As Mike Pence traveled this week through a state crucial to the 2020 election’s outcome, he gave little indication of concern for the impeachment drama engulfing the White House.
Standing in front of a row of Caterpillar machinery in the rolling Arizona desert on Thursday, the vice president lobbied for a trade deal, boasted about the economy, needled the Obama administration, thanked veterans and joked about the sweltering heat. He climbed up and inspected a front-end loader.
It was a routine event at odds with the storm gathering over President Donald Trump. Pence is both a central figure in the saga — House committees requested documents from him on Friday — and heir to the Oval Office if Trump is removed. But on a two-day swing through Arizona, he largely avoided the issue of his involvement, instead pressing House Democrats to abandon impeachment or risk being accused of ignoring kitchen-table issues like trade.
“Whatever goes on in Washington, D.C., this president, this vice president, your senator, your governor will not be deterred,” Pence said in a speech calling for passage of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement. “Even in these divided times in Washington, D.C., we have an opportunity, men and women, to do something that will be good for every American.”
Pence’s effort to sidestep the impeachment fight, casting it as some Washington-only uproar, aims to neutralize ongoing scrutiny of his own role in Trump’s Ukraine scandal. He met with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky a month ago in Poland, after a July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Zelensky to investigate his political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Pence’s national security adviser, Keith Kellogg, was among those who listened in on the call, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Pence’s office declined to comment on Kellogg’s participation in the call, and Pence didn’t directly answer when asked during his Arizona trip whether he mentioned the Bidens in his conversation with Zelensky.
“We focused entirely, in my meeting with President Zelensky of Ukraine, on the issues that President Trump has raised as a concern, namely the lack of support from European partners for Ukraine and real issues of corruption in Ukraine,” Pence said.
Zelensky briefed the vice president on Ukrainian anti-corruption reforms, Pence said, as well as efforts to encourage Europe “to do more, to push back on Russian aggression.”
“And those were the topics that we discussed. That was all we discussed,” Pence said.
House committees leading the impeachment inquiry on Friday requested a range of documents from Pence, including notes and transcripts from Trump’s two calls with Zelensky, communications related to those calls, and records related to a potential meeting between Trump and Zelensky in Poland in August, before he scrapped the trip and sent Pence instead.
The committees’ letter also cited Pence’s decision, while in Arizona, to echo Trump’s public invitation for China and Ukraine to investigate the Biden family. “You appeared to condone President Trump’s efforts to press foreign powers to target the President’s political opponents with baseless conspiracy theories,” the committee chairs wrote.
In response, Pence spokeswoman Katie Waldman said the letter “does not appear to be a serious request but just another attempt by the Do Nothing Democrats to call attention to their partisan impeachment.”
Even if Pence sought to distance himself from the Ukraine affair, the president has roped him in by publicly declaring that he’d told the vice president, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and others about his frustrations with Ukraine. Like Pence, Pompeo has remained a staunch Trump defender through the impeachment uproar.
To some extent, Pence is attending to the White House’s business of running for re-election and pursuing its legislative agenda while the president battles impeachment. In addition to his trade speech, Pence attended a fundraiser for Sen. Martha McSally, a Republican who faces a tough campaign, and an event aimed at encouraging turnout by Hispanic Republicans.
Over the next week, Pence will travel to Louisiana, Tennessee and Iowa for more fundraisers and trade speeches, intended to drum up support for congressional passage of the USMCA, Trump’s signature re-write of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Pence has taken the lead in selling the trade deal to ordinary Americans, delivering scores of speeches over the past several months with a focus on politically significant states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
In Arizona, Pence urged voters to pressure Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick to support the trade deal. Kirkpatrick nabbed Arizona’s second district away from Republicans in 2018 after McSally was appointed to the Senate. Pence called on Congress to pass the trade deal this year — in effect, pressing for the pact to be advanced at the same time lawmakers are debating whether to remove the president.
“The good news, coming back from Washington, D.C., is this is not a partisan issue. Can I get an amen?” McSally said at the Caterpillar event.
Pence added: “The American people don’t want more partisanship, they want more jobs. They don’t want more resistance, they want more results.”
Mexico has ratified the agreement, while Canada has said it will do so at the same pace as the U.S.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said the two parties are “on a path to yes” on the trade deal, signed a year ago. And she has essentially agreed with the vice president, saying that Congress can ratify the agreement even while Trump’s impeachment advances in the House.
Bloomberg writer Jennifer Jacobs contributed to this report.