Vice President Mike Pence has once again delivered the White House line, in the face of growing contradictory evidence, on a charged topic related to Russia’s possible connections to the Trump campaign.
In meetings on Capitol Hill and in interviews, Pence has said this week that Trump fired FBI director James Comey on the recommendation of deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein.
“Let me be very clear that the President’s decision to accept the recommendation of the deputy attorney general and the attorney general to remove Director Comey as the head of the FBI was based solely and exclusively on his commitment to the best interests of the American people and to ensuring that the FBI has the trust and confidence of the people this nation,” Pence told reporters Wednesday.
But Trump said in an interview with NBC on Thursday that he’d planned to fire Comey no matter what Rosenstein told him. “I was gonna fire regardless of recommendation,” Trump told Lester Holt. “Regardless of recommendation I was going to fire Comey.”
People close to the White House say that Pence knew the president was thinking about firing Comey before he met with Rosenstein on Monday. Trump, these people said, was frustrated with Comey’s testimony and the growing Russia investigation scrutiny into his campaign. He also disliked Comey’s testimony last week on Capitol Hill, particularly the FBI director’s use of the word “nauseous” to describe the election process.
Pence, who hasn’t assumed the traditional role of power player in the White House but is liked by many, signaled support for the decision, said one adviser to the president.
“Pence knew this wasn’t about Rosenstein writing a memo, the president seeing it and suddenly deciding to fire Comey,” said this person. “He knows better than that.”
Pence allies on Wednesday said the vice president was merely pointing to the factual turn of events: Rosenstein sent a memo on Tuesday recommending Comey’s dismissal, attorney general Jeff Sessions seconded the opinion and Trump made the move. Pence had not specifically addressed who initiated the whole process, one noted.
“As any new manager would come in, you’re going to review the operations,” said Pence press secretary Marc Lotter.
On Thursday, Lotter acknowledged that Pence may have been privy to previous conversations about Trump’s desire to fire Comey.
“He meets with the president, consults with the president, multiple times a day,” Lotter told POLITICO. His involvement on the Comey issue was “no different,” he said.
“I’m not going to get into the timeline,” Lotter said, when asked when Pence was made aware of the president’s decision.
But Lotter defended the remarks Pence gave on Wednesday.
“The vice president and the White House laid out how the actions took place,” he said. “And the vice president was speaking yesterday to the events that led to the president’s decision.”
The firing again put the mild-mannered vice president in a difficult position of defending the president amid uncomfortable facts and fallout. The vice president, who often wears his Christian faith on his sleeve and has said he doesn’t drink around women unless his wife is present, had to defend Trump after the president said he grabbed women by the genitals.
In February, Pence assured the American people that, contrary to news reports, national security adviser Michael Flynn had not discussed sanctions during phone calls with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition. The White House said Flynn was fired for misleading Pence.