WASHINGTON – With Congress barreling into yet another big budget battle this week, Vice President Mike Pence is headed halfway around the world to Asia. During the government shutdown last month, he was in the Middle East.
And even as special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation draws closer to President Donald Trump himself, vacuuming up interviews and documents from senior Trump advisers, Pence largely has stayed out of the conversation. He has not been asked to speak with Mueller, according to a person familiar with the vice president's operation who was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Both by coincidence and design, Pence has managed to skirt some of the biggest controversies of the Trump administration. And he's got a full schedule of political and international travel for the rest of 2018 that could help keep him at arm's length from domestic troubles.
Pence has maintained an almost Teflon-like quality in the Russia probe that has cast a long shadow over Trump's White House.
Investigators on the House Intelligence Committee have pored over thousands of emails from the Trump transition team but can't find Pence's name in any of them, even though he led the transition, said a Democrat familiar with the House's Russia probe. The Democrat was not authorized to detail private documents and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Pence departs Monday for consultations with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Toyko and South Korean President Moon Jae-in Seoul before leading the U.S. delegation to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Pence tweeted Friday that he's going to Asia to cheer on Olympic athletes but also to "make it clear all options are on the table" with regard to North Korea's ballistic missile program.
White House officials said Pence is looking to ensure North Korea doesn't "hijack" the games as it participates jointly with the South. The vice president will be holding symbolic events of his own to highlight the North's human rights abuses and nuclear ambitions.
But the trip also provides him with an eject button as the threat of another big budget battle looms because of a standoff on Capitol Hill over spending and immigration.
Last month, Pence jetted to the Middle East shortly before the start of what turned out to be a three-day government shutdown, using the trip to outline plans to accelerate moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. His office maintained that the trip was "integral to America's national security and diplomatic objectives" at a time when all but essential government services were shutting down. While there, Pence used an event at a military base near the Syrian border to criticize members of Congress — without mentioning Democrats by name — for using the shutdown to "to play politics with military pay."
Among Trump supporters and loyalists, Pence has developed a reputation as a dutiful soldier who stays out of trouble. It fits the risk-averse pattern that Pence developed even before he became vice president.
Mueller's recent interview with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the first Cabinet member to be questioned in the probe, and growing expectations that the president may sit for an interview raise the possibility that the investigation could ultimately touch Pence.
But even if Pence can avoid legal pitfalls, skating past any future political fallout as Trump's wingman will be more difficult.
Republican strategist Steve Schmidt said the notion of a "differentiated brand" for Pence is difficult to achieve because he has been at the heart of the administration's policies as vice president.
"He's in the thick of it," Schmidt said.
Pence has a long track record of largely avoiding the Russia entanglements that have ensnared other members of the Trump administration.
When Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, ordered incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn to call the Russian ambassador for guidance on how to handle a U.N. Security Council matter during the president's transition, other top aides were on the call from Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida — but Pence was home in Indiana.
When Kushner, Donald Trump Jr. and campaign chairman Paul Manafort met with Russian operatives at Trump Tower in June 2016, Pence wasn't on the campaign yet — a point that his aides underscore. And when the president huddled with advisers aboard Air Force One last summer to craft a misleading statement explaining the Trump Tower meeting, Pence was riding horses in Washington's Rock Creek Park with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
In firing Flynn from his White House position as national security adviser last year, Trump cited Flynn's lies to Pence about his discussions with the Russian ambassador, an answer that shielded the vice president from culpability. And when Flynn later reached a plea deal with Mueller's team, Pence's office said that proved Flynn had lied to them.
Pence's arm's-distance approach on Russia is part of a cultivated strategy to avoid unnecessary political peril. This is a politician who has a rule against dining alone with any woman other than his wife.
The vice president and his team have purposefully avoided television appearances recently if they think he'll face tough questions on Russia or if an explosive new story about the Trump White House is about to land, according to the person familiar with the vice president's operation who wasn't authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition on anonymity.
On Friday, when Washington was in a frenzy over the release of a disputed GOP memo on the Russia investigation, Pence was campaigning in western Pennsylvania on behalf of Republican state legislator Rick Saccone.
When he got asked about the memo during a local TV interview, Pence was ready with a carefully worded answer that was a rehash of the statement issued earlier in the day by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The vice president said the president "has made clear: we have great respect for the rank-and-file men and women of law enforcement in our Justice Department and the FBI who serve every day."