On Tuesday the FBI director, Christopher Wray, contradicted the White House over when it had completed a background investigation of Rob Porter, who resigned last week following allegations of abuse made by two ex-wives.
In a TV interview last week, Pence noted that the White House had acknowledged it could have done better, and on Wednesday he made clear that he takes the same view.
“I think the White House could have handled this better and I still feel that way,” he said at an event organised by the Axios website in Washington. “That being said, any more counsel I have on this I’ll share with the president of the United States.”
Pence is the most senior official yet to criticise the administration’s response.
Trump, by contrast, expressed sympathy for Porter and has not mentioned his alleged victims in public remarks and via Twitter, while Kelly told the Wall Street Journal: “It was all done right.” The White House has blamed an internal personnel security office for not revoking Porter’s clearance despite the FBI’s findings.
Challenged by reporters in the Oval Office on Wednesday, Trump said: “I am totally opposed to domestic violence of any kind. Everybody here knows that and it almost wouldn’t have to be said.”
The week-long drama has fuelled speculation over Kelly’s future, with some media reports suggesting he is telling staff to lie on his behalf. But Pence gave the chief of staff a firm vote of confidence, arguing that his service in the military, at the homeland security department and now as chief of staff “gives me and the president great confidence in this good man”.
Pressed on whether Kelly should stay or go, Pence said: “John Kelly has done a remarkable job as chief of staff for president of the United States and I look forward to continuing to work with him for many, many months to come.”
In the interview with Axios, Pence also discussed his recent trip to the winter Olympics in South Korea, where he was seated just feet away from Kim Yo-jong, sister of the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, but did not speak to her.
“I didn’t avoid the dictator’s sister, but I did ignore her,” Pence explained. “I didn’t believe it was proper for the United States of America to give her any attention in that forum.”
He described how Kim’s family had murdered a half-brother with chemical weapons and had an uncle executed with artillery fire in front of a crowd. “This is evil the likes of which we have witnessed rarely in our time around the world. I wanted to send by my silence a very clear message that the people of the United States of America know who we’re dealing with.”
Pence said if North Korea “completely and verifiably abandon[ed]” its missile programmes, “only then can we consider any change in posture by the United States or the international community”.
There is “no daylight” between the US and its allies Japan and South Korea on the issue, he insisted. Trump “always believes in talking, but talking is not negotiating”, he added, saying: “All options are on the table.”
Pence also admitted that “there were efforts by Russia” and other countries to affect the 2016 presidential election and promised there would be a “hardening” of American’s IT infrastructure defences. “We have discussed plans to ensure that meddling in our elections by Russian or other powers around the world will be rebutted,” Pence said.
But in what is likely to be controversial claim, he insisted: “The first thing that we all agree is – irrespective of efforts that were made in 2016 by foreign powers – it is the universal conclusion of our intelligence communities that none of those efforts had any impact on the outcome of the 2016 election.”
Pence, a devout Christian, also lashed out at Joy Behar, a co-host of the ABC daytime talk show The View, who suggested that it was a form of “mental illness” for him to believe that Jesus was talking to him. “I’d like to laugh about it but I really can’t,” he said. “To have ABC maintain a broadcast forum that compared Christianity to mental illness is just wrong.”
This article was written by David Smith in Washington, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 14th February 2018 21.26 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010