Pence is traveling abroad for the first time since taking office
Pence arrives in Europe at a moment of deep unease for leaders
Vice President Mike Pence will try to leave behind a White House in tumult when he arrives in Europe Friday, but he’s likely to be dogged by the recent events that have thrown the Trump administration into disarray.
Though he is seeking to reassure key allies such as Germany of US resolve on Russia and other issues that have rattled Western leaders, he himself faces questions about how much he’s been looped in on President Donald Trump’s thinking on the Kremlin.
On Monday, Trump ousted his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, for misleading Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. Pence, who had previously gone on television and repeated Flynn’s prevarications, only discovered he was misinformed last Friday – a full two weeks after Trump himself learned the Justice Department was looking into the matter.
Even as Pence seeks answers about why he was hoodwinked, Trump himself has expressed little concern about the compromised position of his vice president. Instead, he’s cast Flynn – whom he asked to resign – as unfairly brought down by illegal leakers of classified intelligence.
“The first thing I thought of when I heard about it is: How does the press get this information that’s classified? How do they do it?” Trump said at a news conference Thursday. “You know why? Because it’s an illegal process and the press should be ashamed of themselves.”
The incident frustrated and dismayed Pence. It also raised questions about how much the vice president can act as a credible interlocutor for Trump in Europe, where the top concern is the very subject upon which Pence was frozen out: US intentions concerning sanctions on Moscow.
Pence, traveling abroad for the first time since taking office, will attend the Munich Security Conference and huddle with Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel before traveling to Brussels for meetings with key European leaders.
Defense Secretary James Mattis is also attending the Munich conference, and he primed the audience Friday by stressing the US commitment to NATO and standing with America’s Western allies.
“The transatlantic bond remains our strongest bulwark against instability and violence,” he told the conference. “I am confident that we will strengthen our partnerships, confronting those who choose to attack innocent people or our democratic processes and freedoms.”
Pence has backed similar positions in the past.
“I expect Pence to express the same views he presented in the vice presidential debate last year: a fairly conventional tough stance on Russia and commitment to Europe,” said Derek Chollet, executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “But this will still leave allies wondering how much he is speaking for Trump.”
White House aides said Thursday that Pence and Trump had discussed the trip, which will also include talks with the leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan. Those aides said Pence would work to calm US allies during his trip abroad and dismissed concerns that he may be regarded as an unreliable voice for Trump.
“I don’t think any of our allies will question for a second whether the vice president is speaking on behalf of the administration, in conjunction with the President, on any matter,” said a senior White House official, speaking anonymously to preview Pence’s trip.
Pence arrives in Europe at a moment of deep unease for leaders, who are eying Trump with skepticism. Few believed he could win November’s election and made little attempt to mask their disregard for the billionaire real estate developer as he plodded forward with his brash campaign.
The frenetic first month of Trump’s presidency has only deepened European leaders’ concerns. Flynn’s resignation this week led to some optimism among Western diplomats who had been chagrined about the former national security adviser’s desire to establish closer ties to Moscow. But widespread uncertainty about what steps Trump may take to begin cooperating with Russian President Vladimir Putin remains.
Western diplomats and US officials who have met with Trump administration envoys describe mixed messages about the future of US policy toward Russia. While some officials – including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN ambassador Nikki Haley – have insisted that US sanctions will remain in place on Russia for its incursion into Ukraine, others have been less committal.
The future of a separate set of US sanctions punishing Russia for its election cyber-meddling is also uncertain. Flynn’s phone call to the Russian ambassador came the same day the Obama administration put those sanctions in place, and Trump has remained open to lifting them.
That’s a concern for some in Europe, who fear the same Russian cyber intrusions could affect important upcoming votes in France and Germany.
European capitals were also unnerved by Trump’s campaign trail dismissals of NATO, which he’s largely tempered since taking office. As a candidate, Trump lambasted the defense collective as “obsolete” and chastised member countries for not meeting the minimum requirements on defense spending. But last month during remarks at US Central Command in Florida, he said that his administration strongly supported the alliance.
Pence will seek to offer a steadier message during remarks in Munich and during talks in Brussels with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and other European leaders. It was already reinforced by European trips by Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, who attended the NATO ministerial meeting, this week.
He’ll offer a foreign policy message that hews more closely to established US policy, insisting that Russia adhere to the Minsk ceasefire agreement in Ukraine and vowing support for NATO as a bulwark of western security.
“We’re stronger together. So (we) just want to reaffirm that,” said a senior White House adviser on foreign policy. “If there are fissures, either through the media or perceptions otherwise, he wants to reassure folks.”