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Can Mike Pence escape the controversies engulfing the White House?

Vice President Mike Pence
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Vice President Mike Pence

For someone who's one heartbeat away from the presidency, Mike Pence has somehow managed to stay arm's length from the multiplying scandals now engulfing the Trump White House.

In fact, at the height of the controversies enveloping his boss, the vice president is even building his own political war chest, creating a political action committee to support congressional candidates, which will enhance his already-strong popularity among Republicans.

Though Pence is not at the center of the maelstrom, he hasn't escaped totally unscathed. His credibility has been questioned in the last few days, especially after President Trump undercut the explanations Pence and other administration officials gave for why former FBI Director James Comey was fired.

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And new questions are swirling about what Michael Flynn told the Trump transition team — headed by Pence — about his work on behalf of the Turkish government. A new New York Times report indicates the former national security adviser told the team way back in January that he was under FBI investigation for secretly lobbying for Turkey during the campaign. The White House denies that, and Pence on Thursday reiterated that he only first learned of Flynn's lobbying in March.

"Pence choices: Out of the loop dupe is better than in the loop conspirator," tweeted John Weaver, a Republican strategist who worked for Ohio Gov. John Kasich's 2016 presidential bid. "Neither will help him longterm."

longterm

Flynn was fired on February 13, after news went public he misled administration officials — including Pence —about his pre-inauguration contacts with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. But the Flynn story just won't go away.

While walking through Capitol Hill hallways Thursday, Pence ignored shouted questions about Flynn from reporters.

"Why did the White House keep you in the dark?" he was asked.

The New York Times said Flynn first told the transition team's chief lawyer Donald McGahn of the investigation on Jan. 4. McGahn is now the White House counsel and is likely to be interviewed as part of the FBI's investigation of possible collusion between Russia and Trump's campaign associates – including Flynn.

If McGahn didn't tell Pence, the vice president "looks pretty bad for not knowing," said Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. On the other hand, Ornstein added, "obviously, if it turns out that Pence is not telling the truth about when he knew, that's pretty devastating for him, especially if we're looking down the road at him becoming president."

Still, Ornstein said, it's surprising Pence's reputation hasn't been hurt more already because the Trump administration is "fundamentally just staining everybody who is a part of it."

Consider, Pence also went on national TV to assure the nation that sanctions placed on Russia by the Obama administration hadn't been discussed during a December phone call between Flynn and Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S. Eavesdropping by U.S. intelligence officials undercut Flynn's denial. But Flynn was fired after misleading administration officials – including Pence.

And the revelation that Trump pressed Comey, before firing him, to shut down the agency's inquiry into Flynn rocked Washington. But he had Pence leave the Oval Office before making that request, according to accounts of memos kept by Comey made public this week.

"What is it about @mike_pence that no one ever tells him anything," tweeted David Axelrod, the former top strategist to Barack Obama.

But if that's true, it could prove to be a good thing.

Even after the latest explosive development, that the Justice Department appointed a special counsel for the FBI's ongoing investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, Pence is still untainted enough that House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was asked by a reporter Thursday whether lawmakers wouldn't rather be dealing with him instead of Trump. (Ryan declined to comment.)

For his part, Pence has kept his own comments about the developments to a minimum, including staying silent as Trump tweeted Thursday that the FBI's investigation into Russia is the biggest "witch hunt" in U.S. political history.

"Whatever Washington, D.C. may be focused on at any given time," Pence said in his usual on-message remarks at a business summit Thursday, "rest assured, President Donald Trump will never stop fighting for the issues that matter most to the American people – good jobs, safe streets, and a boundless American future."

As he keeps his head down and stays focused on his supportive role, Pence is building his own brand – and pot of political money.

His brand-new political action committee —the Great America Committee — to help congressional candidates is sure to bolster his already high marks on Capitol Hill.

Those connected with Pence and the PAC say it's unconnected to the White House turbulence.

"I can tell you this has been in the works for a month or two, so it has nothing to do with the president," said Jim Kittle, who was Pence's campaign finance chairman when Pence was Indiana's governor.

The firestorms brewing at the White House haven't swayed Doug Deason, a veteran Republican fundraiser, who says his support for both Pence and Trump remains firm. Deason and his father, billionaire tech businessman Darwin Deason, are major donors to the conservative network associated with industrialist Charles Koch.

"If he says it, it's true," Deason said of Pence's contention that he first learned Flynn's lobbying on behalf of Turkey in March. "People who know him trust him and believe in him."

Deason was headed to dinner Thursday night with Pence and second lady Karen Pence at the vice presidential residence. About 30 supporters were expected at the event.

Vice presidents, much less those in their first terms, don't typically establish their own political fundraising operations. In 1985, during Ronald Reagan's second term, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush created the Fund for America's Future as he prepared for his successful 1988 presidential bid.

But over a long political career, Pence has developed his own network of donors that is markedly different from the small-dollar donors who fueled Trump's unorthodox presidential campaign.

Pence already has hit the road as a fundraiser and traveled Montana last week to help collect funds for Greg Gianforte, the Republican vying for an open House seat in a May 25 special election.

The leadership PAC also gives Pence options for his own political advancement, said Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money.

"I can easily imagine, even if there was no more legal action taken in the next three years, that Trump would just decide, 'I'm done with this. I don't need this anymore' and not run," Biersack said of the prospect that Pence could be president.

"And in that case, Pence really needs to be prepared and have his own political operation," he said.

He'll also have to be prepared to answer questions about his role in the administration.

"The more Trump looks endangered, the more the spotlight will turn to Pence," the American Enterprise Institute's Ornstein said. "So everything he said will come under an increased level of scrutiny."