Monday, May 22, 2017

President Pence: Trump’s VP Now Sounds Like Obama

When U.S. Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Indonesia on the night of April 19 for his first state visit abroad, he clearly did not intend for his positive gestures and kind words to be construed as controversial by the very people at whom they were aimed.

"In your nation, as in mine, religion unifies, it doesn't divide," Pence said to Indonesian President Joko Widodo the following morning at the Jakarta Palace. Pence lauded Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country, for "its tradition of moderate Islam," which he called "an inspiration to the world."

He also toured the Istiqlal Mosque, designed by North Sumatran Christian architect Frederich Silaban for Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, who insisted it be built near the Jakarta Cathedral and Immanuel Church as a symbol of religious harmony. (Pence even managed to force his wife and two daughters to put on ugly headbags as hijabs.)

Ironically, Pence was delivering his message of harmony -- to allay concerns in Indonesia over what was perceived as the Trump administration's anti-Muslim rhetoric and stress strategic, political and economic ties -- on the day that the Christian governor of Jakarta was ousted in a heated election marked by violent Islamist demonstrations.

While millions of supporters of Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, familiarly known as Ahok, were mourning the defeat of their candidate -- tried for blasphemy against Islam and found guilty on May 10 -- Pence was pointing to the "common values [of] freedom, rule of law, human rights and religious diversity" shared by the United States and Indonesia.

Under other circumstances, such a statement from the U.S. vice president might have been uplifting to the moderates behind Ahok, who is not only a Christian, but ethnically Chinese. However, due to the victory of the radical Muslims decrying the incumbency of a Christian on the grounds that the Quran forbids it, Pence's timing was problematic.

His assertion that "religion unifies" might, in fact, have been interpreted by those who voted for former Education Minister Anies Baswedan, the candidate favored by militant Muslims to replace Ahok, to mean that the Trump administration was giving a stamp of approval for Islam to serve that role exclusively.

"That Pence should be saying this after the most divisive and sectarian election in Indonesian history is flabbergasting," Australian National University associate professor Greg Fealy said. The outcome of the Jakarta gubernatorial election that day was the result of a hate-campaign waged against the very pluralistic ideals that Pence was praising.

The Trump administration and the rest of the West needs to pay closer attention to what is going on in Indonesia: its future as a tolerant democracy is being rapidly threatened by a strengthening Islamist presence.

As a paternalistic society, Indonesia has a public that can be easily manipulated by its leaders. When Indonesia's leaders include hardline clerics backed by scholars who insist that Muslims, by virtue of Quranic decree, must have all the power, unity is elusive, both in theory and in practice.

Jakarta: A day after Jakarta's Christian governor was ousted in an election riven with religious tension, US Vice-President Mike Pence pronounced that "Indonesia's tradition of moderate Islam frankly is an inspiration to the world".

"In your nation, as in mine, religion unifies, it doesn't divide," Pence gushed inside the presidential palace in Jakarta. To be fair, a version of these words is parroted by most Western leaders, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, when they visit Indonesia. But the remarks were jarring given the timing.

"That Pence should be saying this after the most divisive and sectarian election in Indonesian history is flabbergasting," says Australian National University associate professor Greg Fealy.

Timing aside, Pence's comments and his visit to Istiqlal, the biggest mosque in South-east Asia, suggest his trip to Indonesia was in part to reassure Indonesians concerned about the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the Trump administration. Fealy says they echo similar mollifying statements made by Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to other foreign leaders.

The message seems to be, Fealy says, that while US President Donald Trump might say one thing to a domestic audience, the administration provides a more reassuring version to an international audience.

Despite having the largest Muslim population in the world, Indonesia has not been in the new US administration's crosshairs, although it was among the 16 countries named on Trump's trade hit list. For example, Indonesia was not listed in the travel ban order that sought to block new visas for people from six Muslim-majority countries.

The speaker of Indonesia's House of Representatives, Setya Novanto, who Trump described as "one of the most powerful men and a great man", made a bizarre appearance at a Trump press conference in New York in late 2015. "Do they like me in Indonesia?" Trump asked, to which Setya gushed: "Yes, highly."

Trump's company has also paired with Indonesian magnate Hary Tanoesoedibjo to build luxury resorts in Bali and Bogor. Still, Lowy Institute research fellow Aaron Connelly says any visit by a senior US official is going to have to do some remedial work in terms of interfaith relations, given Trump's reputation on these issues.

"I think that is why we saw him visit Masjid [mosque] Istiqlal and also why he attended an interfaith discussion, to assuage fears America is waging a war against Islam," Connelly says. "I think Vice-President Pence realises the harm that impression could do in Indonesia."

Economic issues were also behind the visit. Connelly says every senior US official who visits Indonesia raises the issue of US mining giant Freeport, which operates the world's largest gold mine in Papua and is currently embroiled in a contract row with the Indonesian government.

However Connelly believes the primary reason Pence chose to visit Indonesia rather than Singapore, Malaysia or Thailand on his tour of South-east Asia was because it was the headquarters of ASEAN.

Pence announced Trump would attend an ASEAN summit in the Philippines in November and to Connelly's surprise, the Vice-President even met with young people from the Young South-east Asian Leaders' Initiative, a signature Obama program.

"This shows their commitment to this very ASEAN-centred strategy of engagement with the region," Connelly says. "To a large extent the choice of Jakarta was about ASEAN, rather than economic issues or Indonesia as a Muslim country."

Not since the release of the Access Hollywood tape, in which Donald Trump bragged about groping women by the genitals, have some conservatives thought so seriously, if a bit wistfully, about two words: President Pence.

The scandals clouding Trump’s presidency — including, most recently, his firing of FBI Director James Comey, his alleged leak of classified information to Russian officials, and reports that he urged Comey to drop an investigation into a top aide — have raised once more the possibility that Trump could be pushed aside and replaced by Vice President Mike Pence.

“If what the [New York Times] reported is true, Pence is probably rehearsing,” one House Republican who asked not to be named quipped Wednesday. “It’s just like Nixon. From the standpoint that it’s never the underlying issue, it is always the cover-up.”

The still far-fetched proposition of removing Trump from office has increasing appeal to Republicans who are growing weary of defending Trump and are alarmed by his conduct in office. But such whispers are cringe-worthy for Pence and his aides, who have made an art of not upstaging the mercurial president. Pence’s press secretary declined to comment for this article.

On the campaign trail, Pence would shut down any conversations about the possibility of his own future bid should Trump lose, telling donors who raised the prospect that he was entirely focused on the race at hand. Aides said that sentiment was sincere — even if they engaged in some thinking about what Pence’s future could entail after a likely loss.

Still, some conservatives are hinting that Pence looks like a particularly good alternative right now, especially as the Justice Department moves ahead with a special prosecutor for the FBI’s Russia probe. Rep. Jason Chaffetz immediately said he’s prepared to subpoena the memos that James Comey reportedly wrote.

Erick Erickson, a conservative pundit who was a strong Never Trumper but then pledged to give the president a chance, wrote on Wednesday that Republicans should abandon the president because they “have no need for him with Mike Pence in the wings.”

And conservative New York Times op-ed writer Ross Douthat, argued that abandoning Trump now should be easier because someone competent is waiting in the wings. “Hillary Clinton will not be retroactively elected if Trump is removed, nor will Neil Gorsuch be unseated,” Douthat wrote in Wednesday’s Times.

The pining for Pence is nothing new, however. From Capitol Hill to K Street, the notion that many Republicans prefer Pence to Trump in the Oval Office is perhaps the worst-kept secret in Washington.

Just ask Republican lobbyists who have watched the Trump administration struggle to move tax reform, health care and other top priorities. “I find it unlikely that Trump is going anywhere,” one GOP lobbyist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, wrote in an email. “That being said, Pence is well-liked on the Hill, fairly predictable, and doesn't stir up much unnecessary drama.”

A number of Republican lobbyists already view Pence as a source of stability in an otherwise tumultuous White House. Many of Pence’s top staffers — including his chief of staff, Josh Pitcock — worked for Pence during his years in the House and are deeply familiar with the legislative process.

Other former Pence staffers from his House days are working elsewhere in the administration, including Marc Short, the legislative affairs director, and Russ Vought, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

While Pence may not be as commanding a figure in Trump’s White House as Dick Cheney was in George W. Bush’s, Trump has leaned on him heavily. Lobbyists who set up meetings between Pence and their clients must warn them that the vice president may be an hour and a half late or have to leave after 10 minutes because Trump is constantly calling him into the Oval Office to confer with him, according to one Republican lobbyist.

But that doesn’t mean a Pence transition would be smooth. In the unlikely event that Trump is removed from office, Pence would assume the presidency amid a constitutional crisis. He could also be considered tainted by his past devotion to Trump.

Only once in American history has a president been forced from office by scandal, when Richard Nixon resigned amid Watergate. Ford assumed the presidency and sparked controversy by pardoning Nixon, a move that may have cost him the 1976 election but one that historians have since praised. Ford, like Pence, had enjoyed a career in the House of Representatives and rose to a leadership position. There are other echoes, too.

“It’s almost an eerie comparison that a more mild-mannered, religious conservative Republican Gerald Ford came in,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “He’s much like Pence in temperament and personality. He doesn’t have that acerbic side that Nixon and Trump had.” And, like Ford, Pence “has made so few enemies,” Brinkley said.

“Having Pence in reserve is one of the few things, I think, that is calming Republican nerves,” he added. “It would just be a more mild-mannered Pence who never says anything offensive, who doesn’t take to Twitter, who goes to Church every Sunday.” But unlike Pence, Ford was appointed to the job after the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew. Ford did not have the baggage of having campaigned for and championed Nixon.

Almost like a reminder of Pence’s political ambitions, news broke on Wednesday that Pence had formed a new leadership political action committee called the Great America Committee. It is unusual for a vice president to form his own PAC, as the vice president would traditionally merge his political operation with the Republican National Committee.

A spokesman confirmed the existence of the new committee and said it is being overseen by Marty Obst and Nick Ayers, two former Pence campaign aides and close confidants of the vice president.