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Former vice president Cheney challenges Pence at private retreat, compares Trump’s foreign policy to Obama’s approach

Vice President Pence, seen here talking with President Trump, defended the administration’s foreign policy under tough questioning from former vice president Richard B. Cheney. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

A chummy discussion between Vice President Pence and former vice president Richard B. Cheney quickly turned into a vigorous back-and-forth over President Trump’s foreign policy at a private gathering Saturday, with Cheney comparing the president’s instincts to those of his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, according to a transcript obtained by The Washington Post.

At the closed-door retreat hosted by the American Enterprise Institute in Sea Island, Ga., Cheney respectfully but repeatedly and firmly pressed Pence on a number of the president’s foreign policy moves. Cheney expressed concerns at such actions as taking a harder line toward U.S. allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and deciding to withdraw troops from Syria during what he fretted was “the middle of a phone call.”

Cheney also worried aloud to Pence that “we’re getting into a situation when our friends and allies around the world that we depend upon are going to lack confidence in us” and then offered a blunt criticism of the current administration’s response to foreign policy challenges.

Here are moments from President Trump's 2019 State of the Union speech where he addressed U.S. foreign policy, including in China, North Korea and Iran. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

“I worry that the bottom line of that kind of an approach is we have an administration that looks a lot more like Barack Obama than Ronald Reagan,” he said.

Cheney’s questions for Pence — which prompted Pence to joke about the lack of “softball” topics — provide a revealing glimpse into the churning and often strained debates inside the Republican Party, where longtime hawks such as Cheney have increasingly balked at Trump’s engagement with autocrats and his noninterventionist approach to U.S. military efforts in the Middle East.

The discussion also underscored Pence’s comfort in acting as Trump’s unwavering ally and spokesman before a crowd of powerful Republican skeptics and donors, with the vice president shrugging off most of Cheney’s anxieties and praising Trump as a candid and transformational leader.

As Europe worries about Trump, congressional leaders invite NATO head for joint address

But the cracks between the more isolationist Trump wing and more hawkish Cheney wing of the Republican Party were on full display, unfolding in a conversation that was designed as a vice-presidential chat but became an almost academic exercise as Cheney peppered Pence with questions and Pence responded carefully but forcefully.

The transcript was provided by a person familiar with the meeting who was not authorized to share material from the event. All attendees had agreed to keep the discussions “off the record,” the person said.

A spokesman for Pence confirmed that the discussion took place over the weekend but declined to comment.

The conversation between Pence and Cheney, which was led by the former vice president, took place at AEI’s annual world forum, which was attended by many of the conservative think tank’s donors and supporters — many of whom also are major Republican financiers. AEI has long been linked to members of the GOP’s foreign policy establishment, from Cheney to national security adviser John Bolton, who was a fellow there before joining the administration.

Cheney, a driving force behind the Iraq war, has been a controversial figure on foreign policy issues. His critics on the left and right charge he was too eager to use the U.S. military and put soldiers in harm’s way even when the intelligence community ultimately did not find evidence to back up his claims of threats posed abroad.

Almost from the start, the discussion shifted from a lighthearted catch-up to a cordial confrontation between the two men, and the tense discussion surprised most attendees and caused murmurs in the room throughout the talk, according to a person present who was not authorized to speak publicly.

After dispensing with the traditional niceties — joking about the vice presidency being “the worst job in Washington”— Cheney expressed alarm over news reports that Trump “supposedly doesn’t spend that much time with the intel people, or doesn’t agree with them, frequently,” as well as the high staff turnover rate at the intelligence agencies.

The former vice president then turned his attention to the situation in North Korea. He worried about Trump’s decision to cancel the decades-long U.S. military exercises with South Korea and referenced a recent Bloomberg News report about the president’s directive “to pursue a policy that would insist that the Germans, the Japanese, and the South Koreans pay total cost for our deployments there, plus 50 percent on top of that.”

“I don’t know, that sounded like a New York state real estate deal to me,” Cheney quipped.

Pence defended the administration’s decision to halt the bi­annual “war games” with South Korea, saying the Defense Department had assured the administration that the decision “will not affect our readiness in South Korea.”

“We’re going to continue [to] train,” Pence said. “We’re going to continue to work closely with South Korea. We have a tremendous alliance there.”

Trump has made no secret about his willingness — even eagerness — to upend the post-World War II order, frequently demanding that NATO allies make good on their commitment to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense spending.

Pence also found himself responding to Cheney’s questions about Trump’s occasionally hostile posture toward NATO, which Cheney said “feeds this notion on the part of our allies overseas, especially in NATO, that we’re not long for that continued relationship, that we’re looking eagerly to find ways where somebody else will pick up the tab.”

The resulting impression, at least publicly, Cheney warned, is that “the decision gets made overnight or it gets made oftentimes without consulting anybody else — that he’s out there doing his thing.”

“Well, who wrote these softball questions?” Pence joked, a nod to the unexpected — and tough — tenor of Cheney’s line of query.

But Pence then mounted a fierce defense of the administration, arguing that Trump can ask his allies to pay more for their defense while still maintaining warm ties.

“I think there is a tendency by critics of the president and our administration to conflate the demand that our allies live up to their word and their commitments and an erosion in our commitment to the post-World War II order,” Pence said.

He added: “But we think it’s possible to demand that your allies do more to provide for the common defense of all of our nations and, at the same time, reaffirm our strong commitment — whether it be to the trans­atlantic alliance or to our allies across the Indo-Pacific.”

Cheney was dubious about that commitment. He worried aloud, again and again, that for Trump, the former businessman turned president, foreign policy boils down to a crude dollars-and-cents transaction. Noting that NATO countries have provided their own troops to fight alongside the United States in Afghanistan, he said, “So it’s a lot more than just the checkbook.”

In a sign of the broader concerns over Trump’s stance toward NATO, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have extended a rare bipartisan invitation to NATO’s secretary general to address a joint meeting of Congress next month in an effort to underscore Congress’s commitment to the alliance.

At another point, Cheney returned to the theme, noting that with allies, who support the United States in ways beyond financial commitments, “it’s a lot more complicated than just: ‘Here’s the bottom line. Write the check.’ ”

Pence reiterated Trump’s commitment to the U.S. military and the nation’s defense, noting that insisting that allies contribute more money is just another way to support Trump’s policy of “peace through strength.” “But you can be confident, as one of my favorite hawks,” Pence told Cheney, “we’re going to continue to stand strong for a strong national defense with President Trump in the White House.

“As the president is rebuilding our military and strengthening our commitment to our national defense, calling on our allies to live up to their commitments to do more, I think, is a way of ensuring the vitality and the prosperity of the free world,” Pence said.

Pence again defended the administration, articulating Trump’s noninterventionist approach to foreign policy. On the decision to withdraw troops from Syria, for instance, Pence disputed the notion Trump made the move over the course of a single phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but said that Trump supporters have long known he was skeptical about ongoing military conflagrations involving U.S. troops.

“When the American people elected this president, they elected a president who expressed concern about American deployments around the world,” Pence said. “And they knew this was going to be a president that came and asked the fundamental questions about — you know, where are we deployed and do we really need to be asking men and women in uniform to be deployed in that part of the world?”

Later, Pence concluded, “But, you know, it should come as no surprise to anyone: This president is skeptical of foreign deployments, and only wants American forces where they need to be.”

As Pence boosted Trump, he did poke fun at himself and his stylistic differences with the president, casting himself as a low-key salesman and support of Trump’s agenda rather than a showman.

“Some people think the president and I are kind of different,” he said as the crowd laughed, according to the transcript. “You know, he’s New York City; I’m small-town Indiana. He’s larger than life, you know, always memorable. And I’m not.”

And at the end of the event Pence joked about the unexpected line of questioning from Cheney, quipping: “Gee, look at the time.”

He also attempted to reassure the former vice president and the assembled crowd that the administration shares their devotion to defending the country.