Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author with Peter Eisner of “The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
If Vice President Mike Pence is known for anything, it is loyalty to the President and operating serenely in the shadows. Now it seems that loyal service to the errant Donald Trump is forcing him into the harsh light of the Congressional probe into the President’s alleged attempt at political extortion of Ukraine.
If Trump needs to find a scapegoat to take the heat off himself in the Ukraine scandal, Pence is the perfect target. And, adding fuel to the fire, an upcoming book, written by a senior White House official, claims that White House aides felt Pence was ready to back Trump’s removal via the 25th Amendment, a source with knowledge of the book confirmed to CNN. This amendment allows for an incapacitated president to be pushed out of office.
The book does not claim that Pence himself said he would support such a move. What’s more, Pence has denied he would have considered invoking the amendment to remove Trump from the presidency, saying he “never heard any discussion” of the 25th Amendment during his time in the White House.
Now, surely both Trump and Pence will be waiting anxiously for the fallout after Jennifer Williams – one of Pence’s aides who was on Trump’s controversial July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and was concerned about what she heard – testifies before Congress on Thursday.
The irony is that Pence was going about business as usual when he got tangled in the Ukraine controversy. He was at a private meeting in Poland when he discussed the suspension of nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine, in the name of fighting corruption, with Zelensky.
Given what we know now about Trump’s July 25 call with the Ukrainian President, was Pence’s meeting engineered to force a country at war with Russia and its proxies to announce that Trump’s domestic rival, Joe Biden, was under investigation there? With soldiers dying in battle, the outmatched Ukrainians needed the aid. (Pence’s team has said he was unaware of the allegations Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, had made against Biden at the time of the meeting.)
Confirmation of Pence’s role came Tuesday in sworn testimony provided by Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, to the House Committee on Intelligence.
Sondland now says “President Zelensky had raised the issue of the suspension of US aid to Ukraine directly with Vice President Pence.”
This revelation from Sondland came in an addendum he filed weeks after appearing before members of Congress looking into the mess. The four-page supplement was informed by Sondland’s reading of testimony offered by other witnesses. Those statements, he wrote, “have refreshed my recollection about certain conversations in early September 2019.”
Pence has refused to provide Congress with any documents he possessed that related to Trump’s July 25 quid pro quo conversation with Ukraine’s President. Congress is interested because Pence was told about the talk the day after it happened, according to two sources, cited by CNN, who are familiar with the matter.
And then on September 1, Pence visited with Zelensky. The vice president’s chief of staff, Marc Short, told CNN, “The vice president reported back to the President after the meeting and the aid was released.”
More about Pence’s role will likely emerge when Williams testifies in a closed-door deposition before the House Intelligence Committee. But we can assume this is not going to end well for the vice president. It’s hard to work up much sympathy for him, however, since he surely knew what he was getting into when he accepted Trump’s offer to be the No. 2 spot on the GOP’s 2016 ticket.
On that sunny Hoosier morning when they sealed their bond, Trump’s identity was well established. Profane, deceptive and almost allergic to telling the truth, Trump is a transactional creature who routinely operated on the basis of quid pro quo – this for that. When it came to their partnership at the top of the GOP ticket, Trump’s “this” was the chance he gave Pence to become the VP. Pence’s “that” involved vouching for Trump’s character and thereby delivering Christian right voters on Election Day.
But now, Trump could make a dramatic, diversionary move in an attempt to save himself, framing Pence as a liability. Sometime soon Trump could step into his reality TV role and declare, to Pence, “You’re fired.” He could then welcome a new vice president – Nikki Haley, anyone? – who could help him in the fight for re-election.
One of the many mysteries of the Trump era, and there are so many, is that Pence believed it was a good idea for him to be Donald Trump’s No. 2 guy. When it comes to chaos and disorder, Trump is a kind of super planet with a gravitational power that draws every nearby object into orbit – culminating in destruction of some sort. Consider all the cabinet members and White House officials who have fled to repair their reputations and you will start to understand this phenomenon.
At his worst, Trump will trash even those who have served him most fully. As secretary of defense, Gen. James Mattis was the most stable and effective figure on the Trump team. Now that he’s gone, the President calls him “the world’s most overrated general.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson became, in Trump’s words, “dumb as a rock.” His first attorney general was judged “a total disaster” by the President.
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What fate now awaits Mike Pence if he’s revealed to be inside the Ukraine scandal? Consider that he, and not Trump, sat face-to-face with Zelensky to allegedly discuss the quid pro quo. Now ask yourself: Is Pence crafty enough to speak in the kind of gangster code that allows for wiggle room if a damning truth comes out? I doubt he is very good at this kind of thing, which makes him the perfect scapegoat should Trump need someone to blame.
For Pence, who is already damaged by association, the possibility of being dropped from the 2020 ticket or, worse, being driven to resign, is not farfetched. Trump, an expert on the grand gesture and a dramatist of the first order, must already be imagining how he can use Pence this way.
Can’t you imagine the President concocting such a dramatic move? Can’t you hear him saying: “Mike is just not the man I thought he was. He took matters into his own hands and went too far. I hate to do it, but he’s got to go.”