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In riveting testimony, former White House adviser Fiona Hill told lawmakers Ambassador Gordon Sondland carried out a “domestic political errand” for President Trump on Ukraine, operating outside of official diplomatic channels. (Nov. 21)
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WASHINGTON – As the White House scrambled in late August to swap Vice President Mike Pence into a pre-planned presidential trip to Poland, there was one meeting Pence was adamant stay on the schedule: a sit-down with Ukraine’s new president.

Nearly $400 million in U.S. military assistance that Ukraine was desperate for as a counter to Russian aggression had been on hold for weeks.

When Pence and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met on Sept. 1 in a windowless conference room of the Marriott in downtown Warsaw, the stalled aid was the first issue a frustrated Zelensky raised.

Pence, surrounded by both sides’ aides and Cabinet members, did not specifically discuss with Zelensky the reasons behind the hold, according to testimony in the impeachment inquiry. Instead, Pence assured Zelensky that the United States was still fully behind Ukraine and he would talk to President Donald Trump to try to get the assistance released.

It was diplomat Gordon Sondland who, in an anteroom with a senior Ukrainian official after the formal meeting, relayed that Ukraine could boost efforts to unfreeze the money if officials would announce an investigation into Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company that Hunter Biden worked for when his father, Joe Biden, was vice president.

Sondland also testified that, in a briefing he joined at the last minute before the Zelenksy meeting, he told Pence he was concerned the delay in aid had become tied to investigations Trump wanted.

Pence has disputed Sondland’s account of raising concerns about the aid. Even more, he’s broadly denied knowing about the allegations at the center of the impeachment inquiry.

Still, an accumulation of public testimony, including from Sondland and other diplomats and aides, suggests heavy involvement by Pence in Ukraine generally, though no one seems to be accusing Pence of participating in or facilitating the effort to push Ukraine into taking up the investigations.

The testimony also indicates that there were multiple opportunities for Pence to have been informed about the domestic political agenda being pursued in Ukraine.

Pence has disputed the notion that he was in the loop, telling WISN 12 News in Wisconsin after Sondland’s testimony that he was “not aware of the allegations that U.S. aid to Ukraine was tied to investigations at any point before those matters became public in September.”

Pence’s spokeswoman said she had nothing to add to that statement. 

Early warning

Pence’s office had been warned months before by a top National Security Council official concerned that something was going on with Ukraine that appeared to involve Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer.

“I flagged to his staff, to General Kellogg that there were some issues, you know, kind of noise going on around Ukraine that was worrisome and that we’d need to get to the bottom of,” former National Security Council official Fiona Hill testified about her interaction with retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, Pence’s national security adviser.

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Kellogg and Jennifer Williams, a national security adviser on loan to Pence from the State Department, listened in on Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky in which Trump asked Zelensky to talk to Giuliani and to undertake investigations that would help Trump politically. A transcript of that call – which sparked the whistleblower complaint that became the center of this fall’s impeachment inquiry – was included in Pence’s daily briefing book.

Williams also testified that Pence’s office had been instructed by Trump not to send Pence to Zelensky’s May inauguration, another detail noted in the whistleblower’s complaint.

Pence’s name came up during the testimony of about a dozen of the 17 people who testified during October and November either in public or in private depositions later made public, though only a handful talked in detail about their interactions with Pence regarding Ukraine.

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An eager player

Witnesses described Pence as active in foreign policy and particularly eager to be involved in Ukraine, a strategic U.S. ally at war with Russia.

Hill testified that she worked closely with Pence’s team, including Kellogg and Williams.

Despite Pence’s small staff, Hill said, the vice president played a very important foreign policy and diplomatic role.

“Vice President Pence has been, you know, extremely good about stepping up when asked,” Hill said in her initial deposition with the House intelligence committee. Pence, she also said, “wanted to play a role on Ukraine in this administration.”

Hill said she tried to keep Pence’s office as informed as possible and would wave red flags for meetings they should avoid or things they needed to be aware of that could affect the integrity of the vice president and his office.

That included, she testified, sharing with Kellogg her concerns about Giuliani and the abrupt dismissal of Marie Yovanovitch from her post as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in the spring.

“I wanted to make sure that they knew that there were issues and they should be very careful,” she said.

Kellogg didn’t say that he would pass Hill’s concerns on to Pence but did say he would talk to his team, Hill testified.

More red flags 

Williams testified that after Yovanovitch was recalled, she included that information in one of her regular written briefings for Pence, along with “some commentary about some of the media reports surrounding her removal.”

She also flagged for Pence in May news reports about Giuliani’s involvement in Ukraine.

“I certainly recognized that (Giuliani) was interested in looking into the role that former Vice President Biden’s son had played on the board of a company,” Williams testified.

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David Holmes, a State Department official in the American Embassy in Kyiv, testified that an associate of Zelensky told him in April that he’d been contacted by “someone named Giuliani who said he was an adviser to the vice president.” Holmes added, however, that the Ukrainian could have gotten the name wrong. Pence’s spokeswoman said Giuliani has never been an adviser to Pence and the vice president has never spoken to Giuliani about this issue.

Pence told not to go to inauguration

After Zelensky was elected in April on promises to root out corruption in the former Soviet state and to help solve the deadly conflict with Russia, the State Department wanted Pence to attend Zelensky’s inauguration, according to David Hale, the department’s No. 3 official.

Pence’s staff had been in the preliminary planning stages for that, still uncertain whether the May date would fit his schedule when, Williams testified, she was told by an assistant to Pence’s chief of staff that Trump didn’t want Pence to go.

None of the witnesses said they knew the reason behind that direction. Democrats say the timing is suspicious because it happened shortly after Giuliani claimed that people around Zelensky were antagonistic to Trump.

Pence later received in his daily briefing book a transcription of Trump’s July call with Zelensky, in which Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart to “do us a favor” by investigating a 2016 conspiracy theory and also asked for help investigating the Bidens.

Aides listened to Trump’s call

Williams testified that the call struck her as “unusual and inappropriate.” It also, she said, “shed some light on possible other motivations behind a security assistance hold.”

But Williams said she didn’t express concern at the time with anyone in Pence’s office since her supervisor, Kellogg, was also listening in on the call and because she “knew that the vice president had access to the transcript from his briefing book that evening.”

Kellogg, who has not testified, said in a statement that he “heard nothing wrong or improper on the call.”

Tim Morrison, who took over for Hill at the National Security Council in July, testified that Pence is “known to be a voracious reader of his daily brief.”

Pence has said he doesn’t remember reading the transcript.

“But had I read it, it wouldn’t matter because the president did nothing wrong,” he told FOX Business Network’s Trish Regan in November. “There was no quid pro quo.”

Pence meets with Zelensky

When Pence subbed for Trump on the trip to Poland so the president could deal with Hurricane Dorian, Pence was eager to speak to Zelensky to convey support for him, Morrison said.

“It was really the one meeting that the vice president was adamant he take,” Morrison testified.

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Pence brought up Trump’s focus on corruption reform in Ukraine and conveyed Trump’s desire that countries besides the United States also provide security assistance to Ukraine, according to Morrison.

Pence tried to encourage Zelensky, Morrison said, but “there was only so much he could say” to allay the concerns about whether the assistance would be forthcoming.

The next day, Pence didn’t directly respond when asked by reporters whether he could assure Ukraine that the freeze was not related to efforts by Giuliani and others to dig up dirt on the Biden family.

He has also sidestepped the question of whether he was ever aware of those efforts, saying the issue of military aid was “from my experience” not connected.

He may have been careful to keep himself removed from what Hill called the “domestic political errand” that Sondland and Giuliani were running in Ukraine while she and others were pursuing the “national security foreign policy.”

When Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson became alarmed in August after Sondland described to him some of what was going on, Johnson was urged by then-national security adviser John Bolton to raise his concerns directly with Trump and Pence. But while Johnson got Trump on the phone that day – Aug. 31 – he “was not able to schedule a call with Vice President Pence,” Johnson wrote to the House intelligence committee.

Pence has disputed that Sondland told him in Warsaw what was happening, telling WISN 12 News he has “no recollection of any discussion with Ambassador Sondland before that meeting.”

Sondland, however, didn’t describe the exchange as a “discussion.” He said that Pence acknowledged what he had say with a nod of his head but made no comment.

“He didn’t respond,” Sondland said. “He just listened.”

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Pence not a target

Even if Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry believe Pence is implicated, they appear to be staying squarely focused on Trump. They haven’t tried to interview him and didn’t issue a subpoeana when Pence refused a  request to turn over documents voluntarily. Instead, Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, has said he views the noncooperation from the vice president and other administration officials as evidence of obstruction by the Trump administration, which itself could be an impeachable offense.

Democrats have calculated it’s better to move ahead with the evidence they already have, rather than be drawn into protracted court battles with uncooperative witnesses.

“We cannot be at the mercy of the courts,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said recently.

But Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University, said Democrats’ desire for speed means they’re ignoring important witnesses such as those who could corroborate or disprove what Sondland testified about Pence.

“This is a largely undeveloped evidentiary record and the Pence controversy is just one example of that,” Turley said. “Individuals like Pence have little to be concerned about when the Democrats are insisting on a vote before any of these conflicts are resolved.”

Pence’s reputation could still take a hit in the court of public opinion.

“It strains the bonds of credulity to the breaking point to assume that Mike Pence knew nothing about any of this,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment who served as a State Department adviser for both Democratic and Republican administrations.

But, as always, Pence also has to worry about staying in Trump’s good graces. Despite his unfailing loyalty, speculation persists that Trump could replace him on the 2020 ticket.

Trump was asked yet again about that rumor when he called into Fox & Friends the day after the intelligence committee’s Ukraine hearings ended.

“Mike Pence is a great vice president,” Trump said. “He’s our man, 100 percent.”

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