In an interview with CBS News, Vice President Mike Pence flat-out refused to say that the United States is "morally superior" to Russia, no matter how hard he was pressed. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has wondered aloud what it is that Russia has on Donald Trump. Pence's performance deepens that concern.
Vice President Mike Pence did some heavy lifting for the Trump administration this weekend, appearing on four Sunday shows to try to repair some of the damage that Donald Trump has done in just two weeks on the job. It did not go well.
On ABC's This Week, Pence revealed more of Trump's weakness against Russian President Vladimir Putin by relating details of their phone conversation, which included discussion of Ukraine, though with a notable absence of genuine concern from Trump over Russia's aggression.
On Meet the Press, Pence commented that Trump did manage to confront another world leader on the subject, telling Chuck Todd that Trump "spoke to the Ukrainian President Poroshenko yesterday about the need to maintain the ceasefire."
Then, on CBS News' Face the Nation, Pence underscored this administration's weakness against Russia in extraordinary fashion. Host John Dickerson asked Pence to comment on Trump's tweet attacking America in Putin's defense, and Pence insisted there was no moral equivalency. And when Dickerson asked if America is "morally superior" to Russia, Pence — the second most powerful man in the free world — could not answer in the affirmative, even when given three opportunities to do so:
DICKERSON: Do you think America is morally superior to Russia?
PENCE: What — what you have in this new president is someone who is willing to, and is, in fact, engaging the world, including Russia, and saying, 'Where can we find common interests that will advance the security of the American people, the peace and prosperity of the world?' And he is determined to come at that in a new and renewed way.
DICKERSON: But America morally superior to Russia, yes or no?
PENCE: I believe that the ideals that America has stood for throughout our history represent the highest ideals of humankind.
PENCE: I was actually at — I was at Independence Hall yesterday. And I stood in the very room where the Constitution of the United States was crafted, the very building where the Declaration of Independence was held forth.
Every American, including our president, represents that we uphold the highest ideals of the world.
DICKERSON: Shouldn’t we be able to just say yes to that question, though?
PENCE: I think it is without question, John.
DICKERSON: That America is morally superior to Russia?
PENCE: That American ideals are — are superior to countries all across the world. But, again, what the president is determined to do, as someone who has spent a lifetime looking for deals, is to see if we can have a new relationship with Russia and other countries that advances the interests of America first and the peace and security of the world.
DICKERSON: I have held you over your time, Mr. Vice President. Thank you so much for being with us.
Although Pence and other Trump officials have taken pains to insulate themselves from the allegations of collusion with Russia that are currently being investigated, their behavior is that of people who have drawn a red line, or had one drawn for them, forbidding any criticism of Russia whatsoever. Pence's performance here is reminiscent of Kellyanne Conway's refusal, a few weeks ago, to utter the word "Russia" under repeated prodding from a bemused Chris Cuomo.
This strictly-enforced silence on the subject of Russia is reflected in the White House's official communications, as well. The Trump press shop sent out a lengthy set of "highlights" from all four of Pence's Sunday show appearances (CNN was offered Conway, but the network declined), and that list conspicuously contained not a single mention of Russia.
While Leader Pelosi continues to demand answers about what leverage Putin has on Trump, members of his administration must be pressed to explain these refusals — whether they are a matter of Trump administration policy, and why.
America's standing as a moral authority in the world is at stake, and the Trump administration is happily surrendering it.