With fealty to President Donald Trump as his defining political trait, Vice President Mike Pence isn’t typically the man in the spotlight. But his latest European jaunt has been marked with unfortunate headlines and questions about how far he’s willing to go to please his boss.
Pence’s trip was meant to show off his ancestry and bolster a key US ally. Now – with one stop left – the diplomacy has been overshadowed by ethics questions, and that ally, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is facing a political crisis of his own.
The vice president’s problems began in Doonbeg, a village in Ireland with a population of less than 1,000, where he stayed for two nights at the five-star golf property owned by Trump. That required commuting 181 miles back and forth to Dublin, where he was holding meetings with government officials.
Faced with the first questions about why his office had picked that hotel – “Were lower cost options explored? Any concern about the appearance of any conflict of interest here?” – Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short told reporters the President had suggested it.
When that answer only prompted more questions, Pence intervened. He said the move was because he had family ties to the town and it was the only place that could “accommodate the unique footprint that comes with our security detail and other personnel.”
Then – after the White House denied Trump ever suggested Pence stay at his property – Short issued another statement from Doonbeg at around 3:30 a.m. local time blaming “misreporting” – even though both he and the vice president had explained the situation already.
Later Wednesday, Trump denied to reporters he’d ever spoken to Pence about using his hotel during the vice president’s trip this week. But he did say they had discussed their shared connection to the Irish village – Pence’s familial, his commercial – and he defended the use of the property.
“People like my product, what can I tell you? I can’t help it,” he said.
Trump had been irked that he was being blamed for the fallout for Pence’s accommodations, sources told CNN, and Pence – who keeps a close eye on his media coverage – was also exasperated by the negative attention.
Trump has suggested before that Cabinet officials and advisers stay at his properties while they are traveling. He himself has spent 289 days of his presidency at a Trump property, according to a CNN tally.
A person familiar with the President’s thinking explained the pattern as Trump’s genuine belief that his locations are the best place for aides to lodge, and makes similar recommendations to his friends who do not work for him.
In the past, however, aides have typically ignored the recommendations, knowing it would result in a firestorm of ethics questions.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, multiple White House officials expressed disbelief that Pence’s office thought spending two nights at the Trump International Golf Links & Hotel was a good idea.
Pence has made several overseas trips while in office – and on occasion been sent in the President’s stead – but he has never faced turbulence like in Europe this week.
His chief of staff Nick Ayers resigned in December 2018 after turning down an offer to become West Wing chief of staff. His communications director Jarrod Agen resigned in June to take a position with Lockheed Martin. His director of media affairs left that same month to become the director of communications for Juul, an e-cigarette company. And his press secretary Alyssa Farah – who was initially scheduled to staff this trip but didn’t travel – starts a new job at the Pentagon soon. Pence hasn’t selected a replacement.
Short returned to the administration last December to become Pence’s chief of staff. He served as the President’s legislative affairs director for most of his first two years in office, and remains a trusted adviser to the vice president.
Still, the Ireland visit was marked not only by ethics questions but diplomatic ones, too. During a meeting with the country’s leader, Pence voiced ardent support for a swift divorce between the United Kingdom and the European Union, despite concerns in Ireland that could force the return of a hard border with the North.
Later this week, Pence is due in London for meetings with Johnson, who suffered a major political defeat on Tuesday in Parliament.
Johnson has enjoyed enthusiastic support from Trump, who has referred to him as his British equivalent and openly expressed a preference for him over his predecessor Theresa May. But Trump’s belief that Johnson was the man to deliver Brexit is now being undercut by the revolt within Britain’s Conservative Party.
As of right now, Pence’s office says his visit to London is still on. But it comes as Johnson’s future is uncertain, as lawmakers moved to prevent a no-deal Brexit and Johnson called for new snap elections.
Speaking in Ireland on Tuesday, Pence made clear the US backs Johnson in his bid to complete Brexit by the October 31 deadline – which could have dire consequences for the Irish border.
“As the deadline for Brexit approaches we urge Ireland and the European Union, as well, to negotiate in good faith with Prime Minister Johnson, and work to reach an agreement that respects the United Kingdom’s sovereignty and minimizes the disruption to commerce,” he said.
The comments were taken in Ireland as a sign that Trump and Pence were siding with hardline Brexiteers over the interests of Ireland.
One headline in the Irish Times: “How Mike Pence shat on the new carpet in Ireland’s spare room.”
CNN’s Jim Acosta contributed to this report.