Vice President Mike Pence is launching a “Latinos for Trump” coalition in Miami, an effort by the Trump campaign to engage Latino voters in advance of the 2020 election. (June 25)
WASHINGTON – When Mexico’s foreign minister arrived in Washington for tense talks in June, he had a directive from his boss: Get a meeting at the highest level to stave off President Donald Trump’s threatened tariffs on all Mexican imports. Because Trump was in Europe, that meant Vice President Mike Pence.
Pence had just returned from a trip to Canada where he extolled the benefits of the Trump administration’s renegotiated NAFTA deal, an achievement he has touted as transformative for the Western Hemisphere. But when the vice president sat down with Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s foreign minister, his message was jarringly different: the U.S.-Mexico relationship was in jeopardy.
Pence confronted the delegation with data showing 144,000 apprehensions of immigrants trying to cross into the U.S. in May – a 32% increase from the prior month. He delivered an ultimatum: Mexico had to sign an agreement accepting asylum applications from those migrants and barring them from seeking refuge in the United States – or face trade penalties.
It was a stark mandate that ultimately was not included in a 468-word “joint declaration” that Trump signed off on when he landed back in Washington three days into the negotiations, although Mexico did agree to future negotiations on the asylum issue.
The exchange encapsulates Pence’s role in shaping the Trump administration’s foreign policy; he’s a loyal soldier often given contradictory missions – with less authority than his predecessors but also high expectations to deliver results.
Depending on the president’s latest demands, Pence zig zags between “good cop” and “bad cop” roles. Sometimes that means smoothing ruffled feathers among European allies, playing Trump’s mediator and translator for foreign leaders upset or confused about the administration’s policies. Other times, that means being the “the skunk at the garden party,” as one of Pence’s top advisers put it, giving hardline speeches denouncing North Korea’s “rogue regime” or delivering an ultimatum to Mexican officials on immigration.
The30-plus trips that Pence has taken to foreign countries is on par with the president’s travel. But Pence is not getting the wide leeway to shape foreign policy that Vice President Joe Biden did when he served as Barack Obama’s point person on the Iraq troop withdrawal or that Vice President Dick Cheney initially had in the war against terror under George W. Bush.
“That is certainly a diminishment in the authorities that the vice president has enjoyed for the last couple of decades,” said Brett Bruen, who was director of global engagement in the Obama administration.
Pence played a key role early in the administration in shaping Afghanistan policy, persuading Trump to keep American forces in Afghanistan “until we eliminate the terrorist threat to our homeland, our people once and for all,” as Pence declared during a 2017 visit to Kabul.
Yet that turned out to be a one-time turn for Pence at negotiating and driving foreign policy, said James Jay Carafano, a foreign policy and national security expert at the Heritage Foundation.
Now, “he’s really kind of settled into this role of being the cheerleader-in-chief, where he has been the guy beating the drumbeat on Venezuela or on some of these religious liberty things,” Carafano added, emphasizing that he sees Pence as highly effective in that role.
Current and former White House officials argue that Pence’s foreign policy role is more expansive because he’s not limited to working on specific issues. The arrangement – in which Pence talks tough on China and North Korea while assuaging traditional allies like Canada and the European Union – allows Pence to marry his traditional conservative ideology and style with Trump’s unconventional approach.
“I think that Obama and Bush are very different than Trump,” said Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff. “So yeah, the role is different.”
John Feeley, who served as ambassador to Panama until he resigned last year, said Pence is the well- prepared, diplomatic envoy who surprises foreign ministers with his rationality.
“He is the sort of Vaseline after the burn wound,” Feeley said. “That’s a much less stressful conversation than going to meet the president, like walking into a blender and hitting frappe.”
Less drama, more talking points
While a meeting with the No. 2 is not as significant as a presidential tete-a-tete, some foreign leaders may prefer dealing with Pence. When Trump decided, at the last minute, to send Pence to a 2018 Latin America summit that U.S. presidents have been attending for more than two decades, the reaction was decidedly mixed, according to Daniel Erikson, a former national security official who served in Biden’s office and in Pence’s office during the transition.
“The feeling on the ground, among Latin America leaders, was very much a combination of surprise, regret and relief,” Erikson said.
“He is probably the senior-most figure in the administration that regularly works off clear talking points, whereas President Trump tends to shoot more from the hip, ” he added. Pence, he said, can take the president’s foreign policy instincts and try to mesh them with the advice of broader national security community.
Pence has also developed his “freedom agenda” to give some coherence and independence to his foreign policy role. That agenda is an extension of his faith.
Pence, an evangelical Christian, likes to quote from 2 Corinthians, “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
“When we labor for freedom,” Pence has long said, “we make His work on this earth our own.”
But that agenda can seem at odds with Trump’s seeming willingness to overlook human rights violations, such as when he defended Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman amid accusations he ordered the murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed and dismembered inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul. Trump has raised eyebrows for calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a “terrific person” and has been criticized for his warm embrace of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, despite Kim’s leadership of a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world.
Still, Pence has emerged as a forceful voice on Venezuela, where the Trump administration is pushing for the ouster of President Nicolas Maduro, amid disarray in Venezuela’s economy and a dispute over Maduro’s re-election. He has given the administration’s most strident speech on China, accusing its government of engaging in “proactive and coercive” efforts to interfere America’s domestic policies and politics.
Pence’s aides say he has also played a less-noticed role on Iran, trying to telegraph U.S. support for the Iranian people and steering clear of any talk of regime change.
It’s not clear how much impact Pence has made in any of these arenas.
Trump nixed a tough speech Pence had planned to deliver last month excoriating China for human-rights and religious-liberties abuses. The White House wanted to avoid exacerbating U.S.-China tensions ahead of Trump’s high-stakes meeting in Osaka, Japan with Chinese President Xi Jinping. In Osaka, Trump announced a trade truce that included suspending the ban on U.S. companies’ supplying equipment to Chinese tech giant Huawei and delaying new tariffs on Chinese products.
The vice president seemed to play a moderating role on Iran, helping Trump resist pressure for military action pushed by his more hawkish advisers. Trump portrayed his decision to pull back as his alone, and Pence has otherwise been overshadowed in that debate by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton.
Then there is Venezuela. Pence was the first administration official to speak with Juan Guaido and told the opposition leader that Trump would back him as the country’s legitimate president. The vice president worked with Colombia’s leaders to try get U.S. aid into Venezuela. And he traveled repeatedly to Florida to meet with Venezuela’s expatriate community.
Disappointment over Venezuela
Guaido’s numerous calls for a popular uprising have failed to gain traction so far. Maduro remains in power, backed in part by Cuba and Russia. And some Venezuelan-Americans have grown disenchanted with the strategy.
“At first, we were as hopeful as everyone else,” Juan Correa Villalonga, chief operating officer of a Venezuelan expatriate group called the Association of Venezuelan Mothers and Women Abroad, told USA TODAY. Pence and other Trump administration officials worked to unite the opposition behind Guaido, he said, and that was an important achievement.
“It’s been crucial to get to where we are,” Villalonga said. But now, “most people are feeling let down. There are a lot of events down here in south Florida (that) ended up looking more like campaign events than events to help the Venezuelan people.”
Villalonga has attended some of Pence’s speeches in Florida and now thinks the Venezuela policy is aimed at ginning up Latino support for the next election.
“It is mostly political, and there’s no sense of them doing anything concrete that’s going to oust Maduro,” he said. “They basically march the Republican elected officials out to speak.”
White House officials responded that there’s no doubt Maduro will eventually fall, though they acknowledge it’s still a question of when. They also contend there was no expectation change would be quick and easy.
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A former White House official said it’s natural Pence would want to be heavily involved in Venezuela because it encapsulates issues that animate him, including fighting against socialism and for freedom.
When Pence was considering his own run for president in 2016, he laid out in a 2015 speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference his view that the U.S. needed to expand its military strength and stand tough against China, Russia and Iran.
“Weakness arouses evil,” he said, before quoting Reagan’s axiom that “peace comes through strength.”
But Pence can be seen as weak against his own boss, viewed by critics as either too servile to Trump or constantly being undercut by a mercurial president who often sets policy via Twitter. Pence was in Canada, pushing for ratification of the new NAFTA deal – an agreement that was likely an easy sell for the previously ardent free-trader – when news broke that Trump was considering new tariffs on Mexico.
Confronted at the American embassy in Ottawa, Pence told reporters that he didn’t want to comment “on what may or may not occur in the future.”
Trump’s tweet announcing the tariffs landed as Pence was flying back to Washington.
“I don’t think that he’s projected either the ability to articulate even minor differences with Trump publicly or, quite frankly, even privately, from what I’ve heard from conversations with foreign leaders,” Bruen said.
A former leader of a Western Hemisphere country who has dealt with Pence said he was direct, helpful and supportive. This ex-government official, who asked for anonymity to offer a candid assessment, was also impressed that Pence initially kept on some of Biden’s foreign policy assistants to help with continuity.
But, this leader added, it was hard to be confident in what Pence was saying because of the volatility of his boss.
Problem solver or ‘nice guy’ who cleans up messes?
Feeley, the former U.S. ambassador to Panama, said Pence was effective at the beginning of the administration. “But as time has worn on, his effectiveness has clearly dwindled as the rest of the world realizes he’s a nice guy sent to clean up messes,” Feeley said. “He has no throw weight to change the president’s mind.”
Feeley said he’d not seen any instance, at least on Latin America policy, in which Trump budged on an issue after Pence brought to him the concerns of a foreign president or ambassador.
Those close to Pence insist he does stand up to Trump. It just doesn’t leak when he does. They declined to provide examples of Pence’s pushback, saying the preservation of Pence’s relationship with Trump is a higher priority than polishing his public image.
“I think having the president’s confidence is far more important to the way he’s portrayed in the media,” Short said.
White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said Pence has been an “effective messenger” for the administration and a “natural and valuable negotiator” for Trump on “any number of priorities.”
“The president and vice president could not be more closely aligned,” Grisham said.
Erikson, the former national security official who worked for Biden and then for Pence during the transition, said Pence’s approach to an extremely challenging situation seems to be working.
Pence has carved out a very different role stylistically on foreign policy, while still being very supportive of Trump’s priorities, Erikson said. He wants to be seen as an important player while not being viewed as getting out front of Trump.
“He’s stuck with that strategy,” Erikson said, “and it appears to be paying off in terms of preserving his role, maintaining a good relationship with the president and advancing their foreign policy world view.”
Contributing: Michael Collins
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