WASHINGTON — “President Mike Pence” doesn’t exactly have a great ring to it for the Democrats running the impeachment investigation, but it may sound better to them than “President Donald Trump.”
Yet if the House approves impeachment, and less likely but still possible, if the Senate votes to remove Trump, Pence would become president. Would Pence make a better president than Trump?
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, one of three chairmen overseeing the impeachment investigation, paused before answering.
“If I have to answer yes or no, I would say yes.” Engel told Yahoo News on Monday. “While I would disagree with Mike Pence on a number of social issues, I think that Mike Pence understands the Congress and understands the Constitution, and again, we have differences on social issues, but I think that he, from his heart, feels that way about America that all of us that run for office should feel.”
That question got even more pressing this week after the latest series of revelations in the Ukraine scandal, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement that the House would be setting up procedures for public impeachment hearings — something that could happen before Thanksgiving.
Interviews with close to a dozen House Democrats and top staff involved in the investigation reveal that Pence has gone largely untouched due to a mix of political concerns, intense focus on Trump and an overall lack of concern about the vice president. In the end, he’d be an improvement over Trump, some said, and could be easier to beat for the Democrats in 2020.
One House Democrat involved in the probe didn’t seem too concerned at the thought of Pence taking the Oval Office, noting they expect he would be weak as president and easily beatable as the Republican nominee in 2020.
Besides, impeaching Pence in addition to Trump carries the political baggage of making it look like Democrats are trying to install House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as president — a dream among some Democrats and floated by MSNBC commentators, but politically explosive in that it could feed accusations by Trump that Dems are attempting a coup.
However, some Democrats cautioned that Pence is not entirely off the hook in the ongoing investigation.
“Everything is on the table,” said one House Democratic lawmaker. Asked if there’s a desire to impeach Pence, the Democrat said, “I’m sure everybody wants to, but there’s apprehension.”
“For nearly three years, congressional Democrats have been pursuing endless investigations to overturn the will of the American people,” said Katie Waldman, Pence’s press secretary. “The vice president and this administration will continue to focus on completing trade deals that benefit laborers, lowering drug prices, creating jobs and advancing the priorities of the American people.”
Other Republicans laughed when asked about the prospect of Democrats helping make Pence president — something that seemed remote just a month ago, but more and more plausible by the day.
“Doesn’t it shock you some that if the Democrats were successful in actually kicking Trump out of office, they’d get Pence as president, who is actually a die-hard conservative? Doesn’t that concern them?” said a senior Republican aide.
Rep. Al Green, a Texas Democrat and one of the earliest supporters of a Trump impeachment, said that he and others were squarely focused on Trump, but Pence could be in line for impeachment down the road.
“I think you win the Super Bowl by playing one team at a time, beating one team at a time,” Green said. “I think we’re focused on Trump right now, and while there may be some others, I don’t think that should be the focus just yet.”
But other Democrats cautioned that there’s little benefit in going after Pence in addition to Trump because he seems to have had such limited involvement in the Ukraine scandal, much like his role has been limited in the rest of the administration.
“Is that anything new?” a third House Democratic lawmaker responded, when asked of Pence’s lack of involvement in the Trump administration.
For his part, Pence has remained evasive on his role in the issues surrounding the impeachment inquiry, which are focused on the allegation that President Trump withheld aid to Ukraine to pressure authorities there to investigate his political rival Joe Biden, and his son Hunter Biden. Two weeks ago, Pence refused the House request that he provide documents in their probe. And he has struggled to answer questions posed by reporters. When an NBC reporter asked him if he knew about Trump’s demand of an investigation in return for military aid, Pence rebuffed him:, “That is your question” — a rare non sequitur from a typically tightly scripted politician.
Almost three weeks later, the top diplomat to Ukraine, William Taylor, testified that Trump had directly hinged U.S. support for Ukraine on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky opening an investigation into Joe Biden and his son. The revelation revived questions of Pence’s role, specifically what message he delivered to Zelensky in his September meeting with the Ukrainian president.
Pence repeatedly refused to say whether he knew that Trump had conditioned military aid on Zelensky opening an investigation into Biden’s son.
“I can tell you that all of my interactions with President Zelensky, we focused entirely on President Zelensky's agenda to bring about reforms to end corruption in Ukraine and to bring together the European community to provide greater support for Ukraine. President Zelensky said there was no pressure,” Pence said last Sunday on the CBS program “Face the Nation.”
As much as the promise of the Oval Office may entice, the peril for Pence in the Ukraine scandal is far greater than anything he experienced during the federal probe of connections between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Trump directed Pence’s interactions with Zelensky and Pence’s national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, sat in on the July 25 phone call in which Trump demanded Zelensky investigate Biden’s family, the Washington Post reported earlier this month.
Former Rep. David Jolly, a Florida Republican who has been one of the Trump administration’s most vociferous critics, floated the idea earlier this month of opening a separate impeachment inquiry into Pence as well as Trump.
“I think the House should respond by opening an impeachment inquiry into the vice president of the United States,” Jolly said on MSNBC on October 5, after the House issued its request for documents from Pence. “I think it’s very likely the Vice President Mike Pence engaged in impeachable behavior just like the president did.”
But targeting Pence may simply give more ammunition to Trump allies portraying the impeachment inquiry as a partisan probe.
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” said one Trump adviser, when asked if Pence would be impeached as well. “This is all politics, they can run whatever they want through that kangaroo court — but there’s no evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors.”
* Jon Ward contributed to this story
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