WASHINGTON, D.C. - After two weeks of public impeachment hearings in the House, there is now a distinct difference between Vice President Mike Pence and his two predecessors who most recently served alongside a president threatened with removal from office by Congress.

Vice President Gerald Ford was not implicated in the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up that forced President Richard Nixon to resign before the House could take an impeachment vote in 1974. Vice President Al Gore had nothing to do with President Bill Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky that was the basis for Clinton’s impeachment in 1998.

But the testimony last week of Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, brought the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump to Pence’s doorstep.

Sondland said he told Pence before Pence’s Sept. 1 meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Poland that U.S. military aid to Ukraine was being held up over demands from Trump that the country conduct investigations. 

The impeachment inquiry centers on allegations that Trump used nearly $400 million in congressionally approved aid as leverage to pressure Ukraine to probe former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, over the younger Biden’s role on the board of the Ukrainian energy company, Burisma. Trump also allegedly wanted Ukraine to scrutinize the widely dismissed claim that the country interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections. 

Pence told a Wisconsin television station that he “didn’t recall” any discussion with Sondland. Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, said his boss never had a conversation with Sondland about Ukrainian investigations.

“Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland told members of the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 20.

Until that moment, Pence hovered in his own orbit around Trump without being pulled into the controversial vortexes that Trump creates on almost a daily basis.

“When things are fine, he’s around, and when things are bad, he’s not there,” said Tom LoBianco, a political journalist and author of a recent biography of Pence, “Piety & Power.”

After Sondland’s revelations, Pence is part of the impeachment process.

“It would be surprising to believe he didn’t know anything about this,” LoBianco said. “Now, people really want answers from Pence and [Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo.”

If Pence was aware of the so-called “quid pro quo” tying Ukrainian investigations to U.S. aid, or “bribery,” as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calls it, it could open a new window into whether Pence is a plugged-in, powerful vice president or whether he’s just along for the bumpy ride with Trump as he plans his own 2024 presidential run.

“People have questioned his influence and role in the Trump administration from the word ‘go,’” said Andrew Downs, associate professor of political science at Purdue University Fort Wayne. 

Being drawn into the impeachment controversy is potentially a no-win for Pence. If he knew what was going on with the Ukraine machinations and did nothing, or could do nothing to stop it, he looks ineffective. 

Here’s someone who served in Congress for 12 years and who knows very well the purse strings it controls on foreign aid. But he didn’t try to communicate that to Trump.

On the other hand, if he knew nothing about the Ukrainian aid situation, then “everyone’s in the loop” except Pence. It makes him look like an administration ornament. 

The miasma surrounding the events that caused the House impeachment inquiry will continue to cloud Pence’s role – or lack of one. That raises the question of whether he has suffered a political setback.

Cam Savage, a Hoosier Republican political consultant, said Pence has not taken a hit. He described Pence as being “unflappable” during last week’s developments.

“I didn’t think he was impacted,” said Savage, a partner at Limestone Strategies. “He’s a man of character and faith. He always represents the country well and carries himself with dignity. He is in many ways an ideal vice president. He’s a real asset to this administration.”
Downs said Pence is holding steady politically.

“His status is probably unchanged,” said Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics. “I would be very surprised if his (poll) numbers have moved in any meaningful way.”

But Pence could become embroiled in impeachment while someone seen as his chief rival for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination – former South Carolina Gov. and UN ambassador Nikki Haley – is safely outside the fray, LoBianco said.

“That’s the political peril for Pence,” LoBianco said. “It’s not as immediate and urgent as what Trump faces, but it is very real.”

Trump and Pence could benefit from the fact that the House impeachment proceedings don’t seem to be causing a major stir in the electorate. Support for the Trump administration – and opposition to it – is about the same now as it was before the whistleblower raised questions about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.

“I do not see a lot of minds being changed by this process so far,” Savage said. 

Schoeff is HPI’s Washington correspondent.