Cheney’s questions for Pence – which prompted Pence to joke about the lack of “softball” topics – provide a revealing glimpse into the churning and often strained debates inside the Republican Party, where longtime GOP hawks such as Cheney have increasingly baulked at Trump’s engagement with autocrats and his non-interventionist approach to US military efforts in the Middle East.
The transcript was provided by a person familiar with the meeting who was not authorised to share material from the event. All attendees had agreed to keep the discussions “off the record,” the person said.
A spokesperson for Pence confirmed that the discussion took place over the weekend, but declined to comment.
I worry that the bottom line of that kind of an approach is we have an administration that looks a lot more like Barack Obama than Ronald Reagan.
Former US vice president Dick Cheney
The conversation between Pence and Cheneytook place at AEI’s annual world forum, which was attended by many of the conservative think tank’s donors and supporters – many of whom also are major Republican financiers. AEI has long been linked to members of the GOP’s foreign-policy establishment, from Cheney to national security adviser John Bolton, who was a fellow there before joining the administration.
Almost from the start, the discussion shifted from lighthearted catch-up to a cordial confrontation between the two men and the tense discussion surprised most attendees and caused murmurs in the room throughout the talk, according to a person present who was not authorised to speak publicly.
After dispensing with the traditional niceties – joking about the vice presidency being “the worst job in Washington” – Cheney expressed alarm over news reports that Trump “supposedly doesn’t spend that much time with the intel people, or doesn’t agree with them, frequently,” as well as the high staff turnover rate at the various intelligence agencies.
Cheney then turned his attention to the situation in North Korea. He worried about Trump’s decision to cancel the decades-long US military exercises with South Korea, and referenced a recent Bloomberg News report about the President’s directive “to pursue a policy that would insist that the Germans, the Japanese, and the South Koreans pay total cost for our deployments there, plus 50 per cent on top of that.”
“I don’t know, that sounded like a New York State real estate deal to me,” Cheney quipped.
Pence defended the administration’s decision to halt the biannual “war games” between the US and South Korea, saying that the Defense Department had assured the administration that the decision “will not affect our readiness in South Korea.”
“We’re going to continue [to] train,” Pence said. “We’re going to continue to work closely with South Korea. We have a tremendous alliance there.”
Pence also found himself responding to Cheney’s questions about Trump’s occasionally hostile posture toward NATO, which Cheney said “feeds this notion on the part of our allies overseas, especially in NATO, that we’re not long for that continued relationship, that we’re looking eagerly to find ways where somebody else will pick up the tab.”
The resulting impression, at least publicly, Cheney warned, is that “the decision gets made overnight or it gets made oftentimes without consulting anybody else – that he’s out there doing his thing.”
“Well, who wrote these softball questions?” Pence joked, a nod to the unexpected – and tough – tenor of Cheney’s line of query.
But Pence then mounted a fierce defense of the administration, arguing that Trump can ask his allies to pay more for their own defense while still maintaining warm ties.
“I think there is a tendency by critics of the President and our administration to conflate the demand that our allies live up to their word and their commitments and an erosion in our commitment to the post-World War II order,” Pence said.
“But we think it’s possible to demand that your allies do more to provide for the common defense of all of our nations and, at the same time, reaffirm our strong commitment – whether it be to the trans-Atlantic Alliance or to our allies across the Indo-Pacific,” Pence added.
Cheney was dubious about that commitment. He worried aloud, again and again, that for Trump, foreign policy boils down to a crude dollars and cents transaction. Noting that NATO countries have provided their own troops to fight alongside the US in Afghanistan, he said, “So it’s a lot more than just the cheque book.”
At another point, Cheney again returned to the theme, noting that with allies, who support the United States in ways beyond financial commitments, “It’s a lot more complicated than just, ‘Here’s the bottom line. Write the cheque.’”
Pence reiterated Trump’s commitment to the US military and the nation’s defense, noting that insisting that allies contribute more money is just another way to support Trump’s policy of “peace through strength.”
“As the President is rebuilding our military and strengthening our commitment to our national defense, calling on our allies to live up to their commitments to do more, I think, is a way of ensuring the vitality and the prosperity of the free world,” Pence said.
And at the end of the event Pence joked about the unexpected line of questioning from Cheney, quipping “Gee, look at the time.”
He also attempted to reassure the former vice president and the assembled crowd that the administration shares their devotion defending the country.
“But you can be confident, as one of my favorite hawks,” Pence told Cheney, “we’re going to continue to stand strong for a strong national defense with President Trump in the White House.”