LIMA, Peru – As President Donald Trump was tweeting “Mission Accomplished!” on Saturday morning after the strikes on Syrian chemical weapons facilities, Vice President Mike Pence was tackling what has become a familiar task: translating his boss’ outbursts into carefully honed language that could reassure world leaders and the public.
“President Donald Trump made it clear that the United States will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against men, women and children,” Pence said before a meeting here with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada on the sidelines of a summit meeting of Western Hemisphere nations.
The strike had “degraded and crippled” Syria’s chemical weapons capability, he said, and the president was prepared to act again — with military force if necessary — to ensure the government would not use them in the future.
The vice president would repeat some version of those lines — with only slight variation — several more times throughout the day, as he took meeting upon meeting with leaders at the summit gathering, once again playing emissary and explainer of Trump to foreign leaders who view him warily.
It was the latest instance of Pence — as earnest, conventional and on-message a politician as Trump is irreverent, unorthodox and unscripted — working to smooth the rough edges of a president who routinely draws controversy.
Pence’s very presence at the Summit of the Americas this weekend was just such an effort: Trump had abruptly withdrawn from plans to attend, citing the runup to the military strike in Syria. But the cancellation came as Trump was also consumed by personal and political drama, and it marked the first time a U.S. president had avoided the summit meeting, which occurs every three years, in its 24-year history.
Pence has increasingly stepped in overseas for a president who appears not to relish international travel. This was his third foreign trip and his sixth country so far this year — after multicountry swings through the Middle East and Asia — while the president has made a single trip outside the United States in 2018, to Davos, Switzerland.
“It would not be surprising to see Pence taking a larger international role in advocating Trump administration foreign policies on the international stage,” John Bolton, now Trump’s national security adviser, wrote in an op-d in January. Bolton said Pence had proved “adept at navigating the complexities of Middle Eastern politics,” and provided a “reassuring contrast” to partisan bickering at home.
In Lima, armed with a thick binder of briefing materials, Pence delivered meticulously scripted statements printed on cards that he toted around the summit meeting site and read from faithfully, hitting on his main theme of preserving the region as a “hemisphere of freedom,” a phrase he repeated at least three times in his closing remarks. The vice president hailed the military action in Syria and denounced the crisis in Venezuela that has led to a humanitarian catastrophe there, calling upon the assembled nations to support tough measures against the governments of both countries.
Pence’s disciplined delivery of the U.S. message after the Syria strikes stood in contrast to the presidential tweet, which recalled an earlier president’s premature declaration of victory in Iraq and prompted a spate of bitter criticism.
What the president had meant by his tweet, Pence explained to reporters traveling with him Saturday, was that the mission that Trump had given U.S. forces, “to go in and destroy key elements of the chemical weapons infrastructure in Syria, was completely and professionally and swiftly accomplished.”
But that was not the only issue on which Pence worked to modulate Trump’s pronouncements here. In a meeting with President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico, the vice president said, he steered clear of talking about funding for the border wall that Trump has long demanded Mexico pay for. Pence chalked up the disagreement — which recently torpedoed plans for a White House meeting between Trump and Peña Nieto — to two presidents with “strong personalities.”
“When you have two people with strong personalities, they occasionally have strong differences,” Pence told reporters. “We talked through those differences, some of which we set aside for a later date.”
Instead, Pence accentuated the positive: namely, progress in the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, which he said had a chance of being successfully completed within weeks.
As Pence taxied for takeoff on Air Force Two on Friday for the trip to Lima, the president appeared to be focused elsewhere. He tapped out a tweet branding James Comey, the former FBI director whose forthcoming memoir paints him as a liar and mafia-style bully, “an untruthful slime ball.” Privately, Trump continued to seethe over the FBI raid days earlier on his personal lawyer in a wide-ranging corruption investigation that he views as a grave threat.
At the summit meeting in Peru, Pence spoke in loftier terms, trying to reassure the other leaders that Trump meant no slight in failing to show up for their gathering. Trump, he told President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, was “disappointed” that he could not make the trip — which was to have included a stop in Bogotá to meet with Santos — but, he added, “I can assure you that the relationship with our country has never been stronger.”
Pence’s attendance at the summit meeting was not without its sharper moments. In his closing speech, the vice president denounced the Cuban government as a “despotic regime” that had impoverished its people and abused human rights, prompting the country’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, who sat listening several chairs away, to demand the chance for a rebuttal. As Rodríguez was recognized and began to speak, Pence abruptly stood and strode out of the summit hall.
But the vice president labored in a way his boss does not to avoid creating controversies. Pence called elections scheduled for next month in Venezuela a “sham” that would not fool the world, but when a reporter asked whether the United States would refuse to recognize the outcome, he deferred to John Sullivan, the acting secretary of state, who was traveling with him, to state the official policy, so as not to risk diverging even slightly from it.
Pence’s presence as a stand-in for Trump may have undercut the United States’ goals at the summit meeting, taking some of the sting out of the fact that President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela had been disinvited and raising questions about the U.S. commitment to the region.
But the vice president also defused some of the tension that would have attended an encounter between Trump and the leaders of Latin American nations who have been insulted and angered by his talk on immigration and other topics, said Richard Feinberg, a senior fellow in the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institution.
“A lot of leaders probably were preparing two sets of remarks — one if Trump behaves himself, to focus on the issues, and one for if he misbehaves and says something offensive,” Feinberg said. “With Trump not being here, they can discard the second set. Pence behaves himself.”