WASHINGTON — As Vice President Mike Pence stood on the massive deck of the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier at Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan, he delivered a message to North Korea, which he called “the most dangerous and urgent threat to the peace and security of the Asia Pacific.”
“The era of strategic patience is over,” he said. “The shield stands guard and the sword stands ready.”
It was the kind of high stakes message American presidents have delivered abroad for years, but it came from Pence, not President Donald Trump.
“’I wish I could be where you are,’” Pence recalled Trump telling him on the phone earlier in the day. “And I know he meant it, from the bottom of his heart.”
As Trump’s first 100 days in office come to a close next week, he has not once been where Pence or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have gone — on foreign trips representing the United States, preferring instead to visit the states that helped propel him to the presidency and of course spending many weekends in Florida at Mar-a-Lago. Trump’s first announced foreign trip will be in May to Brussels for a NATO meeting.
His decision not to travel abroad reflects a combination of an election that focused on a return to “America First,” and on the homebody ways of a 70-year-old who spends a lot of time golfing at clubs he owns. But it also marks a new era in American relations with its allies and enemies alike, and the emergence of a world with a smaller American presence, or at least one where if you want to meet the president of the United States, you’re coming to him not the other way around.
At the same point in April in his first term, Barack Obama had visited nine countries including the UK, France, Germany, Turkey, Iraq and Mexico. George W. Bush had visited Mexico and Canada, as well as 23 states compared to Trump’s 7.
“Part of it is that he’s so deeply unpopular overseas, which is the exact opposite of Obama,” a source close to the administration said of the stay-at-home POTUS. “Does it really serve him to go over and face massive protests? After he ran on America First it can be challenging to go to rest of the world.”
A Trump administration official disputed that his America First approach has played into his lack of travel, noting that comparing him to past presidents doesn’t work precisely because he came to Washington to shake up traditional approaches.
Trump’s meetings and phone calls with foreign leaders have been robust, the official said, and he trusts Pence, Tillerson, homeland security chief Gen. John Kelly and secretary of defense James Mattis to meet with foreign leaders.
“Obama liked to micromanage everything, he thought he was the smartest person in the room,” the administration official said. “This president has a lot of faith in his team.”
While some of Obama’s travel involved events that were already scheduled before he became president like the April 2009 NATO summit, which Trump will attend in May, former officials say Obama still prioritized traveling abroad, despite difficulties getting foreign travel on the books as the country emerged slowly from recession.
“He thought it was important because the Iraq war had eroded our standing in the world and he thought he had to do the real work of public diplomacy not just with leaders but with people that live in those countries,” said Tommy Vietor, who worked on foreign policy issues for Obama during his two terms. “He saw value in that when you need support from an ally or not quite an ally like the Chinese or Russians.”
But Christopher Ruddy, a longtime friend of President Trump and CEO of conservative NewsMax Media said Trump has developed a traditionalist foreign policy, which is good for world stability, right from home.
“He came in charging hard against the Chinese and offering an olive branch to Russia, but now he understands the strategic importance of China and he recognizes some of the problems with Russia because of the Syria crisis,” Ruddy said. “He’s getting his feet on the ground — you can have controversial positions, but without upsetting the apple cart.”
Unsurprisingly, Trump opponents give him much less credit on the issue.
“Trump hasn’t gone abroad or to many other states in the first 100 days, because it’s coincided with the Palm Beach social season,” said GOP strategist and CNN commentator Ana Navarro of one of the few places Trump has traveled to often, his private club in Florida. “He has been busy entertaining, holding court, golfing, jacking up membership prices and hiring foreign workers at Mar-a-Lago. Not much time left to go to Montana or Argentina.”
Kevin Madden, a former senior advisor on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns, said so much of Trump’s appeal to his supporters was concentrated around domestic policy promises so the lack of travel isn’t too much of a surprise. But while he isn’t interested in matching the cadence of past presidents, the emergence of a new crisis may force his hand.
“It’s too soon to say whether the change has hurt just yet, since this approach is only beginning to be tested with recent developments in North Korea and Syria,” Madden said, adding that “in times of crisis, presidents don’t outsource their responsibility, so the approach may very well change and adapt as circumstances around the globe change and adapt.”
A White House official with knowledge of Pence’s role said there’s been “a pretty consistent pattern” on foreign travel of Tillerson and Mattis traveling to a region to lay the groundwork for the administration. Those visits are then followed up by Pence delivering a message from Trump, who will ultimately be “the closer” when he travels to the region like he will in May and to Southeast Asia for three summits in November.
A beneficiary of this approach will likely be Pence, who has already been empowered in the mold of past powerful vice presidents like Joe Biden and Dick Cheney, said Jeffrey Lord, a public Trump booster on CNN.
“Under the circumstances there is no hotter button issue than North Korea and he sent him to South Korea, which really means something,” Lord said.
But as people on both sides of the aisle know, there is only one POTUS.
“You can send Pence places, that’s good, its useful,” Vietor said. “It’s reassuring, he stays on script, and probably understands the issues that are at stake more than Trump ever will but there’s no substitute for sending the president.”