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, confirming an assertion from the whistleblower now at the center of an impeachment investigation into Trump.
Aides to Pence disputed that, blaming logistics, not Trump, for the decision.
The aides who rushed to defend Pence added that the vice president 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.
Trump has said he raised Biden as an example of corruption in Ukraine in a summertime phone call with Zelenskiy that now at the center of the impeachment probe. There is no evidence that Biden was involved in corruption in the eastern European nation.
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 rough transcript released by the White House, repeatedly pressed Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and his family. The intelligence community whistleblower said it was part of a broader effort by the president and his lawyers to solicit a foreign country to dig up dirt on a political rival for president in 2020.
Pence, according to aides, did not listen in on that call.
Pence has served as a key intermediary between the United States and Ukraine. 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 it was Trump who directed Pence to skip the event.
Pence aides offered an alternate explanation for the whistleblower’s assertion that the vice president had canceled his attendance at Zelenskiy’s inauguration as part of an alleged broader pressure campaign. They cited logistical challenges, 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 traveled 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. They also met last month in Warsaw, Poland, a meeting 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. They also said the vice president had not spoken about the matter with the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
Trump and Giuliani have sought, without evidence, to implicate Biden and his son Hunter in the kind of corruption that has long plagued Ukraine. Hunter Biden served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company at the same time his father was leading the Obama administration’s diplomatic dealings with Kyiv. Though the timing raised concerns among anti-corruption advocates, there has been no evidence of wrongdoing by either the former vice president or his son.
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.
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!”