Thousands of miles from home, Vice President Mike Pence was thrust into a new, more immediate, role on the world stage Saturday: explaining President Donald Trump’s military strike in Syria to a summit of Latin America leaders.
Hours after Trump hailed the missile strike targeting the Syria’s suspected chemical weapons – tweeting, “Mission Accomplished!” – Pence defended the president while building support among U.S. allies for the joint strikes with Britain and France.
“The objective of the mission the commander in chief gave our military forces and our allies was completely accomplished – with swift professionalism,” Pence told reporters, noting there were “no reported civilian casualties.”
Later, speaking in a cavernous hall of world leaders at the Summit of the Americas, Pence expressed gratitude to Canada, Colombia and other nations that had voiced support for the strike and urged “every nation in this hemisphere of freedom” to support the military action.
Pence’s to-do list included smoothing over differences with Mexico, America’s southern neighbor, amid unease over Trump’s decision to send troops to the border and harsh rhetoric on immigration. And with tensions simmering over trade, Pence expressed hope alongside Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that the three nations could soon agree to a renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement.
And while Trump grapples with the ongoing Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller, Pence sought to draw a bright line against Vladimir Putin’s alliance with Syria following the suspected chemical attack. “Our message to Russia is that you’re on the wrong side of history,” Pence said.
Trump often improvises his remarks and is known for bold declarations in person and on his Twitter account. Pence, meanwhile, tends to be more scripted in his exchanges and frequently glanced down at highlighted index cards as he spoke to Latin American leaders here.
Shortly before Trump’s address to the nation Friday night, Pence was whisked away from the summit in his motorcade so he could return to his hotel to inform congressional leaders of the pending missile strikes. Pence watched Trump’s speech from his hotel suite, joined by aides.
Unlike past appearances at international summits, the vice president had to dive into the packed agenda on short notice. He learned only Tuesday that he would be attending in Trump’s place so the president could manage the U.S. response to Syria.
In meeting after meeting, Pence offered a low-key, extended hand.
Seeking rapprochement with Mexico, which has been at odds with Trump over the border wall and immigration, Pence said the topic of funding for Trump’s long-promised border wall did not come up in his meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.
Pence said they simply had a difference of opinion and some issues were “set aside, for a later date.” Left unsaid was whether Pence’s overtures might eventually lead to a joint Trump-Pena Nieto meeting, their first.
Seated alongside Trudeau, Pence said there was a “real possibility” the U.S. could reach a deal with Canada and Mexico on NAFTA “within the next several weeks.” Trump has long assailed the trade deal’s impact on U.S. workers and threatened to pull the U.S. out if he’s unhappy with the terms.
The summit also gave Pence an opportunity to press the case for tougher sanctions and more isolation of Venezuela across the region.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was barred from attending the summit over his plans to hold a presidential election that the opposition is boycotting and that many foreign governments consider a sham.
Pence urged Maduro to accept humanitarian aid as the once-prosperous nation deals with humanitarian and economic crises. But he called on the region to take a harder line on Maduro’s government, a message he intends to deliver in Brazil next month.
“The United States believes now is the time to do more, much more,” he said.
Pence left Peru on Saturday evening and arrived home in Washington early Sunday.