Mike Pence keeping distance from Trump Jr. controversy

Posted at 5:24 PM, Jul 12, 2017

Vice President Mike Pence is known as a loyal foot soldier to the President. But with new revelations about Donald Trump Jr. meeting with a Russian lawyer during the campaign, Pence is ever so cautiously keeping his distance, giving less than a full-throated defense of the younger Trump.

Pence was not aware of Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian lawyer during the campaign, a spokesman for the vice president said Monday, which came before he joined the ticket. Pence had said in January that no one from the campaign had any contact with Russians trying to influence the 2016 election.

"The vice president was not aware of the meeting," said Marc Lotter, Pence's spokesman. "He is not focused on stories about the campaign, particularly stories about the time before he joined the ticket."

Pence tweeted Wednesday morning on the controversy, albeit indirectly. He did not, however, offer a specific defense of Trump Jr.

"Many Media & Dems will try to stop us but now more than ever we owe the American people to continue to deliver what @POTUS & I campaigned on," the Vice President said, retweeting the President's Wednesday morning tweet on progress against ISIS.

But White House deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders said on Tuesday that there is "absolutely no distance" between the President and his second in command.

Sanders said during the briefing that the President and vice president had spoken on Tuesday, the day Trump Jr. disclosed emails related to the meeting, but could not say if the topic of Trump Jr. was broached. A senior Pence official said that they do not comment on private conversations between the President and vice president.

Another senior administration adviser described the relationship between Don Jr. and Pence as "friendly but never been close."

Privately, people close to the vice president are saying he's "just not going to address" the news about Trump Jr.'s meetings and emails.

Pence offered some insight into his philosophy on being a loyal foot soldier, speaking to student leaders in Washington on Wednesday morning on the importance of an orientation toward authority.

"Recognize and respect those who have been placed above you. Honor them, learn from them, follow their example, give them the honor that they are due," Pence said, urging the students to "take the time to demonstrate respect for those who have been placed in authority over you, to listen to them, to defer to them, even when you offer them the broadest range of your counsel and your talents."

In the past, Pence has denied any knowledge of contact between the campaign and the Kremlin, emphasizing that he joined the ticket in July.

"I joined this campaign in the summer, and I can tell you that all the contact by the Trump campaign and associates was with the American people. We were fully engaged with taking his message to make America great again all across this country. That's why he won in a landslide election," he told Fox News days before the inauguration in January 2017.

Later that morning in an interview with CBS News, Pence repeated that "of course" there had not been contact between the Trump campaign and Russia, calling allegations of coordination "bizarre rumors."

As CNN previously reported, a number of Pence advisers and staff worked out of Trump Tower during the transition -- and are now worried about being dragged into legal issues. The vice president has hired a lawyer himself.

A senior administration adviser acknowledged last month there have been weeks of hand-wringing behind closed doors among members of Pence's team and an acceptance that the questions about Russia and the Trump campaign were not disappearing. Pence has also been under fire for not knowing a number of things that happened during the transition -- which he led as chairman.

A separate senior administration adviser explained the nervousness: "You just worry about some meeting or call that you were at and don't recall even innocuous in nature, and then you get pounced on." The adviser said that people on Pence's staff have not lawyered up -- as far as the source knew -- but added, "man, what a stressful deal."