Even as Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump-Russia scandal has continued to move closer to Donald Trump, one of the key questions has been whether the investigation would also target Mike Pence. If Mueller’s findings lead to Trump’s ouster, Pence would inherit the presidency. Now comes evidence that Mueller appears to indeed be targeting Pence, in a move that could have a profound impact on the line of succession.
Mueller has turned his focus to a political entity called America First Policies. The group has ties to Rick Gates, who Mueller had arrested earlier this week in the Trump-Russia scandal. Until this summer, this group was run by a guy named Nick Ayers – until Mike Pence hired him as his new chief of staff (link). Gates was initially believed to have been arrested simply due to his financial connections to Paul Manafort and Russia. However, Mueller’s decision to also target America First Policies suggests that Gates’ arrest may be an attempt at getting to Ayers. In turn, there would only be one logical reason for Robert Mueller to pursue Ayers: to get to Mike Pence.
There is no evidence that Pence was involved in the Trump-Russia conspiracy during the election. However, Pence is documented to have frequently communicated with Manafort during the transition period, without a legitimate reason for doing so (it’s unclear if these phone calls were picked up on the Manafort wiretap). Pence has also repeatedly made false statements to try to cover up Michael Flynn’s interactions with Russia. Even if Pence isn’t guilty of conspiring with Russia, he appears to have conspired to obstruct justice as part of the subsequent coverup.
So what happens if Robert Mueller uncovers evidence that Mike Pence is guilty of felony conspiracy obstruction? It’s important to keep in mind that impeachment and removal from office are entirely a political process, and Mueller doesn’t control that process. He can only demonstrate that Trump is so overwhelmingly guilty that Congress ends up having no realistic choice but to oust Trump. It’s nearly impossible to imagine Congress ousting Trump and Pence simultaneously.
The most likely scenario is that Mike Pence would inherit the presidency, and would then swiftly get eaten alive by his role in the scandal. In such a scenario, Pence would immediately have to nominate a new Vice President, subject to Senate approval. The Senate would likely come to a bipartisan compromise on a consensus pick, and then force Pence to nominate that pick (this is precisely how Gerald Ford became Vice President). Then if Pence is subsequently ousted, that consensus pick would become President (which is how Gerald Ford became President).