Pence’s Trip Lets Him Change the Topic, but Impeachment Intrudes
VATICAN CITY — Over three days, Vice President Mike Pence joined world leaders in Israel to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz, visited the American Embassy in Jerusalem with a White House invitation for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and then moved on to Rome to meet the pope.
On the heels of President Trump’s two-day trip to Davos, Switzerland, Mr. Pence called his boss “unstoppable” in an exchange that was caught on a microphone. But the vice president proved that he could maintain his own rigorous travel schedule, demonstrating again that he is the more disciplined communicator in his and Mr. Trump’s political odd couple.
In this case, what he was communicating was a change of subject for an audience back home. Like Mr. Trump’s Davos visit, Mr. Pence’s trip was an opportunity to draw attention away from the all-consuming obsession back in Washington, the impeachment trial of the president.
In Israel, Mr. Pence spoke at the World Holocaust Forum, drawing applause with a speech that called on nations to “confront and expose the rising tide of vile anti-Semitism.”
He closed out his time in the country by inviting Mr. Netanyahu and his rival, Benny Gantz, to the White House to discuss Mr. Trump’s expected peace proposal, putting a glossy sheen on a long-awaited plan that Palestinians say will be dead on arrival.
Impeachment still came up, and Mr. Pence handled it in his usual low-key but relentlessly on-message manner, without the president’s digressions or dramatics.
“I think you will hear a strong defense of this president and then senators will have a choice to make,” Mr. Pence told reporters on Friday evening. “The outcome here is that the president should be acquitted.”
When he travels abroad, Mr. Pence enjoys making speeches and giving interviews to (usually Trump-friendly) news outlets, basking (ever so carefully) in his role as Mr. Trump’s emissary on the world stage.
This latest trip was planned weeks ago, but the timing of the impeachment trial — with roughly half of Americans believing Mr. Trump should be removed from office — made it especially important to the White House to be able to point to victories elsewhere.
In delivering the invitation to Israeli leaders, Mr. Pence gave Mr. Trump something new to discuss on a day when much of the news coverage focused on an impassioned speech by Representative Adam Schiff of California, one of several Democratic managers presenting the case for conviction in the impeachment trial.
“So we have both candidates coming,” Mr. Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday evening, speaking at length about Middle East peace and bypassing the subject of impeachment. “That’s unheard-of.”
A similar playbook was in effect last October, when Mr. Pence emerged from a hastily planned 35-hour visit to Turkey with a commitment from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to a cease-fire in northeastern Syria.
That wasn’t the whole story — Mr. Trump had effectively given Turkey the go-ahead to invade territory held by Kurds allied with the United States, and the cease-fire all but cemented the Turkish gains — but it made for a few positive headlines.
“We’re doing very, very well with Turkey,” the president told reporters as Mr. Pence returned home, cease-fire agreement in hand. “There’s a cease-fire, or a pause, or whatever you want to call it.”
Still, news of the impeachment inquiry persisted then, as it did this week.
On each leg of this week’s trip, Mr. Pence stayed in close contact with the president behind the scenes. With their respective airplane televisions tuned to Fox News, they exchanged multiple phone calls each day, in part to compare notes on the unfolding trial.
Publicly, both men have addressed the matter of impeachment with blustery interviews that downplay their collective involvement in the interactions that form the heart of the case against Mr. Trump.
In recent days, Lev Parnas, an associate of Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, has said in interviews that Mr. Trump canceled plans for Mr. Pence to attend the inauguration last year of President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, after the Ukrainians declined to announce a corruption investigation into the family of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden.
On Friday, Mr. Pence denied knowledge that the Trump administration had engaged in a pressure campaign against Ukraine, withholding aid or a White House visit for Mr. Zelensky in an exchange for an investigation.
“But what I’ve said over and over again,” he said, “is I was never aware of the allegations that there was some pressure campaign for investigations against the Bidens that was underway until those matters became public.”
Mr. Pence has contended that he does not know Mr. Parnas — “I don’t recall ever having met Mr. Parnas,” he said again on Friday — and those claims prompted Mr. Parnas’s lawyer to release video of his client meeting the vice president.
And when Mr. Pence was asked about leaked audio of Mr. Trump saying “take her out,” in an apparent reference to the American ambassador to Ukraine, Marie L. Yovanovitch, Mr. Pence defended the president, who removed her from her post last year. The tape, he said, would confirm only “that the President had concerns, and in his authority this president made a decision.”
Mr. Pence did his best in Italy to outrun the president’s impeachment. Within the Vatican’s marble walls on Friday, he and his wife, Karen, met with Pope Francis in the ornate papal library.
Mr. Pence gave the pope a cross made of wood from a tree near the vice president’s residence. The pope smiled. The vice president grew emotional when Francis approached with gifts of his own.
“I didn’t want to ask,” Mr. Pence said, as the pope passed him a white box containing a small medal. “This is for mom.” As the vice president left, he told the pope, “You’ve made me a hero.”
On a personal level, it appeared to be a touching — if potentially a bit awkward — moment for a vice president who grew up Catholic before converting to evangelical Christianity during college.
But even in Italy, Mr. Pence adhered to the administration’s agenda. His office said the vice president and the pope had discussed the anti-abortion March for Life — scheduled to take place later on Friday in Washington — as well as Venezuela and displaced religious minorities in Middle East.
Minutes later, Mr. Pence’s motorcade pulled out of Vatican City and halted in St. Peter’s Square, cramming the famed gathering space with American S.U.V.s. The vice president would spend the next hour recording another interview and filming a March for Life video, still crafting a message for administration supporters back home.
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