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Pence takes a global role as Trump broods

One is huddling with the Russian President, gripping-and-grinning with the Japanese prime minister and press...

Posted: Nov 16, 2018 6:48 AM
Updated: Nov 16, 2018 7:00 AM

One is huddling with the Russian President, gripping-and-grinning with the Japanese prime minister and pressing Myanmar's ruler to free imprisoned journalists.

The other is tweeting fury at the special counsel, sitting for lengthy sessions with his private attorneys and working to salvage his image as commander in chief after it took a bruising thanks to a canceled cemetery visit.

This week, as Vice President Mike Pence crosses Asia assuming duties traditionally carried out by the President, his boss Donald Trump remains back in Washington to brood over electoral losses and the special counsel probe.

He is skipping the yearly summits that usually bring US presidents around the globe for meetings with counterparts and high-profile speeches meant to illustrate American commitment in the region. Trump, who attended the gatherings last year but departed early, sent his No. 2 instead.

"Overall, it's just a very bad optic when we don't show up," said Victor Cha, senior adviser and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who was considered for an ambassadorship to South Korea in the Trump administration. "(Pence will) be there. And there are small things that they'll be doing. But the overall message is going to be there's disinterest and it's not a priority. And that's not good, given the broader context of what's happening in Asia."

US officials have insisted that Trump's absence from the summits doesn't amount to a snub. Pence told a gathering on Wednesday that he'd just spoken to the President by phone and he "asked me to convey his regards and greetings and appreciation to each of you."

And US presidents have missed the gatherings in the past, though for last-minute reasons, such as a government shutdown, and not as a planned non-appearance.

Still, with Trump deciding to skip this year's summits, other leaders have sought to fill the void. Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Singapore to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and East Asia Summit meetings, where he worked to strengthen economic and military ties in the region. Chinese President Xi Jinping is planning to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Papua New Guinea, hoping to advance Beijing's influence in the South Pacific.

Pence is there, too, but without the draw of being his country's No. 1.

Reclaim his standing

Trump will have an opportunity to reclaim his global standing in two weeks, when he travels to Argentina for two days of meetings at the G20 summit, including with the presidents of China and Russia. But for now it is Pence doing the talking while Trump has largely withdrawn.

That's a marked shift from before the midterm elections, when the President was traveling constantly to promote Republican candidates at loud, hour-long rallies. He conducted a string of interviews and stopped at nearly every opportunity to speak with journalists as he was coming and going from the White House.

Now, Trump is remaining mostly quiet. He scrapped a planned trip to the southern border this week, officials said. His public schedule has been relatively light, though he'll preside over a Medal of Freedom ceremony on Friday and tour fire damage in California on Saturday. The President has met the last three days with his attorneys to discuss written responses to special counsel Robert Mueller, according to a source familiar with the matter, including a meeting Wednesday night with Rudy Giuliani.

He sat for a friendly interview with The Daily Caller on Wednesday, but has not engaged in a public back and forth with reporters for nearly a week. He last took questions from the press corps on Friday, ahead of his visit to Paris.

Even abroad, Trump eschewed a heavy itinerary of diplomacy with the world leaders gathered in the French capital to commemorate the World War I armistice. He met only with his host, French President Emmanuel Macron, and held short informal discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan.

For hours on Saturday afternoon, Trump was without any official activities after a planned visit to an American cemetery outside Paris was canceled because of rain. Instead, he remained at the US ambassador's residence getting updates on election recounts commencing back home and watching television. As they have on previous foreign swings, staffers had ensured that televisions inside the ambassador's residence -- the second empire Hôtel de Pontalba on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré -- had Fox News available for the President's viewing.

Trump grumbled that he was kept away from the action back home, where election recounts were getting underway in key Senate and governors' races. With nothing to do for six hours in the middle of the afternoon, Trump demanded updates on the races and details about the state officials responsible for the counting.

The scrapped cemetery visit sparked virulent backlash, with some of Trump's critics suggesting he wasn't willing to brave the inclement weather to honor fallen American troops. The White House insisted that was not the case, citing logistical and security concerns that prevented the President from traveling to the site.

Image of a military-minded leader

After the controversy, Trump has worked to fortify his image as a military-minded leader. He visited Marines at their barracks in Washington on Thursday before delivering remarks at the White House laying out the steps his administration has taken to support veterans.

But if there was one person holding the mantle of US statesmanship this week, it has been Pence, who met in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe before traveling to Singapore and onward to Australia and Papua New Guinea for the summit talks.

He's taken on hefty diplomatic tasks, such as confronting Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi over the treatment of her country's stateless Rohingya Muslim population. Even as back home the White House was going to court over the suspension of CNN reporter Jim Acosta's credentials, Pence pressed Suu Kyi over the imprisonment of two Reuters journalists.

"I look forward to speaking to you about the premium that we place on a free and independent press," Pence told Suu Kyi ahead of their talks.

Later, cameras caught Pence in intense conversation with Putin, with national security adviser John Bolton between them. Bolton had traveled with Pence to Asia rather than remain behind in Washington with Trump. In his absence, Trump dismissed his deputy Mira Ricardel. Pence raised the 2016 election meddling with Putin, aides said.

Later this week he travels onward to Papua New Guinea for the APEC meetings, where Xi will take center stage. Like every year, leaders will pose for a photo in a traditional shirt. But for the first time since 2013 -- when Obama canceled a planned appearance in Bali because of a government shutdown -- the US president won't be there.

At last year's APEC meeting in Vietnam, the event's organizers faced a last minute scramble to change the color of a giant onstage screen from orange to blue after American officials raised urgent concerns the the President would disappear if he stood in front of the electronic, apricot-hued screen.

With no Trump, they're breathing easier this year.

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