Taking Aim

Mike Pence speaks out against growing antisemitism in politics ahead of CUFI speech

The former vice president takes on Donald Trump and Pramila Jayapal in wide-ranging interview with JI

John Locher/AP Photo

Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition annual leadership meeting, Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, in Las Vegas.

Former Vice President Mike Pence said in an interview on Monday that Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s (D-WA) recent comments describing Israel as “a racist state” were “a disgrace,” even as he acknowledged that she had since walked back her remarks amid criticism from members of both parties.

“I’m glad she took it back,” Pence told Jewish Insider at the Washington, D.C., offices of his political advocacy group, Advancing American Freedom. “But it was still a disgrace.”

The former vice president, who launched his campaign for president last month, also took aim at Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) for espousing “antisemitic tropes” — and for more recently joining a handful of House Democrats who announced they will boycott Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address to Congress this week.

“This is a very real force that’s growing in the halls of government and the public debate in many Western countries. It needs to be called out and it needs to be denounced,” Pence said of the global rise in antisemitism, before turning his attention to one of his opponents in the Republican primary.

“It’s one of the reasons when the former president hosted a rank antisemite at dinner, I called him out for it and said he should apologize for it,” Pence said, referring to former President Donald Trump’s decision to meet with Ye, the Hitler-praising rapper formerly known as Kanye West, and the prominent Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes. “I still think he should.”

Pence was emphasizing his long-standing support for Israel and opposition to antisemitism ahead of his appearance on Monday evening at the Arlington, Va., summit of Christians United for Israel, where he is one of three Republican presidential candidates — including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley — who were asked to speak.

“Israel is our most cherished ally,” Pence told JI on Monday afternoon. “The heart and mind of the American people are with the Jewish state of Israel, and I think there can be no tolerance for antisemitic rhetoric in this country, in our streets and our public debate, and certainly not in the halls of Congress.”

Pence’s appearance at the evangelical summit, where he will receive CUFI’s Defender of Israel Award, is the latest evidence that the former vice president is seeking to emphasize his foreign policy credentials as he struggles to gain traction in a crowded Republican primary.

In the interview with JI, for instance, Pence staunchly defended his support for aiding Ukraine in its war against Russia, just days after his approach had drawn boos from some audience members during a tense exchange with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson at a separate evangelical summit in Iowa.

“I think that providing the Ukrainian military with the support they need to repel the unprovoked Russian invasion is in our national interest,” Pence insisted. “Because have no doubt that if Russia overruns Ukraine, it will not be long before they cross the border of a NATO country where our armed forces will be required to go and fight.”

He took another jab at Trump, who floated a new plan to end the war during an interview with Fox News on Sunday. “The former president, until very recently, has endorsed cutting aid to Ukraine,” Pence said. “But just this weekend, he got it half right. He said if Putin wouldn’t come to the table that he would arm Ukraine more than Joe Biden has ever armed Ukraine. And as I said, that’s half right.”

“Putin only understands strength. I’ve met him. I’ve looked him in the eye,” Pence added. “The pathway to peace there is to give the Ukrainian military what they need to drive the Russian army back.”

Pence tacitly criticized DeSantis, who has drawn backlash for suggesting that protecting Ukraine from Russian aggression is a “territorial dispute” and not a vital American interest. “It’s not a territorial dispute,” Pence, who recently visited Ukraine, countered without directly naming the Florida governor. “I stood in a small village called Bucha, where 500 bodies were collected for a mass grave of men, women and children that were gunned down by the Russian military. I mean, Vladimir Putin is not a genius. He’s a war criminal.”

The former vice president argued that President Joe Biden has “done a terrible job explaining what our national interest is” in Ukraine, “which is not some amorphous goal about defending democracy,” he said. “There are people that speak about supporting the Ukrainians’ fight against Russia as being a pathway to World War III,” he said. “I would maintain to you that giving Ukraine what they need to repel the Russian invasion is how we prevent the second half of the 21st century from looking like the first half of the 20th century.”

“I want people to understand that I believe America is the leader of the free world and that should I have the great privilege of serving in the Oval Office that we’ll lead with American strength,” Pence said. “I think that it’s in our interest to do so, to stand with our allies, to stand up to our enemies.”

Pence also took issue with what he described as Biden’s “shocking” and “totally unacceptable” delay in extending an invitation for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to meet in the U.S., shortly before the White House announced on Monday that it had asked for a meeting. 

“It’s part of a pattern,” Pence said of the delay. “I remember back in the early days of the Obama-Biden administration, I was a member of Congress, and almost a year had gone by before they’d even welcomed the ambassador of Israel to come and come into the White House to present credentials. This kind of lukewarm support for our most cherished ally is totally unacceptable.”

More broadly, Pence said that Biden had “dropped the ball in the Middle East that was handed to him in the aftermath of the Abraham Accords,” which were brokered by the Trump administration. 

“We demonstrated when you stand unambiguously with Israel, peace becomes more possible, not less possible,” he said, referring to the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognize the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, among other things. “Our administration stood strong with Israel and we made great advances for peace. This administration has been signaling weakness and ambiguity, and peace is farther out of reach today than before our administration took office.”

“This kind of lukewarm support for our most cherished ally is totally unacceptable,” Pence said. “And when I’m president of the United States, if the world knows nothing else, the world will know this: America stands with Israel.”

It remains to be seen if Pence will gain traction in a crowded race, as his underwhelming second-quarter fundraising numbers have raised questions over his viability. Pence, however, said he was “very pleased” with the $1.2 million he had pulled in for his presidential campaign, noting that between his campaign committee and his super PAC he had raised “the better part of $4 million.”

“I’m very happy and humbled by that, but we’re working around the clock to build the base of support that we’ll need,” he said, acknowledging that he had not yet “hit the threshold of the 40,000 donors necessary” to qualify for the August presidential debate.
Still, he insisted that Republican voters will ultimately be receptive to his traditionally conservative positions. “People identify us with a brand of unapologetic conservative leadership that, I think, has opened a way for us to serve our country one more time.”

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