Vice President Pence's High-Wire Act Abroad

Image: Mike Pence
Vice President Mike Pence enters the main hall of Buenos Aires Stock Exchange to give a speech on August 15, 2017 in Argentina. fileVictor R. Caivano / AP file

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By Vaughn Hillyard

PANAMA CITY — Vice President Mike Pence engaged in a familiar balancing act last week during his fourth trip abroad, firmly defending President Donald Trump while seeking to calm foreign leaders perturbed by news emanating from the White House.

The vice president returned to the U.S. Friday, a day early, after visiting with Venezuelan migrants in Colombia, touring the Panama Canal, giving a speech to Argentine business leaders and holding bilateral meetings with the presidents of four Latin American nations.

All the while, Pence offered words of reassurance to foreign leaders and members of the press without breaking from his boss's controversial comments.

“I’m here today on behalf of the president of the United States of America, President Donald Trump,” Pence said to open a press conference on his arrival to Santiago, Chile, last Sunday — making it clear that he spoke as a partner to the president.

Trump, who had a tumultuous week after doubling-down on his "two sides" defense of the torch-wielding white nationalists protesting the removal of a Confederate monument in Charlottesville which ended in a deadly attack on counter-demonstrators, gave Pence plenty to answer for on his behalf.

Between meetings, Pence took questions from the press about the Russia investigation, West Wing infighting and whether there is a moral equivalency between Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and President George Washington.

Pence's first press conference of the trip in Colombia, on Sunday, was dominated by questions about Trump's initial response to the white nationalist attack.

Pence said had “no tolerance for hate and violence from white supremacists, neo-Nazis or the KKK.” But he staunchly defended the president's remarks, telling NBC News that the president had "made it very clear" he condemns "the KKK and white supremacists."

The vice president then accused the news media of being more concerned with criticizing Trump's response than condemning the violence itself.

Two days later, Pence's message abroad was once again overshadowed by Trump's words back home.

On Tuesday afternoon, Pence delivered a speech at the Buenos Aires stock exchange in which he told business leaders in the region that Trump was “laying the groundwork for historic tax reform” back home.

Minutes after that speech, however, the president spurred further outrage by giving a freewheeling press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower — at an event intended to promote his infrastructure rebuilding plan — in which he equated the white nationalists and counter-demonstrators and asked whether opponents of Confederate monuments were also prepared to take down statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they also owned slaves. Lawmakers across the political spectrum, including Republican leaders, denounced Trump's remarks.

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Throughout the trip, Pence also attempted to clarify the White House's sometimes murky agenda to his host countries.

“Under President Donald Trump, the United States of America wants to trade even more with Latin America,” Pence said to the American Chamber of Commerce of Chile on Wednesday.

Pence faced skepticism, however, about the ill-defined directives offered up by the president back home on everything from Venezuela and North Korea to trade.

“Exactly what does it mean?” a Colombian journalist asked Pence at a press conference in Cartagena last Sunday, referring to Trump’s refusal to rule out U.S. military intervention in Venezuela.

Trump made the comment at his Bedminster, N.J., golf resort just 36 hours before Pence’s departure on Air Force Two, leaving his vice president to face four Latin American presidents united against any outside military action.

“Latin America would not favor any form of military intervention,” said President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, standing feet away from Pence.

On Tuesday, President Mauricio Macri of Argentina followed: “We do not see force as an option to resolve conflict in Venezuela.”

And President Michelle Bachelet of Chile countered the American administration on Wednesday: “Chile will not support military interventions, nor coup d'état.”

At each stop, Pence never walked back Trump’s threat, noting the U.S. has "many options" on the table. Still, he sought to assure those leaders that the U.S. administration would work in consultation with the countries in the region.

"What we do for Venezuela, we will do together," the vice president repeated at press conferences throughout the week.

And just like he has since he joined the GOP ticket, Pence gave full-throated praise for Trump's "broad-shouldered leadership."

"In a very real sense, I believe that President Trump has restored the credibility of American power," Pence said in Argentina.