doubt, he’ll do his damndest to keep it a) confined to Flynn and b) out of public view, since the Intelligence Committee usually does its stuff behind closed doors. But both may be losing battles.
The Intelligence Committee, of course, was already looking in a dilatory way into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and so is a multi-agency task force under the Justice Department’s aegis. But even with newly installed Attorney General Jeff Sessions saying he doesn’t plan to recuse himself from overseeing the latter, the chances of either one being able to pull off a whitewash or just let the whole thing slide aren’t as good as they were a week ago.
Meanwhile, Trump himself is pushing the line that “illegal leaks” from U.S. intelligence officials, as opposed to what those leaks reveal, are the real national-security risk here. Breitbart and Fox News are right behind him, as is House—not Senate—Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes. (Nunes thinks the leakers all “belong in jail.”) Provocatively, our Twitter-happy president even guessed the agencies responsible: “NSA and FBI?” Yet that had the paradoxical side effect of implying that the revelations were genuine, not the “nonsense” Trump had tweeted they were literally 11 minutes earlier. He’s never been what you’d call a slave to consistency.
As always in these situations, one man’s illegal leaker is another man’s whistleblowing patriot. If Trump were capable of regret, he might be thinking twice about the wisdom of belittling and insulting the intelligence community even before he took office. But that doesn’t mean the people divulging this info are only acting out of pique. It’s their job to protect the country, and right now that seems to mean protecting it from Trump and his subordinates’ recklessness, negligence, or worse.
The only way we’ll find out whether that belief is misguided is by getting to the bottom of whatever’s really going on between Team Trump and Russia, assuming that’s even possible. If the ultimate result is President Mike Pence, even some Republicans will probably breathe a sigh of relief. They’ll just be likely to keep it to themselves.