ABOARD AIR FORCE TWO — Vice President Pence, returning from a trip to Eastern Europe, continued his forceful rhetoric on Russia and warned that the United States expects China to do more to contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Pence, in an interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday, touted President Trump’s signing of a Russia sanctions bill as evidence that the White House strongly rejects Russian meddling and misbehavior around the world.
“His decision to sign the Iran sanctions bill — or the Iran-North Korea-Russia sanctions bill — I think is reflective of a desire to make sure that freedom-loving countries around the world know that we are with them, and that Russia and the rogue regimes in North Korea and Iran know that this president and this administration expect a change,” Pence said, sitting at a table in the middle cabin of his plane.
While Pence, who hopscotched between Estonia, Georgia and Montenegro over 3½ days, used his trip to reassure skittish allies that the United States supports them against Russian aggression and is committed to NATO’s promise of mutual defense, the president has been far less tough on Russian President Vladimir Putin and his country, repeatedly refusing to fully accept his own intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and talking about a more collaborative relationship with one of the United States’ biggest geopolitical foes.
Although Trump signed the sanctions bill Wednesday only in the face of mounting bipartisan pressure, Pence said the original “concerns the president had about the process and the efforts the administration took to increase flexibility don’t change the fact that the direction of these sanctions is completely consistent to the direction that President Trump has set.”
Asked about a specific red line he and the president have for Russia, the vice president called it “a really great question” but declined to answer, instead criticizing former president Barack Obama’s administration for not following through on the red line it set with Syria on using chemical weapons.
Trump, he said, has a “we’ll see” attitude toward Russia, but he added that the White House is hopeful that sanctions will force Russia — which has retaliated in response to the legislation — to change its behavior.
“We think that creates an environment where there can be a more honest dialogue about resolving differences and finding common ground,” he said.
He said that if Russia understands the United States backs its allies “in an unambiguous way,” his hope is that “perhaps Russia will reconsider its recent actions and embrace the kind of changes that will make it possible for us to improve relationships going forward.”
On the question of North Korea, which recently developed an intercontinental ballistic missile believed to be capable of reaching the United States, Pence echoed recent tweets by the president calling on China to use both its economic and diplomatic leverage to pressure North Korea.
“Whatever China has done, to this point, has accomplished nothing,” Pence said. “We literally have seen more provocations, more missile testing, and more of the same kind of behavior that we’ve witnessed out that regime, now, for years. And I think in the days ahead, you’re going to see President Trump continue to marshal the support of our allies in the region, to further isolate North Korea economically and diplomatically. But also, you’re going to see the president, as he did this week, call President Xi of China to account.”
Pence left on his trip as turmoil continued to engulf Trump’s administration at the six-month mark. The vice president departed just a day after the president pushed Reince Priebus out as his chief of staff. While Pence was in Georgia, news broke that Anthony Scaramucci, the latest White House communications director, had been fired after just 10 days on the job.
Scaramucci’s firing came, in part, because of an interview he gave to the New Yorker, savaging Priebus and Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, in crude, expletive-laced terms.
Asked what he thought about Scaramucci’s language, the vice president said, “I fully support the president’s decisions about personnel.”
Praising Trump’s leadership, Pence recited a list of achievements — from stock market records that are, he said,” increasing the wealth and resources of American families,” to the confirmation of Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and the reduction of illegal crossings along the nation’s southern border — all of which he said are “a testament to the strength of the president’s leadership, to his vision for the country.”
So far, however, the Trump administration has seen two chiefs of staff, two communications directors, two press secretaries, two national security advisers and two deputy national security advisers. Pressed on the chaos that has roiled the Trump White House — and asked whether he truly believes it is the chaos-free and “finely-tuned machine” the president has claimed — Pence said the recent churn is simply a sign of Trump’s “energy” and “commitment to the agenda that we would like to advance.”
“I think it is a finely tuned machine,” Pence said, “but it’s led by a president with very high expectations, and like any good leader, he has the ability to take action and to make change when he determines it to be necessary.”
The president, he concluded, “has my full support.”