With three speeches on foreign soil in the last two weeks, the vice president has turned heads delivering Trump’s ‘America First’ demands.
Vice President Mike Pence has slowly become of the president’s most visible overseas surrogates — sent to deliver Trump’s “America First” demands.
On Monday, Pence will make his third speech on foreign soil in the last two weeks when he travels to Bogota, Colombia, to call on Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro to step aside, a high-profile address that will come as the world watches to see whether Maduro relents on a blockade that has kept humanitarian aid packages from Venezuelans facing food and medicine shortages.
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The request will come just days after Pence took a swing through Europe, where he broadsided allies with an unexpected demand that they pull out of the Iranian nuclear deal, while chiding them for continuing to do business with the country. Pence pointedly reiterated the dictates in a second speech, even after being issued a flat denial the first time around.
On the foreign stage, White House officials say Pence has sometimes settled into a role as the administration’s bad cop, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is the diplomat who sticks around to hash out particulars and the president is the showman who swoops in from time to time. And it’s a role Pence will likely continue to play in the next few months, as Trump’s schedule becomes increasingly campaign-focused.
It’s the latest example of the unique way the Trump administration conducts business — past vice presidents have been sent to overseas locales farther down the geopolitical priority list. But with Trump preferring domestic travel — and the ever-present potential for gaffes and protests when he does venture overseas — Pence has increasingly become the face of Trumpism abroad. To his supporters, Pence is seen as an powerful defender of the president’s agenda — someone who has not once veered from his script in a way that undermined Trump. But critics say Pence has done little more than exacerbate already tense relationships between the U.S. and allies by simply repeating Trump’s threats and grievances in a different tone.
“The vice president consults with the president before and during all of these major trips and he’s always delivering the message that the president wants him to deliver,” said former Pence press secretary Marc Lotter, who recently joined Trump’s 2020 operation.
Now, Pence is turning his focus to Venezuela, an issue where he has been at the front and center from the beginning for the Trump administration. Pence was the first senior Trump administration official to phone Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó the day before he declared himself interim president of the economically strapped country. In the weeks since, many Latin American countries and America’s EU allies have followed the U.S. government in recognizing Guaidó as the true Venezuelan leader.
And in his speech Monday, Pence plans to reaffirm “the United States’ unwavering support” for Guaidó just 48 hours after the opposition leader and more than 600,000 volunteers will attempt to bring humanitarian aid packages into the country that Maduro has been blocking at the border. Backed by a coalition of Latin American governments, Pence will declare that “the time has come for Nicolás Maduro to step aside,” the White House said Thursday.
It will be Pence’s fifth trip to Latin America since taking office.
“He wants to keep the drumbeat going,” a senior White House official told POLITICO, adding that both Pence and President Donald Trump believe the situation in Venezuela “could become the most significant foreign policy event of this administration.”
Venezuela is just one of myriad foreign policy issues Pence has folded into his portfolio.
Pence was the most senior official sent to a gathering on Middle East policy in Warsaw last week.
At the event, he diverged from his prepared remarks to call on the United States’ European partners “to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.” Trump announced last year that the U.S. would exit the agreement — in which Tehran pledged to curb its nuclear program in exchange for economic sanctions relief — calling it a disaster for America.
In Warsaw, Pence accused European allies of undermining U.S. sanctions that were reimposed against Iran after Trump abandoned the accord, though he declined to namecheck Germany, France, or Britain for launching a mechanism last month that’s designed to allow for continued trade with Iran. He reiterated the same talking points during a speech days later at the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of top leaders from around the world.
“It is an ill-advised step that will only strengthen Iran, weaken the [European Union] and create still more distance between Europe and the United States,” he said.
It was a moment that surprised foreign diplomats, who felt that Pence’s remarks might actually embolden Iran, giving its officials easy attack lines. Indeed, Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif referenced Pence’s Warsaw comments during his own speech in Munich.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also picked up on the remarks, accusing the Trump administration of strengthening adversaries like Iran and Russia with its demands. Germany, France and the European Union had all declined to send their top diplomats to the Warsaw gathering.
The senior White House official said Pence’s fiery comments were meant to signal the administration’s move “toward a tougher stance against Iran, which includes pushing allies to withdraw” from the 2015 nuclear deal.
“The vice president used bilateral meetings in Munich and Warsaw to highlight not just the security threat posed by Iran,” said the official, but to also challenge European allies on their business with a regime that has been known to “stifle free speech, kill gay people and persecute political dissenters.”
Pence has also occasionally popped up as a key player in the Trump administration’s ongoing denuclearization negotiations with North Korea. It was his comparison of North Korea to Libya that drew fierce backlash from Pyongyang last May, temporarily jeopardizing a planned summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un — the showman aspect the president relishes. Trump will meet again with Kim next week in Vietnam for their second optics-heavy international summit.
Part of the reason Pence enjoys such autonomy on the foreign stage is due, in part, to his proficiency at weaving profuse Trump flattery into his appearances, according to a former White House official.
In Munich, for instance, Pence spoke Trump’s name 30 times, claiming at one point that “under President Donald Trump’s leadership, America is leading the free world once again.” In Warsaw, a transcript of Pence’s speech shows 16 mentions of Trump by name, with four additional references to “the president.” By comparison, then-Vice President Joe Biden mentioned President Barack Obama only once by name in his 2015 speech to the Munich Security Conference.
Behind the scenes, Pence has even worked with president on developing and messaging the Trump administration’s foreign policy agenda.
Following months and months of meetings with Christian leaders and national security experts, Pence successfully pressured administration officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development to funnel millions of dollars to Christian and Yazidi religious communities in Iraq that the Islamic State has decimated. The United Nations would have otherwise distributed the funds.
“I called it to [Trump’s] attention that we could bypass U.N. programs and fund religious-based NGOs directly,” Pence told the Wall Street Journal in a recent interview, adding that Trump agreed “on the spot.”
Pence is expected to remain mostly in the foreign policy lane as the 2020 campaign draws more of Trump’s attention and the administration works to broker a trade agreement with China and win Congress’ approval of its renegotiated trade deal with Canada and Mexico.
The vice president will help sell the U.S.-Canada-Mexico deal — which would update the NAFTA trade agreement — with Midwest swing in the coming weeks, according to two people familiar with his plans. The tour is expected to bring Pence to a host of farm towns and domestic manufacturing plants, where he will meet with small crowds and deliver remarks in an attempt to pressure Capitol Hill into swiftly passing the accord.