Mike Pence’s days of supporting Donald Trump’s controversial praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin appear to be drawing to a stop, according to people close to the former vice president.
Days after Pence condemned “apologists for Putin” about Trump and other Republicans who praised the Russian dictator during his disastrous invasion of Ukraine, the former vice president’s allies said he feels compelled to share his long-held views on the subject, which he refrained from expressing publicly during his tenure as Trump’s second-in-command.
As Pence prepares for a prospective presidential run in 2024, the Russian incursion has given him a new opportunity to differentiate himself from Trump and demonstrate the foreign policy skills he has gained over two decades in government. This separation also occurs at a time when Pence is ramping up his political activities through his Advancing American Freedom group, which includes everything from fundraising for Republican candidates in the 2022 midterm elections to launching television ads targeting vulnerable Democrats to releasing a “freedom agenda” for conservatives to use in upcoming elections.
According to one person familiar with Pence’s thinking, he has been looking for occasions to oppose what he considers to be a dangerous trend inside the GOP of Trump-aligned officials professing admiration for the Kremlin leader.
“When serving as vice president, you must support the president’s decisions and, if you disagree, to discuss them privately. Now that restraint is removed, [Pence] can be more forthright in expressing his views “This individual stated.
Pence’s stance on Ukraine, according to some close to him, demonstrates that the Indiana Republican has his “own voice” and a unique political brand from the former President he served.
That was evident last week during his visit to the Ukraine-Poland border with Samaritan’s Purse, a Franklin Graham-led evangelical international assistance organisation. And Pence’s long-standing party fealty earned him a prominent speaking slot at the Republican National Committee’s donor meeting in New Orleans last month, where he proclaimed simply, “There is no place in this party for Putin apologists. There is only room for freedom fighters.”
Though Pence avoided mentioning Trump by name in New Orleans, his pointed critique followed the former President’s description of Putin as “clever” and “brilliant” as the Russian leader launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Trump has been alienated from other Republican leaders – including a number of his own allies – who have refused to replicate his praise and have instead firmly condemned Putin’s conduct.
“I don’t believe anything Putin does is clever or creative,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters last week. McCarthy has remained close to Trump since the former President left office. “Putin, in my opinion, is terrible. He is a despotic dictator. And I believe he is currently murdering people.”
One person close to Pence, who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations, said his team felt the donor conference in early March provided the “perfect opportunity” for him to confront Trump’s statements at a time when “the vast majority” of Republicans disagree with his assessment of Putin. According to this source, Pence will continue to speak out against people inside the GOP who admire Russia’s Putin “to the extent that it becomes an issue.”
“The nation has come together behind the belief that Putin is a thug, that he is terrible, and that what he is doing is reprehensible,” this individual stated.
Recent polling confirms that judgement, with a CNN poll conducted in late February finding overwhelming support for economic sanctions against Russia among Americans, including 84% of Republicans. According to a Quinnipiac poll conducted at the time, only 6% of Republicans have a favourable impression of Putin.
“It’s a prudent move, since the former President is absolutely out of step with the party and the country on Putin, and it’s one of the few subjects on which everyone is ready to distance themselves from Trump,” said David Kochel, a senior Republican strategist.
Pence speaks in His Own Voice’
While Pence has criticised Trump’s recent favourable remarks about Putin, he has echoed the former President’s criticism of his successor.
Pence accused President Joe Biden of squandering “the deterrent that our government put in place to discourage Putin and Russia from even attempting to redraw international boundaries by force” in the same speech to GOP contributors. And, like Trump, he has urged the Biden administration to impose sanctions on Russian oil exports.
Pence’s latest comments, though, are a far cry from how he has normally chimed in on Putin or Russia as Trump’s running mate and vice president. For years, whenever Trump lavished praise on Putin, his fiercely loyal vice president would emerge shortly afterwards to reframe Trump’s remarks.
For example, when Trump declared during a 2016 campaign event that Putin had been “a far superior leader” than then-President Barack Obama, Pence quickly clarified that his remarks were not an endorsement of the Russian autocrat. Addressing the issue during his vice presidential debate with Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Pence framed Trump’s remarks as “an indictment of Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s weak and feckless leadership,” while referring to Putin as “little” and “bullying.”
Then, when Trump appeared to draw a moral equivalence between US actions and those of Putin’s autocratic dictatorship during an early Fox interview, Pence reassured Americans that Trump was not drawing a “moral equivalence.”
“There are numerous assassins. You believe our country is that pure?” Trump stated during the interview when asked why he appreciates Putin even though the Russian leader is a “killer.”
And when the then-President sided with Putin over US intelligence officials during their 2018 joint news conference in Helsinki, Finland – implying at the time that he saw no reason why Russia would interfere in the 2016 US presidential election despite mounting evidence to the contrary – Pence rushed to defend the “historic trip” and lauded Trump’s commitment to “putting America’s prosperity and security first.”
According to Pence supporters, he has always resented adulation for Putin within the GOP but is now in a position where he can express long-held views openly without jeopardising decorum.
Thus far, these supporters report that Pence has not faced backlash for defying Trump on the Putin issue and has maintained constant communication with a variety of foreign policy and national security professionals while he determines how and when to intervene in the Ukraine-Russia situation.
“Mike Pence does have his own voice, his own beliefs, and his own perspectives,” one of the former vice president’s confidants stated.
Ukraine is not the only area in which Pence has sought to distance himself from Trump. Their contrasting opinions on January 6, 2021, revolt at the US Capitol and Pence’s unwillingness to halt certification of the 2020 election are at the top of the list. Pence has become increasingly public in recent weeks in defending his unwillingness to delay the electoral vote counting, as Trump and several of his senior backers pressed him to do.
Pence, speaking last month at the Federalist Society Florida Chapters conference near Orlando, branded Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results “un-American” and cautioned conservatives who continue to insist that the vice president can alter election results. He has often stated that he and Trump will never agree on anything on January 6.
Following that, Pence fielded calls from fundraisers, Republican senators, and prominent conservative leaders eager to express their private support.