President Trump enjoys strong grassroots Republican voter support for his campaign promise to move United States foreign policy away from the interventionism exemplified by the Bush-Cheney years. Finding support for that promise among voters was one thing. Finding it among the Republican foreign policy clerisy and GOP establishment officeholders is another matter. Often Trump’s own vice president, Mike Pence, is in the establishment camp.
In 2017, in a forceful move to spur the president to send troops into Afghanistan, Pence reportedly aligned with establishment and neoconservative factions, joining now-departed establishment figures including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
Pence again showed affinity for “the way things are done around here” when, also in 2017, he appointed then-U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s pollster and chief political adviser—an inveterate NeverTrumper named Jon Lerner—as his own national security adviser. One day after the appointment, a wrathful President Trump forced Lerner out.
Pence also is taking an extremely high profile in the neoconservatives’ “all options are on the table” project to bring about American-led regime change in Venezuela. While the current socialist regime led by Nicolás Maduro undoubtedly is evil and a genuine change would be in American interests, it’s prudent to keep the United States from being closely identified as the patron of a new client regime that has poor chances of succeeding.
Pence therefore should have been rattled—and Trump rattled all the more so—by reports leaked from last weekend’s “off-the-record” confab hosted by the American Enterprise Institute for politicos and big donors.
In a session where Pence shared the stage with former Vice President Dick Cheney, whose role was to pose questions to his Republican successor, Cheney confronted Pence with undisguised asperity. Cheney complained, in remarks leaked to the Washington Post and others, that Trump’s efforts to distance himself from the Bush-Cheney record in the Middle East means “we have an administration that looks a lot more like Barack Obama than Ronald Reagan.”
For Pence, this should have been a bitter lesson that promoting neoconservative policies within the Trump Administration will not shield him from the hostility of the NeverTrumpers.
The transcript of the off-the-record session was leaked to the Post and apparently also to Politico.
Politico reported that “the weekend event attracted both pro and anti-Trump lawmakers, donors, and intellectuals including presidential adviser Jared Kushner, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Kevin Hassett, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) as well as New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger and former Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol.”
Who was the leaker? While it’s impossible to say for certain, Kristol has a reputation as a compulsive leaker, and his hostility toward any sort of foreign policy realism is well known. Spreading gossip about a dispute between the two GOP veeps is a tactical gain for Kristol’s anti-Trump agitation.
Will Mike Pence at long last decide to distance himself from neoconservatism now that he has been mugged by foes of reality?
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