Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” bestseller paints a picture of a dysfunctional Trump White House on the verge of collapse and on the edge of internal overthrow.
Figuring the odds for a 25th Amendment action is best left to bookmakers, however, not book authors. Whatever the odds, foreign leaders always need to hedge their bets. On their minds, if not their tongues, is what life would be like under a President Pence.
Traditional foreign allies look to Vice President Mike Pence and his visits for American reassurance and resolve, continuity and commitment. The veep’s outwardly quiet demeanor and unfailing Trump loyalty has earned him the right to travel the world on the president’s behalf, carrying with him the credibility of presidential access and influence. Pence’s absence from the pages of Wolff’s book will certainly endear him further to President Trump, who perceives a White House otherwise under siege by internal enemies.
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NATO looked to Pence for love early in this administration, when POTUS was flirting with Russia and tired of buying Europeans gifts and taking them on military theater dates on his dime. Trump avoided talking about “commitment” and changed the subject when it came to the sacred mutual defense vows of Article V. But Pence never wavered, never failed. Europe’s affection for Pence is returned and, if Germany’s Angela Merkel survives her latest leadership challenge, the love can blossom anew.
Australia, too, had a rough patch with America. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had an early spat with Trump, punctuated by phone hang-ups and hurt feelings. Pence made peace by successfully going on what Australian media called a “charm offensive” to repair any damage and rebuild the relationship.
Around the world, Pence is a practiced and predictable politician in the American conservative presidential mold, unlikely to stray from the mainstream of post-World War II orthodoxy that sees America’s role as the world’s policeman. When he was in Congress, he was staunchly pro-Iraq War. His intensely Christian social conservatism could influence his privileging foreign policies and partners who align with traditional Judeo-Christian values.
Look to Pence’s upcoming Middle East trip, his first visit there as vice president, for clues as to how he will deal with prime ministers and potentates in the ever-contested region. From Syria to Egypt, Russian presence and influence is growing by the day. Iran and Saudi Arabia are militarily engaged in proxy wars against each other. A speech scheduled in the Israeli Knesset should give insight to a Pence approach toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.
A peaceful presidential transition, whether before or on Jan. 20, 2021 EUR” or even if Trump leaves office in 2025 after a second term EUR” creates an opportunity for a policy reset. Trump’s disruptor-in-chief tweets and feats have crushed compacts, rejiggered alliances, starved institutions, and destroyed foreign policy assumptions.
As for Pence, every vice president is always a heartbeat away from assuming power. Health is the main concern, as the 71-year-old President Trump has been as transparent about his medical history as he has been with his tax returns. Health aside, President Trump is facing potentially fatal political challenges from a toxic “Moscow Mueller” cocktail made up of one part Putin spirits, a squeeze of lip-puckering palace intrigue, and slightly sweetened with Russia-related investigations of friends and family.
Not every political sector may see a President Pence as a refreshing change of pace as some global leaders do, however.
The prospect of a Pence administration has American progressives scared witless. They worry the fiercely devout former Indiana congressman and governor would actively pursue his long-embraced and deeply-felt conservative agenda. Pro-choice activists are particularly concerned about his anti-abortion stance and already troll him by donating in his name to Planned Parenthood. As one Huffington Post headline put it, “Trump might blow up the world, but Pence would set the clock back to 1954.”
Broader political uncertainties loom, too. On domestic policy issues, it’s unclear if middle America would choose President Trump – a former Democrat with a free-spinning moral compass – over the clear-cut, clean-cut Pence. In foreign policy, however, the U.S. foreign policy establishment (called “The Blob” during the Obama years) weighs-in heavily in Pence’s favor, with Europeans all but counting the days to a potential ascension.
The next president may inherit a dirty mess but will start with a relatively clean slate on foreign policy. Whoever becomes the next president will be handed an incredible amount of latitude to develop a new foreign policy agenda entirely free of previous commitment or policy inertia.
If that next president is Mike Pence, his foreign policy decisions are easy to anticipate, if not entirely predict. Crises faced by Oval Office occupants have a way of testing presidential character, instincts and reactions. Just ask George W. Bush, who ran for president with the promise of pursuing a “humble” foreign policy.
Both American citizens and foreign leaders would hope that a President Pence would have a strong and stable vice president at his side to keep him in check. Senator Jeff Flake is considered Pence’s political soulmate. Bets anyone?
Markos Kounalakis is a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KounalakisM.