Report

Amid Chaos in Trump White House, Diplomats Turn to Pence

Diplomat in Trump’s Washington? Step into the vice president’s office.

Pence listens while Trump speaks in New York in September 2017. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
Pence listens while Trump speaks in New York in September 2017. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence joined President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for a working lunch. Afterward, Trump and McConnell held a meandering press conference in which Trump claimed, among other things, that his predecessor didn’t call the families of fallen soldiers.

Pence, on the other hand, went to participate in the in the second round of the U.S.-Japan Economic Dialogue with Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso. Pence’s involvement in such talks is just one part of a rapidly expanding portfolio the vice president appears to be building in foreign policy.

Asked at a press briefing Thursday why economic relations between the United States and Japan was falling to the vice president, Takehiro Shimada, spokesperson for the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., said that it was because Pence and Aso hold roughly equivalent positions. (Aso also doubles as Japan’s finance minister, however.)

Shimada stressed that Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who have spoken 12 times since Trump’s inauguration, also have a close relationship.

Yet the picture of Trump at the center of a media frenzy with Pence just outside the frame, tending to serious issues of foreign policy, is one viewers have seen before. In April, Pence toured Asia to reassure uneasy U.S. allies of the country’s commitment (he cut his trip short to come back to Washington to deal with the threat of a looming government shutdown and tax reform).

This past summer, Pence was traipsing through Eastern Europe reassuring allies while Trump fired Anthony Scaramucci, his communications director who had been in the job about a week. That same week, the Washington Post reported that Trump had dictated a misleading message about meeting with Russians to his adult son. (It was around this time that rumors of a Pence shadow campaign for 2020 were reported.)

Also this summer, Pence toured South America shortly after Trump threatened to use a military option to deal with Venezuela (the Colombian Embassy in Washington, D.C., stressed to Foreign Policy that it appreciated Pence’s visit).

But it isn’t just abroad that some diplomats find Pence more accessible and knowledgeable than Trump. As diplomats settle into the idea that Trump will stay unpredictable, some in Washington are turning to the office of Vice President Pence.

FP spoke and corresponded with a dozen diplomats based in Washington, D.C., and found a consistent theme: Pence’s office was often the go-to place for some foreign governments hoping to get their message across to the administration.

“I would say that the level of knowledge was similar on these issues at the NSC and inside the VP’s office,” one European diplomat, who worked with the vice president’s office and the National Security Council on issues such as Iran and climate change, told FP. “But the latter seemed more eager/willing to engage with us and more likely to have an impact on policy.”

The diplomat added, “many NSC staffers were honest in saying that what they explained would not necessarily be endorsed by Trump’s closest advisers.”

The vice president’s office did not respond to request for comment.

It’s not unusual for certain countries or regions to fall into the vice presidential portfolio. Pence’s predecessor, Joe Biden, was Ukraine’s man in Washington. And Pence also been a go-to for nervous Eastern Europeans, reaffirming NATO commitment more directly than his boss. “We greatly appreciate especially VP’s engagement with the EU and his role in / attention to strengthening/maintaining strong Transatlantic / EU-US bonds,” a Slovak diplomat wrote to FP. “The Vice President’s visit to Georgia this summer [is a] good example of the clear messages sent by the Administration in support of Georgia’s territorial integrity and Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” a diplomat at the Georgian Embassy wrote.

“The messages I get from the Old Executive Building are unequivocal and pronounced,” wrote Estonia’s new ambassador, Lauri Lepik. “As Vice President Pence paid a visit to Estonia earlier this year, it is only natural that we have had a close and very productive relationship with his office.”

Pence’s staff, though small, has for some diplomats even eclipsed that at the State Department, whose head, Rex Tillerson, has an increasingly strained relationship with Trump.

“His staff was amazing,” another European diplomat told FP of Pence. “His staff was super professional. In the whole administration, his office stands out. They were very informed. Sometimes more than the State Department.”

“Our experience working with the Vice President’s office has been very professional.  We keep in touch regularly on issues of mutual concern,” Colin Shonk, deputy spokesperson at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., told FP. “Prime Minister Trudeau met with Vice President Pence in July at the National Governor’s Association Meeting in Rhode Island, where they discussed key issues such as NAFTA and North American security.” (Trump famously and repeatedly threatened to “tear up” the trade deal, which is currently being renegotiated.)

There is another key difference when it comes to Pence’s role. While Biden and former President Barack Obama broadly touted the same foreign policy lines, Pence is sent to reassure allies — be they in Tallinn or Tokyo — that, whatever Trump himself says or tweets, the administration is adhering to roughly the same policies as any good Republican would.

Pence, for example, is promising continued U.S. support in Eastern Europe and holding strong the alliance with South Korea and Japan. Be it because his office, like much of the administration, is understaffed, or because of Pence’s particular predilections, the focus of discussions is on economics and national security.

One set of issues that are never brought up with Pence or his staff, according to those diplomats who spoke with FP, are minority, gender, or human rights. “Given his track record as Gov of IN,” yet another diplomat offered via email, “a discussion with the VP on LGBT rights surely yields some ‘fun.’”

The diplomat ended the email with a winking emoticon.

Pence, who charted a political career on the far right, would perhaps not in years past have been considered by some diplomats as a voice of moderation.

“Under normal circumstances, he would not be considered mainstream,” another diplomat told FP, adding that these are not normal circumstances.

This post has been updated to include comment from the Canadian Embassy.

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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