Running diplomatic errands

By Jules Witcover

Another Labor Day in Donald Trump’s presidency passed as Hurricane Dorian ravaged the Bahama’s and threatened the U.S. Atlantic coast, and the president blithely golfed at one of his clubs in Virginia, yet untouched by the latest natural catastrophe.

Television news outlets gave wall-to-wall coverage to Dorian as it brushed by Puerto Rico, where two years ago, in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria, the president had comforted its stricken residents by throwing paper towels to them, as if shooting basketballs.

The irrefutable evidence of the crisis wrought by climate change brought little to no presidential comment from Trump. Instead, he left scheduled overseas diplomatic chores to Vice President Mike Pence, who subbed for him over the holiday weekend in Poland and Ireland.

In so doing, Pence added to the ongoing criticism of the Trump’s abuse of his office to drive business to his hotels and resorts. According to Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, at the president’s “suggestion,” the large Pence traveling party stayed on the U.S. nickel at a Trump golf course and hotel in Ireland for two nights. It brought undetermined revenue to the Trump Organization and family.

With the president changing his weekend plans in deference to the hurricane, Short said, Pence had to alter his own schedule, keeping Trump’s meetings with Polish and Irish leaders. But in Ireland the whole party bedded down in the small town of Doonbeg, 150 miles away from Dublin on the Emerald Isle’s western coast.

The town happened to be an ancestral home of the Pence family, and Short declared it was “logical” for the large Pence party to take advantage of the Trump property’s suitable facilities for such a group.

But with the hourly coast of $13,000 for keeping the Air Force Two in the sky, it was a costly diversion. According to Short, Vice President Pence did pick up the personal tab at Doonbeg for his wife, mother and other family members aboard. Nothing apparently was said of local relatives opening their doors as family members sometimes do.

It seemed not to occur to the Pence handlers, or their Trump superiors, that such routine diplomatic niceties in Ireland could have simply been cancelled to save taxpayer money on what seemed a mere gift to the Pence family. Such are the other realities of federal officials’ willingness or insensitivity to spend taxpayers’ money on such wasteful and unnecessary boondoggles.

A sometime Republican critic of Trump, William Kristol, asked: “How much must Pence be worried about being dumped from the ticket (in 2020) to go to the lengths to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars at a Trump resort?”

It’s another indication of how the vice presidency has changed. As John Adams, the first vice president, so wisely observed of his functional value in the early days of his incumbency: “In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.” His only defined responsibility beyond awaiting the president’s death or resignation was presiding over the Senate, with a vote only to break a tie.

Vice presidents long thereafter were kept in the dark on critical issues before the president. To that point, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s stand-in in 1945, Harry Truman, did not learn of the imminent existence of the atomic bomb until told of it in his own elevation to the Oval Office upon FDR’S sudden death.

Only in much later years, under President Jimmy Carter, was the vice president, Walter Mondale, given an office in the White House with near-complete access to Carter and all vital matters of state.

Most subsequent veeps have been kept informed, with a possible exception of Mike Pence, who gives every appearance of being left on the outside looking in during the imperial Trump presidency, and of not being too distressed about it. Under the chaos reigning in the White House, who can blame him?

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at

By Patricia Older

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