WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump told Vice-President Mike Pence to cancel his plans to attend the inauguration of Ukraine’s new president earlier this year after initially pushing for him to go, according to a person familiar with the matter. But aides to Pence disputed that, blaming logistics _ not politics _ for the decision.
The aides added that Pence has never mentioned Trump’s potential Democratic rival Joe Biden in repeated conversations he has had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, including some that were part of a campaign to pressure the new government on corruption.
Pence, who has served as a key intermediary between the two nations, has nonetheless managed to remain largely detached from the impeachment investigation proceeding with increasing urgency among Democrats, despite being mentioned explicitly in the whistleblower complaint at the centre of the inquiry.
Throughout Trump’s presidency, Pence has been a loyal lieutenant, praising him effusively and defending him aggressively. But the vice-president has rarely been drawn into any direct controversy involving the president until now.
The controversy focuses on a July 25 phone call in which Trump, according to a transcript released by the White House, repeatedly pressed Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and his family. The intelligence community whistleblower who brought the call to the attention of Congress said it was part of what appeared to be a broader effort by the president and his lawyers to use his office to solicit a foreign country to dig up dirt on a political rival for president in 2020. Pence, said aides, did not listen in on that call.
In the complaint, the whistleblower says he or she had learned from U.S. officials that “on or around 14 May, the President instructed Vice-President Pence to cancel his planned travel to Ukraine to attend President Zelenskiy’s inauguration on 20 May” and sent Energy Secretary Rick Perry to lead the delegation instead.
The whistleblower also alleged that Trump had made clear that a meeting or phone call between himself and Zelenskiy would depend on whether Zelenskiy “showed willingness to ‘play ball’” on issues including investigating the Bidens and a conspiracy theory about the origins of the investigation into Russian election meddling.
A person familiar with the discussions, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, said that it was Trump who directed Pence to skip the event.
Pence aides offered an alternate explanation for the whistleblower’s suggestion that the vice-president had cancelled his attendance at Zelenskiy’s inauguration as part of an alleged broader pressure campaign. They cited logistical challenges that inhibited the vice-president’s attendance, noting Ukraine’s Parliament formally set the date of Zelenskiy’s inauguration just a week before it took place on May 20.
“As of May 13, no inauguration date had been set and no advance team had been sent to advance the trip, no USSS sent, nothing confirmed. So we told them we wouldn’t attend,” said Marc Short, the vice-president’s chief of staff, using an abbreviation for the U.S. Secret Service.
Pence instead travelled to Canada to promote the benefits of the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.
“I think that there’s a lot of facts that would run counter to the whistleblower’s,” Short said.
Pence, according to his aides, had two phone conversations with Zelenskiy in addition to the leaders’ meeting last month in Warsaw, Poland, which Pence attended at the last minute in Trump’s place. Pence told reporters the next day that he and Zelenskiy had not discussed Biden during their closed-door meeting, though they had discussed the White House’s decision to halt security aid to the nation meant to counter Russian aggression.
“As President Trump had me make clear, we have great concerns about issues of corruption,” Pence said, adding that, to invest additional taxpayer money in Ukraine, “the president wants to be assured that those resources are truly making their way to the kind of investments that will contribute to security and stability in Ukraine. And that’s an expectation the American people have and the President has expressed very clearly.”
Katie Waldman, the vice-president’s press secretary, said in a statement: “It is crystal clear that the Vice-President directly and effectively delivered the President’s anti-corruption and European burden sharing messages overseas and, upon his return, the financial aid to Ukraine was released.”
Trump, however, said Wednesday that he restored the funding because of concerns raised by congressional lawmakers that the military assistance was necessary to help Ukraine serve as a bulwark again Russian aggression in the region.
Pence aides said the Bidens were also not discussed during Pence’s two phone calls with Zelenskiy _ one on April 23 and one on Sept. 18 _ nor had Biden come up in Pence’s other conversations with world leaders. What’s more, they said the vice-president had not spoken about the matter with the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, either.
It was notably Trump who publicly flagged Pence’s phone calls with Zelenskiy, telling reporters at a news conference last week that they should request transcripts of Pence’s calls.
“I think you should ask for VP Pence’s conversation because he had a couple conversations also,” said Trump. “I think, one or two of them. They were perfect.” Trump last week suggested he would authorize the release of transcripts of Pence’s calls, as well as his April call with Zelenskiy, but the White House has yet to make them available to reporters.
Short said his office was still reviewing whether the transcripts should be released.
Aides to the vice-president also pointed to comments Pence has made on Twitter and in television interviews in recent days trying to diminish the seriousness of the controversy.
“The American people deserve better,” Pence tweeted last week. “I’ll make you a promise. Whatever Democrats in Congress want to do to obstruct our agenda or roll out their latest accusations to divide our country, President @realDonaldTrump & I will never stop fighting for the policies & ideals that have made this country Great Again!”
It’s a contrast Pence has tried to highlight during events over the last week focused on trade and the opioid epidemic. And it’s one that his office intends to continue to make, adding travel to districts with potentially vulnerable moderate Democrats who may be hurt politically by the Democrats’ focus on impeachment.
“That certainly has been added to the VP’s travel,” Short said.
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Zeke Miller And Jill Colvin, The Associated Press