Pence pushes policy talk, distances himself from Trump Jr. meeting controversy

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WASHINGTON – As Washington seems nearly all-consumed by the latest reports surrounding the meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer, Vice President Mike Pence appears to be working to distance himself from the controversy.

“Thank you so much for that very warm welcome,” Pence said Wednesday morning at the National Student Leadership Conference in Washington.

Pence is keeping an active public schedule, speaking in Washington Wednesday morning before flying to Kentucky in the afternoon to meet and push for the repeal and replace of the Affordable Care Act.

"So I just say to you, cheerfully - expect criticism," Pence told students in Washington.  "Listen to it.  Have the humility to learn from it.  And then push through it.  That's the essence of leadership."

Meantime, the opinion pages  in the past 48 hours have taken note of Russia.

“Mike Pence looks like he’s ready to pounce on the presidency,” a column in the Boston Globe proclaimed as a columnist in the Washington Post asked, “Is Mike Pence betting it will all come crashing down on Trump?”

For his part, the vice president has issued only an official statement through his spokesperson, one offering vast distance from the meeting and controversy.

"The Vice President is working every day to advance the President's agenda, which is what the American people sent us here to do,"  Marc Lotter said in a written statement Tuesday, the vice president’s spokesperson. "The Vice President was not aware of the meeting. He is not focused on stories about the campaign, particularly stories about the time before he joined the ticket."

That, political experts and those close to Pence said, is exactly where he needs to be.

“Mike Pence is a guy who’s very affable, he’s very down-to-earth,” Mike Murphy said, a GOP strategist and former Indiana lawmaker. “But he’s also not naïve.”

"There's certainly an attitude among many people who join the administration - my brother was on the transition team -- do you sit and watch the building burn down or do you go in with a fire hose and try to help?” Murphy said. “And I think the attitude of many Washington establishment people - and Mike was part of the establishment - a lot of the attitude is we have to help make this government as good as we can make it."

The vice president, though, hasn’t completely escaped the controversy.

Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was fired for lying to Pence about contacts with a Russian official. And new questions have arisen after an exchange in January on CBS’ Face the Nation.

"Just to button up one question, did any advisor or anybody in the Trump campaign have any contact with the Russians who were trying to meddle in the election?" John Dickerson said, the show’s host.

“Of course not,” Pence replied.

“Obviously he doesn’t’ know everything going on with the administration, as we’ve seen when he says one thing and clearly something else has happened,” Laura Albright said, a CBS4 political analyst and political science professor at the University of Indianapolis. “But on the plus side, it doesn’t look like he’s purposely misleading people, that he has been clear in what he’s said, and he’s stayed true to that.”

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