The role and influence of the vice president, not enshrined in any law, is determined in any administration by three things: his direct relationship with the president, his building of a personal portfolio of issues, and the effectiveness of his team. When it comes to foreign policy, Vice President Pence is quietly succeeding on all three fronts.
Inside an administration that is characterized by several power centers, Pence must navigate complex internal politics while serving a president who has an unconventional view of foreign policy and the United States’ role in the world. Pence, a traditional hawk influenced heavily by his Christian faith, is carefully and deliberately assuming a stance that fits within the president’s agenda while respecting the prerogatives of other senior White House aides who also want to play large foreign policy roles, according to White House officials, lawmakers and experts.
But Pence's growing influence on foreign policy is increasingly evident. The vice president was deployed to Europe last month to reassure allies that the United States will stay committed to alliances such as NATO, despite President Trump's calls for Europeans to pay more for common defense. During Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent visit, Trump announced that Pence and his Japanese counterpart would lead a new dialogue on U.S.-Japan economic cooperation.
“The vice president seems to be building on his foreign affairs experience, finding a niche in that arena,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), who served with Pence in Congress. “He brings a level-headed steady hand to the foreign policy of the administration. He’s also building up his own team.”
Inside the White House, Pence is in the room during most of the president’s interactions with world leaders. He receives the presidential daily brief. As head of the transition, he was instrumental in bringing several traditionally hawkish Republicans into the top levels of the administration’s national security team, including Director of National Intelligence-designate Dan Coats, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.
Trump and Pence met with Haley last week just before the United States decided to confront Russia and the Syrian regime at the U.N. Security Council about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. The move seems to run counter to the White House’s drive to warm relations with Moscow, but Trump decided, with Pence’s support, that it was important and necessary, officials said.
Pence's national security team is also in place and humming. Just days after the inauguration, Pence announced that he had brought on Andrea Thompson as his national security adviser. A former military intelligence officer with extensive combat zone experience, she also worked for the House Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs committees. Most recently, she worked for the firm run by retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
“I wouldn’t say there’s an ideological bent to her, she’s a professional, an excellent briefer with command of the intelligence world,” said McCaul.
Thompson’s deputy is Joan O’Hara, former general counsel for McCaul’s committee. They lead a team of senior advisers who manage issue areas delineated by region or function, similar in organization to the National Security Council staff but on a smaller scale. Pence’s national security team is mostly professionals detailed from other agencies.
Pence is seen by many in Washington as a figure who might stand up for the traditionally hawkish views he espoused while in Congress, a proxy of sorts for the GOP national security establishment. But those close to Pence say his stance is more nuanced. Pence is committed to advocating Trump’s foreign policy objectives, not his own, and endeavors to stay above the fray of most internal disputes.
“He definitely brings a different perspective, but he’s nuanced and subtle in how he engages,” one White House official said. “He’s adapted somewhat, at least in terms of not putting his views above those of the president.”
Pence preserves his credibility with the president so it can be most effective when deployed. The chief example was when Pence personally spoke to Trump about removing national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had lied to him about conversations with Russian officials during the transition.
“When Flynn was in the NSA role, there was no center of gravity where traditional Republicans could come together on policy,” said Bruce Jones, vice president at the Brookings Institution. “In the days since Flynn exited, Pence has occupied more of that space.”
It’s a tricky balancing act, but if Pence can keep the president’s trust, stay above the internal politics and build out his portfolio, he will be able to continue to increase his influence on foreign policy inside the White House and on the world stage.
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