BRUSSELS — Diplomats and leaders across Europe had one crucial — if unstated — question for Vice President Pence when he visited Munich and Brussels this weekend: Is he the shadow president or a mere shadow of the president?
And if the mission of Pence’s trip abroad was clear — to reassure worried allies this weekend that, yes, despite what his boss may say, the United States remains committed to the security of Europe and to the historic transatlantic partnership — Pence’s role was anything but.
Although the vice president repeatedly stressed that he was speaking on behalf of President Trump, the two men indeed seemed as though they were separated by an ocean.
Pence offered bland mollifications, forced to calm and cajole European countries that, in the post-Cold War order, until recently never had cause to question the support of the United States. But at a campaign rally Saturday evening in Florida, Trump did the opposite, again criticizing NATO — hours after Pence had extolled its virtues in Munich — and offending yet another ally when he implied that there was a recent terrorist attack in Sweden, one that seemed to exist only in the president’s imagination.
The study in contrasts between Trump and his No. 2 was almost as stark as the timing and substance of Pence’s trip — a pacifying visit just four weeks into Trump’s young, if turbulent, presidency.
Pence journeyed to Europe to soothe a continent that has watched, with alarm, as Trump called NATO “obsolete” and rose to electoral victory on the promise of a more isolationist “America First” set of populist policies.
Even for the diplomats, bureaucrats and foreign leaders who found comfort in his words, Pence’s gentle message belied a more thorny question that hummed throughout the conference lobby: Will Pence emerge as a capable vice president, empowered by his willingness to delve into policy details where the president will not, or is he yet another grunt in Trump’s freewheeling army of disruption?
Pence’s inner-circle credibility took a dive last week when news emerged that ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn had misled the vice president about conversations he had had with the Russian ambassador to the United States — claims that were repeated on the Sunday talk shows by Pence. Although Trump ultimately demanded Flynn’s resignation, Pence was in the dark for two full weeks and learned that he had been lied to only from news reports.
But just like Republicans on Capitol Hill, who still seem to view Pence as their most sturdy vehicle for traditional conservatism in the Oval Office, much of the world, too, is trying to discern whether Pence truly speaks for the president, and whether they can rely on a man whose best intentions may yet be undone by a tweet from his boss.
Pence isn’t the only one in the administration facing this question; other members of Trump’s senior team seem to be saying one thing while the president is pushing something altogether different.
The day after Trump, in a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, upended decades of U.S. foreign policy by saying that he was open to a one-state solution to the Israeli and Palestinian peace process, Nikki Haley, his U.N. envoy, said the administration was, in fact, “absolutely” committed to a two-state solution. And at a NATO meeting in Brussels last week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis seemed to contradict Trump’s claims that Russia had not tried meddle in the U.S. elections, and also reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to NATO.
On Saturday, Pence largely echoed Mattis’s message of support for NATO. And on Monday, in Brussels, he will meet with senior E.U. leaders before returning to Washington.
In many ways, like the voters in the United States who took Trump seriously but not literally, some allies are now taking Pence hopefully — because he might be, they say, their best hope at maintaining the existing world order.
“I put my trust in them, so I am definitely reassured,” said Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, who met Pence on Saturday with other Baltic leaders.
“He was very understanding, very friendly, and told us that if we ever have any problems we should call,” she said. “He said if you don’t want to call the president, you can always call me.”
Other Baltic leaders echoed the sentiment. But they share a border with Russia and have little choice but to cross their fingers and hope the status quo will hold. Many officials seemed to be placing faith in the same idea.
“My hope is that Vice President Pence’s speech reflects how to integrate the president into a predictable, sensible American foreign policy,” said Norbert Röttgen, the head of the foreign affairs committee of the lower house of Germany’s Parliament.
But moving beyond hope, many lawmakers and diplomats said they simply don’t know how to reconcile Trump’s rhetoric with the soothing speeches from his deputies. Many conference participants watched Trump’s combative news conference Thursday with shock.
And Trump’s claim at his rally Saturday about “what happened last night in Sweden” was met Sunday in Munich with a mixture of amusement and fear.
Pence and Mattis were “very cautious because they don’t know whether half of what they say could be contradicted by their boss on Twitter,” said Jan Techau, the director of the Richard C. Holbrooke Forum at the American Academy in Berlin.
One European diplomat said they worried that there was no way to bridge the gap.
“There remains by necessity skepticism about the nature of the president Pence serves,” the diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss candidly his conversations at the conference. “No one can dispel that, no matter what he said.”
And much of what Pence offered came with a catch. He promised support for NATO but stressed that other countries in the alliance will be expected to keep their defense spending commitments as well.
“Let me be clear on this point: The president of the United States expects our allies to keep their word, to fulfill this commitment, and for most, that means the time has come to do more,” Pence said, pausing for applause that came only haltingly.
And on Russia — whose cozy relationship with Trump has alarmed allies, Republicans and Democrats alike — Pence was critical of its aggression in Ukraine, saying Russia must be held “accountable.” But, worrying some in the crowd, he also underscored Trump’s belief that Russia could prove a potential partner.
“The United States will continue to hold Russia accountable, even as we search for new common ground, which as you know, President Trump believes can be found,” Pence said.
Pence’s remarks were not only met with some skepticism abroad. Doubts, including from his own party, also followed him to Munich, where at the same conference Friday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) warned that the controversy surrounding Flynn shows that “in many respects this administration is in disarray and they’ve got a lot of work to do.”
In a tweet Saturday, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) was even more blunt, posting, “Looks like we have 2 governments.” He wrote that Pence had just delivered a speech about shared values between the United States and Europe while the president “openly wages war on those values.”
In many ways, being un-Trumpian was entirely the point. Even though Pence came bearing a message from the president, his demeanor offered a stark — and, for many, reassuring — contrast to Trump. Amid a White House roiling with turmoil and chaos, Pence’s three-day trip began smooth and seamless. Amid an administration that is almost gleefully unscripted, Pence’s visit was meticulously choreographed.
He worked on his speech for nearly the entire flight to Munich, then hewed closely to his prepared remarks. Although he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel may have had a more frank discussion in their private meeting, the brief photo opportunity between them was utterly mundane — just the way Pence seems to like it. The two shook hands and smiled for the cameras, neither uttering a word, as a boom mic hovered nearby.
On Sunday, Pence, his wife, Karen, and his daughter Charlotte took a somber tour of Dachau, the first regular concentration camp under the Nazi government, and then attended a church service on the camp’s grounds.
Perhaps the most excitement came when Pence unexpectedly added a last-minute meeting to his schedule — with Bono.
“You’re the second-busiest man on earth,” the singer said, thanking the vice president for taking the time to meet with him.
“I just may be,” Pence said, with a wry chuckle.