On Foreign Trips, Pence Steps Out of Trump’s Shadow but Always Stays on Message

SHANNON, Ireland — When it came time to stretch his legs during a refueling stop in Ireland on his recent Europe trip, Vice President Mike Pence left his cabin suite at the front of Air Force Two dressed in a flight jacket with the vice-presidential seal.

As he disembarked to stroll a few laps around the airport terminal like a Midwestern mall walker, his wife, Karen, made a beeline to an assortment of souvenirs in the duty-free shop.

Back across the Atlantic, President Trump, Mr. Pence’s boss, was in the midst of firing off his early morning tweets, including one addressed to the Senate Intelligence Committee denying, once again, that there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. The vice president, for his part, seemed worlds away, enjoying a brief stop with the second lady as if they were tourists on a long-planned vacation.

Appearing together in Washington, Mr. Trump, a former reality show mogul, and Mr. Pence, an evangelical Christian, are a strikingly odd couple, with the vice president usually seen as a meek helpmate casting a cipher’s gaze in the president’s direction. But with at least 10 diplomatic trips to six continents under his belt, Mr. Pence appears to have mastered the art of stepping out of Mr. Trump’s shadow on his own terms. He avoids taking any perilous steps into the president’s limelight by staying relentlessly on message, whatever the diplomatic cost.

Their contrasting styles will be on display again this week. On Wednesday, Mr. Trump will be engaging in a high-stakes, if not theatrical, summit meeting in Vietnam with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader and his occasional pen pal. That meeting comes with the added drama of Mr. Trump’s former fixer testifying to Congress on the same day.

With Mr. Trump in the spotlight, Mr. Pence will be left to test his international clout against a conflict that turned deadly over recent attempts to deliver humanitarian aid to Venezuela, a country reeling from a collapsed economy and violent political turmoil. On Monday, Mr. Pence is scheduled to visit Bogotá, Colombia, to reinforce the Trump administration’s demands that Nicolás Maduro, the Venezuelan president, step down to clear the way for Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader who has the support of the White House.

According to a senior administration official, Mr. Pence is prepared to meet with Mr. Guaidó and plans to announce “concrete steps” to put pressure on Mr. Maduro’s government. That could include fleshing out a new round of punishing economic sanctions, a move several administration officials hinted at over the weekend.

This urgent situation in Latin America will present a thornier challenge to the vice president than his four-day trip this month to Poland and Germany, where he was sent to deliver earnest, eloquent entreaties in support of Israel and accuse Iran of trying to perpetrate another Holocaust.

Despite the sharp language, it was a comparatively low-stakes trip. On the first leg, Mr. Pence dined on cod and posed for group pictures at an administration-organized summit meeting, which was ostensibly about Middle East peace but was geared heavily toward isolating Iran. He took it in stride when Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, was accidentally identified as the vice president during a luncheon.

But Mr. Pence demonstrated little interest in other delicate relationships at play when he demanded that European allies exit the nuclear accord with Iran negotiated by the Obama administration and accused them of undermining American-led sanctions. Mr. Pence’s aggressive approach infuriated those who watched it happen, including Mr. Pompeo, the administration’s top diplomat.

He stayed relentlessly on message even while fielding questions about his visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp from reporters aboard Air Force Two.

“We just felt waves of emotion,” Mr. Pence said about his time there, allowing only a peek into his personal experience of the trip, which included laying roses in a gas chamber and reading from scripture. He then veered back into a screed against Iran, accusing the government of harboring “the same vile, anti-Semitic hatred that animated the Nazis in Europe,” and calling on “freedom loving” people to condemn the Iranian government.

Mr. Pence’s demand that the allies leave the nuclear accord was all but ignored by the crowd at his next stop, the Munich Security Conference. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, publicly stuck with Iran and criticized the Trump administration in a speech moments before Mr. Pence took the stage to deliver his own.

One of the only indicators that Mr. Pence noticed the chilly European reception came when he mentioned Mr. Trump.

“I bring greetings from the 45th president of the United States of America: President Donald Trump,” Mr. Pence said. The reference that tends to draw raucous applause at “Make America Great Again” rallies just drew silence in Munich.

The vice president’s allies say it is not his job to worry about how he might be judged for the message he is delivering on the world stage — even if it creates a mess diplomats need to clean up.

“I don’t think it was as much about how he was received,” Marc Short, Mr. Pence’s incoming chief of staff, said. “He was effective in getting his message across.”

This relatively low-key approach makes for a kind of comfortable stability as well as a whiff of rigidity on Mr. Pence’s trips.

Mr. Pence does not drink — he gave it up in the past, Mr. Short said, for “lots of reasons,” so no alcohol is served onboard Air Force Two. Mr. Pence opts for coffee as he revises and tweaks his prepared remarks at all hours. Any reporters or West Wing staff members along for the ride have to make do.

When they are in different places, according to aides, Mr. Pence and the president speak several times a day. Their conversations tend to remain private even among the vice president’s closest advisers.

“You will never ever hear him talk about his conversations, his advice, their discussions, ever,” said Marc Lotter, Mr. Pence’s former spokesman. “The only thing we would hear is, ‘The president wants us to do this.’”

This deferential style is one Mr. Pence has told people he admired in George Bush when he was Ronald Reagan’s vice president. Mr. Bush was so humble that he famously refused to let a helicopter deposit him on the South Lawn after Mr. Reagan was shot in a 1981 assassination attempt. “Only the president lands on the South Lawn,” Mr. Bush remarked at the time.

And so, even on Mr. Pence’s European trip, Mr. Trump’s influence could hardly be missed. His in-flight entourage contained several Trump loyalists, including the president’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, the architect of the administration’s nascent Middle East peace plan, who traveled alongside Mr. Pence for most of his stops.

Keith Kellogg, a retired lieutenant general well liked by Mr. Trump, found his way aboard as Mr. Pence’s national security adviser. He landed in Pence World last year, after a previous stint as the president’s acting national security adviser — a role he assumed after Michael T. Flynn was dismissed for misinforming Mr. Pence about the nature of a conversation with Russia’s ambassador to the United States.

Pence loyalists were also given a seat — and access to the P.A. system. Tom Rose, a former publisher of The Jerusalem Post and conservative talk show host turned senior adviser to the vice president, got on it after Mr. Pence visited Auschwitz.

“Of all the friends we have, two truly stand above them all,” Mr. Rose said. “President Donald Trump and my beloved friend, a true Lion of Judah, Vice President Mike Pence.”

Travelers aboard broke into applause, and the plane was cleared for takeoff.

Mr. Pence’s mission on Monday is to put further pressure on Mr. Maduro, an embattled leader whose government the Trump administration has declared an ideological adversary of the United States. The decision to send a vice president into a volatile political situation in Latin America does not come without risky precedent: In 1958, Richard M. Nixon’s motorcade was attacked when Mr. Nixon, then the vice president, toured Caracas, Venezuela.

Still, for Mr. Pence, Latin America is well-trodden territory: It is his fifth trip there as vice president. He has visited often enough to draw Mr. Maduro’s attention: Last summer, Mr. Maduro lashed out at Mr. Pence, calling him “sick and obsessive” and a “poisonous viper” when he learned the vice president was visiting the region.

The insult will most likely not deter Mr. Pence from delivering the latest iteration of Mr. Trump’s message. As Mr. Short put it, “he gives a terrific speech.”

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