Analysis

America First? As Pence Visits Israel, Shutdown War Rages in D.C. Without Him

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence's trip is a delicate dance between paying attention to stormy domestic politics and the current foreign policy challenges

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen Pence arrive at Amman military airport, Jordan, January 20, 2018.
MUHAMMAD HAMED/REUTERS

When U.S. Vice President Mike Pence postponed his mid-December visit to Egypt, Jordan, and Israel, the decision seemed to make sense. The Arab world was still roiling with anger at U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to declare Jerusalem Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy. More importantly, Pence’s presence was needed in Washington to get Trump's tax reform legislation through Congress when its success seemed uncertain. Putting off the trip until January 14 – and then further delaying until January 22 – took place with the assumption that there couldn't possibly be another crisis so soon.

That was overly optimistic. The Trump administration is more often than not in crisis – and so as it turned out, Pence took off for the other side of the world just as the White House is facing one of the biggest tests of its year-long history: A government shutdown triggered by Congress’ inability to pass a budget due to disagreements over immigration.

In this atmosphere, Pence’s absence from Washington is deeply felt. The vice president is often the go-between when it comes to tough negotiations between the Trump White House and Congress.

With media headlines focusing sharply on his distance from the shutdown crisis – "Pence is Half a World Away from DC drama," noted Politico – Pence is making it a point to use the platform he is given in each of his foreign stops to address the domestic crisis. 

Standing in front of U.S. troops near the Syrian border on Sunday, he followed up declarations on ISIS, Iran and terrorism with combative words aimed at another kind of enemy. He told the assembled soldiers that Democrats have decided to "play politics with the miltary – but you deserve better. You and your families shouldn't have to worry for one minute about whether you are going to get paid while you serve in the uniform of the United States. So know this: Your president, your vice president and the American people are not going to put up with it. We are going to demand that they reopen the government. In fact, we are not going to reopen negotiations on illegal immigration until they reopen the government and give you, our soldiers, and your families the benefits and wages you've earned. Just as you will do whatever it takes to defend your country, President Trump and I will do whatever it takes to defend you and your families."    

Pence's trip seems destined to be a delicate dance between paying attention to stormy domestic politics and the foreign policy challenges inherent to visiting Israel at a time where the chances for any U.S.-led progress on the peace front couldn’t be any smaller, following Arab outrage at the White House’s Jerusalem move. Even before the shutdown crisis loomed, experts on the region like former Obama aide Ilan Goldenberg argued that the trip was pointless and “there is simply no pressing reason for Pence to travel to the Middle East this weekend. The possible downsides are significant and there is little positive that he can accomplish outside of further inflaming an already bad situation. He should stay home.”

Pence is doing the best to make his voice heard on the shutdown long-distance. After being briefed on the shutdown while Air Force 2 was winging its way across the Atlantic to Cairo, Pence issued a statement saying “Our administration will do everything within our power to support the brave men and women in uniform who stand on the frontlines of freedom. But as of tonight, due to a completely avoidable government shutdown, they’ll stand their post without pay.”

He also addressed the shutdown with U.S. servicemen during a stop for refueling in Ireland en route to Egypt and told them the shutdown “is going to take as long as it takes.” A White House statement said Pence would continue his trip because his mission was “integral” to U.S. national security and diplomacy.

Some have hinted that Pence departing on his trip as scheduled, instead of postponing it once again could be a sign that he isn’t particularly saddened to be far away from the political mudslinging over the budget crisis. One Capital Hill reporter tweeted that a Republican source hinted to her that Pence "seems like he's avoiding this debate."

At first, it seemed there was a chance that the shutdown drama was going to play out with neither Trump nor Pence in the nation’s capital. 

Haaretz

But after the shutdown took effect and the crisis deepened, Trump’s weekend trip to his Mar-a-Lago resort to attend a $100,000-per-plate celebration of his year anniversary in the White House was canceled. The president (unhappily by many accounts at missing his big party) announced on Saturday that, unlike his Vice President, he would stay in town until a spending bill that would keep the government opened is passed.