WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday criticized his former boss-turned-rival, Donald Trump, for calling retired Gen. Mark Milley, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a traitor over phone calls he made to China in the final stormy months of their administration.
“Frankly what Donald Trump said about him in that tweet, about treason and death, was utterly inexcusable,” the GOP presidential candidate said at a national security and foreign policy event at Washington’s Georgetown University co-hosted by The Associated Press.
Pence also reacted to the news that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy had been ousted from his post by a contingent of hard-right conservatives. Asked how other countries might interpret McCarthy’s ouster as it relates to the stability of the U.S. government, Pence considered the question silently for 13 seconds before responding, “Chaos is never America’s friend.”
Pence pushed Tuesday for traditional GOP foreign policy goals and leadership ideals at a time when that vision — and his campaign — are struggling to gain momentum among Republican voters. Many GOP voters oppose sending more military aid to Ukraine, and three months ahead of Iowa’s kickoff caucuses, Pence continues to poll in single digits. He was positioned at the far right side of the stage at the last GOP debate.
The event was the first in a series of conversations with 2024 Republican presidential candidates on the topic co-hosted by the AP and Georgetown’s Institute of Politics and Public Service.
Pence has accused rivals like Trump and his followers of abandoning U.S. allies and argued the only way to keep America safe is by engaging with the world, while also criticizing what he sees as President Joe Biden’s missteps in the U.S. withdrawal of Afghanistan.
“America is the leader of the free world. If we’re not leading the free world, the free world is not being led,” he said Tuesday.
He also defended Milley, who in his last days as joint chiefs chairman defended himself against tirades from Trump over calls he made to his Chinese counterpart to assure him that the United States was not going to suddenly go to war with or attack China.
Trump called the conversations “an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH! A war between China and the United States could have been the result of this treasonous act.”
Milley has described the calls as “routine” and “perfectly within the duties and responsibilities” of his job. In his farewell speech, Milley noted that all members of the U.S. military “take an oath to the Constitution.”
Pence has also affirmed that he was following the Constitution when he refused Trump’s demands to try to overturn their loss in the Electoral College on Jan. 6, 2021, the day that pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol.
Pence said he hasn’t agreed with all of the policies put in place during Milley’s tenure and declined to respond to Milley saying in his retirement speech that “we don’t take an oath to a wannabe dictator” — a comment widely interpreted to be about Trump.
“I wouldn’t have a comment on that characterization or who he was alluding to,” he said.
But on Milley’s reference to swearing allegiance to the Constitution, Pence said, “I thought he made a very eloquent point.”
The contrast between Pence and others in his party has been particularly stark on Ukraine. The former vice president has called on the Biden administration to deliver more military aid to the country as it fights Russia’s invasion and has criticized those in his party who question the need for ongoing U.S. involvement.
“I believe that if Vladimir Putin and the Russian military overruns Ukraine, it will not be long before they cross the border of a NATO country where our men and women in uniform would be required to go and fight,” he said.
He also continued to argue that that helping Ukraine is the best way to check China’s ambitions in the Asia-Pacific region, as he and other GOP contenders have done during the 2024 campaign.
“I really do believe that if Russia overruns Ukraine, that’ll give a green light to China to move against Taiwan,” he said. “And quite frankly, if we don’t check the efforts by authoritarian regimes to redraw international lines by force, the rest of the 21st century could look a lot like the first half of the 20th century.”
Congress averted a partial government shutdown last weekend with a deal that excluded additional aid to the country. The White House and Pentagon say U.S. aid to Kyiv could be in danger without more funding. But a bloc of Republicans in Congress has refused to vote for it.
Pence made a surprise visit to Ukraine in June, touring the war-torn country and meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
While Pence’s posture was once the standard in the Republican Party, his views have fallen out of favor with many Republican voters who have become increasingly skeptical about supporting Ukraine.
About four in 10 Republicans (44%) say the U.S. is providing too much aid to Ukraine, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in June. That’s up from just 9% of Republicans who said the U.S. was giving too much shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
A February poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found only about a quarter of Americans — 26% — believe the U.S. should have a major role in the conflict, down from as high as 40% in March 2022. Among Republicans that number was even lower, with just 17% saying the U.S. should have a major role.
Pence has also cast China as a major threat. In a speech at the Hudson Institute last month, he called the country “the greatest strategic and economic threat to the United States of America in the 21st Century” and said it was at risk of becoming an “evil empire.”
In response, he has said the U.S. should work to bolster Taiwan’s defense capabilities to stave off any threat. He also wants to ban China from purchasing new U.S. farmland and has called to move high-tech manufacturing out of the country as well as a ban on the popular TikTok app.
Asked Tuesday if it was realistic to ask tens of millions of young people to stop using the program, Pence said, “I don’t know about realistic, but it’s the right idea.”
Colvin reported from New York. Associated Press writer Linley Sanders in Washington contributed to this report.