Press Watch: What did the vice president know? Don't fall for Mike Pence's non-denial denials

Gordon Sondland clearly implicated Pence in the Ukraine extortion scandal — and the veep's "denials" are ambiguous

Published November 21, 2019 2:00PM (EST)

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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“Everyone was in the loop,” Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the EU, told Congress on Wednesday. As he made clear, that very much included Vice President Mike Pence.

Sondland’s testimony that he had informed Pence about Trump’s Ukranian squeeze – and that Pence simply responded with a nod — elicited what at first glance appeared to be denials from Pence’s office, but really weren’t.

They were “non-denial denials” — a term that entered the pop-cultural lexicon in 1976, when it was employed by Jason Robards, playing Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee in the Watergate movie “All the President’s Men.” 

Non-denial denials are a way of appearing to deny a factually accurate allegation without actually lying. They generally involve rephrasing the accusation, then issuing a very narrowly-crafted and hairsplitting denial, while avoiding the central claim. 

On Wednesday, some political reporters took non-denial denials from Pence’s chief of staff on face value, giving him credit he did not deserve for having completely refuted Sondland’s version of what happened. 

But others, notably including CNN anchor Jake Tapper and members of his early-afternoon panel, enthusiastically tore into the statement from Pence’s chief of staff, exposing it as a fraud.

To someone who has long been disappointed by how casually and credulously reporters who should know better than to swallow these sorts of non-denial denials whole, it was a distinct pleasure to watch. 

CNN’s evisceration

White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins pointed out that Pence has never directly denied the meat of Sondland’s accusation: that he was aware of the overall situation.

Tapper responded by noting that “one of the things that's interesting about the vice president's statement there is that it's very specific and refutes a number of things that Sondland never said.”

For instance, “the statement from the vice president's office denied a private meeting, which Sondland never claimed he had.”

CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash expressed a kind of admiration: “I've read a lot of carefully worded statements in my life, as have you. This takes the cake. It's kind of remarkable. It's almost a work of art how a vice president's office put this out.”

The statement denied what Bash called “a word salad that goes with all of these controversies,” but not what Sondland actually said.

“One thing I will say about the vice president through the three years, almost, of the Trump presidency — he's like a prize fighter,” Bash said. “He has been able to get around potential punches and blows to his reputation, to his credibility, on instances that he could be in big trouble. And this poses the biggest challenge.”

Gloria Borger, CNN’s chief political analyst, added some context: “If you look at Pence, he had been asked about Ukraine before. He had been asked about it on ‘Face the Nation,’ for example. He's dodged it every single time, only saying what his conversation with the president of Ukraine was, not what he was aware of inside the administration.”

Then, she added to laughter: “If everybody else in the administration was aware of this, including the secretary of state, you have to believe that Vice President Pence knew about it, although he seems to be in the middle of a lot of things that he's not aware of over the years.”

What they actually said

Sondland, in his opening statement before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, described a briefing on Sept. 1 in Warsaw, before Pence was to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky: 

I mentioned to Vice President Pence before the meetings with the Ukrainians that I had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations. I recall mentioning that before the Zelensky meeting.

Later, Sondland testified

I was in a briefing with several people, and I just spoke up and I said it appears that everything is stalled until this statement gets made, something that -- words to that effect, and that's what I believed to be the case, based on the work that the three of us had been doing — [Kurt] Volker, [Rick] Perry and myself. And the vice president nodded, like, you know, he heard what I said, and that was pretty much it, as I recall.

Nothing about a “conversation” or being alone with the vice president. Nothing about specifically mentioning Hunter Biden, CrowdStrike or Burisma.

And the real significance of Sondland’s testimony was that Pence was evidently not shocked by what he said. As Intelligence Committee Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman put it in his questioning of Sondland:

Goldman: “He didn’t say, Gordon, what are you talking about?"

Sondland: “He did not."

Goldman: “He didn’t say, what investigations?"

Sondland: “He did not."

Here, by contrast, is the full statement from Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff:

The vice president never had a conversation with Gordon Sondland about investigating the Bidens, Burisma, or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations.

Ambassador Gordon Sondland was never alone with Vice President Pence on the September 1 trip to Poland. This alleged discussion recalled by Ambassador Sondland never happened.

Multiple witnesses have testified under oath that Vice President Pence never raised Hunter Biden, former Vice President Joe Biden, Crowdstrike, Burisma, or investigations in any conversation with Ukrainians or President Zelensky before, during, or after the September 1 meeting in Poland.

Pence, who was in Wisconsin on Wednesday, was asked about Sondland’s testimony in an interview with a local TV station. He started out with more non-denial denials.

Reporter Matt Smith asked: “Are you implying that Ambassador Sondland lied today when he said he shared some information with you about his concerns?”

Pence replied: “Well, as we’ve been clear, I made no comments in my meeting with President Zelensky concerning any investigations or tying investigations to U.S. aid to Ukraine and I have no recollection of any discussion with Ambassador Sondland before that meeting." 

(Again, Sondland didn’t say Pence brought it up with Zelensky, and there was no “discussion.”)

But as it happens, Pence then issued what was arguably his first genuine denial. 

Some background: Jennifer Williams, a career foreign service officer who was detailed to Pence’s office from the State Department, testified Tuesday that she put a rough transcript of Trump's July 25 phone call with Zelensky in Pence’s briefing book for his Warsaw trip. The transcript clearly shows Trump pressuring Zelensky to investigate the Bidens and the Russia-spawned conspiracy theory that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 election.

Here’s what Pence told Smith: "I have heard that it was in a briefing book. I have no recollection of seeing a transcript of the call. And I was not aware of the allegations that U.S. aid to Ukraine was tied to investigations at any point before those matters become public in September."

That one is hard to quibble with, unless he’s parsing the words “allegations” or “investigations” in ways that are beyond me. It’s a denial. And probably also a lie — in which case Pence won’t be able to say he was misunderstood if and when hard evidence emerges that he was in fact quite aware. 

So, as that quote makes its way into the major media, saying Pence has denied that he was in the loop will be accurate. But that doesn’t forgive some of what we saw Wednesday.

Way too much credulity

On the “PBS NewsHour,” Yamiche Alcindor reported: “So you have the vice president of the United States through his chief of staff saying what Ambassador Sondland testified today never happened.”

Reuters reported: “Vice President Mike Pence’s office, responding to testimony on Wednesday by U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, said the two men had not discussed tying the release of U.S. aid to Ukraine to ‘potential investigations’ during a September trip to Poland.”

Rosalind S. Helderman and Josh Dawsey, in the Washington Post, wrote that “Sondland’s account was immediately disputed in statement by Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, who said that Pence ‘never had a conversation with Gordon Sondland about investigating the Bidens, Burisma, or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations.’”

They added: “In an interview with The Washington Post, Short added that he attended the group meeting involving Pence and Sondland in Warsaw, and that Sondland ‘never raised investigations in any way.’”

The loophole there: Sondland didn’t say he spoke about the investigations, but rather about the apparent need for a statement about (apparently unspecified) investigations.

An early Associated Press story reported, credulously, that Short “said Wednesday that a conversation described by U.S. European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland about a link between military aid for Ukraine and investigations ‘never happened.’”

But a later version was much more qualified and included some of what Pence said in Wisconsin. It stated that “Pence said Wednesday he has no recollection of a conversation described by Gordon Sondland about a link between military aid for Ukraine and investigations sought by President Donald Trump — a slight departure from an aide’s earlier statement.”

Non-denial denials: A brief history

Back in 2014, something highly unusual happened: Then-CIA director John Brennan actually had to confess to having issued a non-denial denial. 

As I wrote at the time, Brennan had earlier made comments to NBC’s Andrea Mitchell at a Council on Foreign Relations event that were widely interpreted as a blanket denial of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s accusations that the CIA had improperly accessed the computers of Senate staffers who were investigating the agency’s role in torturing detainees.

Six months later, after a CIA inspector general’s report confirmed that the CIA had in fact done exactly what Feinstein had charged, Brennan had some explaining to do. As I wrote:

Brennan now says that his denial had been mischaracterized, and that it was specific to the way Mitchell asked her question, which included a slightly hyperbolic and conflated paraphrasing of the charges that Feinstein had carefully drawn out that morning.

That led me to write a little series of stories about the history of non-denial denials, including the origin of the term during the Watergate era; the non-denial denial as a staple of the attempted cover-up of the Iran-Contra scandal; Bill Clinton’s finger-waggling non-denial denial that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky”; and non-denial denials as President George W. Bush’s weapon of choice in the post-Iraq-war cover-up.

By Dan Froomkin

Dan Froomkin is Editor of Press Watch. He wrote the daily White House Watch column for the Washington Post during the George W. Bush administration, then served as Washington bureau chief and senior writer at Huffington Post, covering Barack Obama's presidency, before working as Washington editor at The Intercept.

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