On Oct. 3 2016, Mike Pence took to the stage for his first and only US vice presidential debate—and calmly lied through his teeth about Donald Trump for 90 minutes. He lied about whether Trump had said more countries should have nuclear weapons. He lied about Trump saying he wanted to punish women who had abortions. He lied about Trump defending dictators. He lied about Trump doing business with Russia. Every time his opponent, vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine, brought up a statement by Trump—a public, documented statement, the veracity of which Americans could easily validate—Pence did not embellish. He simply smiled and lied.
Seven months later, Pence is still lying, only now the lies have become more dangerous. Today, Americans face a dual threat from Pence: first, in his capacity as vice president and as a key player in an administration rife with scandal and possibly treasonous activity; and second, as the potential inheritor of the tarnished presidency as talk of impeachment accelerates. Mike Pence spent months trying to hide the truth about Donald Trump. It is important that Americans do not make the same mistake with Pence.
Impeaching Trump, in other words, would not free the US from the dark specter of collusion and betrayal that has swept over it since Trump took power. Although Trump has lowered the bar for president immeasurably, Americans must not forget that behind Pence’s smooth smile is a calculating politician with a track record of oppressive policymaking and a knack for dishonesty. The answer to the question “Trump or Pence?” is always “neither.”
Though the US press was notoriously slow to investigate the Trump team’s relationship with Russia, often burying or downplaying the story, the last two weeks have revealed an America in crisis. After firing FBI director James Comey, Trump invited Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and ambassador Sergey Kislyak into the White House and chatted about highly classified state secrets. Trump went on to make statements suggesting obstruction of justice on national television, while newspapers revealed that Trump had asked Comey to shut down the investigation of former national security advisor-turned-foreign agent Michael Flynn.
Trump appears unbothered by the growing storm of allegations, proceeding to govern in the same audacious autocratic vein that he has employed from the start. And what has Pence been doing through all this? Lying. “There is no evidence of collusion between our campaign and any Russian officials,” Pence told CNN on May 10, a few days before Russian officials arrived in the White House and allegedly colluded. Pence denied that Comey’s firing had anything to do with the Russia investigation as Trump openly bragged that he did it to “relieve the pressure.”
In addition to lying about Trump’s statements and actions, Pence continues to lie about Flynn. Pence, who helped direct Trump’s transition team, was informed by the House oversight committee on November 18 that Flynn was a foreign agent, yet continues to downplay his role in allowing him access to high-level state secrets. Democratic representative Elijah Cummings, who sent Pence the warning letter, doesn’t buy Pence’s excuses: “Either he’s not telling the truth, or he was running a sloppy shop because we have a receipt, Chris, that says they received the letter,” he explained to CNN’s Chris Cuomo.
But Pence, in contrast to Trump’s bumbling brigade of incompetents, is not known as someone who runs a sloppy shop. A Washington, DC veteran, he was selected, in part, for his restrained demeanor and bureaucratic prowess. Pence has been involved in the Trump campaign for nine months, placed there, allegedly, at the behest of then-campaign manager Paul Manafort, who remains one of the central figures in the Russian interference scandal. Pence consulted with Manafort regularly throughout the campaign and the transition period, and had a hand in selecting other members of the administration who have been accused of improper interactions with Russia, including Flynn and attorney general Jeff Sessions.
It’s possible Pence rode the Trump train to the White House knowing, or at least suspecting, that the conductor could soon get booted. Under the malleable and erratic Trump, Pence has had the opportunity to push for repressive policies like laws that discriminate against LGBT Americans and religious minorities and fiscal policies that punish the poor. And his track record so far suggests Pence will not aggressively push for the necessary investigations as the Russian interference scandal continues. For his part, who’s to say he won’t simply lie again about his own possible role?
Of course, there are the myriad policy reasons to oppose Pence as president, as political writer and former Hoosier Melissa McEwan has documented: his repressive policies toward women and LGBT Americans, his history of corruption which included stripping power from Democratic rivals, his denial of resources to citizens in his home state of Indiana, and his opposition to religious freedom in favor of Christian dominance. Pence supports anti-constitutional initiatives that would hurt millions of Americans, and as president, he would have the power to enact the destructive state policies he imposed on Indiana at a national level.
But there is a simpler reason to oppose Pence, and that is because he has proven he cannot be trusted. From the moment he entered the national stage, he has lied in order to protect Trump, no matter how egregious Trump’s actions or how damaging his behavior has been for the integrity of our democracy. Pence has been a willing participant in the Trump campaign and administration, responsible both for orchestrating its mistakes and then denying them. As the investigation into Russian interference continues, Pence’s role needs to be fully explored. He is not the solution, but part of the problem. Do not be fooled by the demeanor of a calm liar.