Former Vice President Mike Pence, weighing a White House run next year, delivered a powerful call for America’s continued aid to Ukraine on Wednesday, saying the intervention is critical for national and global security.
He blamed President Biden for weakening the nation’s stature on the world stage, but Pence’s approach to the conflict taking place in Eastern Europe aligns with the Democratic administration’s foreign policy and puts him at odds with his two most prominent potential rivals in a GOP presidential nomination race, including his old boss, former President Trump.
“Vladimir Putin is responsible for the unprovoked invasion of the Ukraine and Vladimir Putin and Russia need to be held accountable,” Pence told more than 200 people at a luncheon in a replica of the White House’s East Room at the Richard Nixon Library & Museum in Yorba Linda.
“The war in Ukraine is not our war, but freedom is our fight,” Pence said. “And I believe we must continue to give the Ukrainian military the means to repel the Russian invasion and reclaim their sovereignty. It is in the interest of freedom — theirs and ours. We must make it clear that we will not tolerate naked aggression.”
Trump, who has announced a 2024 campaign to win back the White House, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to launch a presidential bid, have both argued that American involvement in Ukraine is not in the nation’s interest and criticized the amount of aid the United States has provided. After criticism from Republicans, DeSantis in late March walked back his dismissal of the Russian invasion as a “territorial dispute.”
Pence didn’t mention the two men’s positions on the conflict, but the issue is likely to feature prominently in the 2024 election.
The former Indiana governor is the latest Republican considering a 2024 presidential bid to visit California in recent weeks. His full schedule is unknown, but Pence and his wife were spotted on a commercial flight landing in Fresno on Saturday, according to Central Valley television stations.
In addition to the speech at the Nixon Library — where members of the public paid $135 each to attend the luncheon speech and receive an autographed copy of Pence’s memoir — he also spoke at a New Majority gathering of about 150 GOP business leaders and donors Monday evening in Newport Beach, as well as at a fundraiser the following night at an Anaheim Hills estate supporting college conservatives running for student government on California campuses.
Other GOP candidates running for president or weighing a White House bid who recently visited California include DeSantis, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Given the large number of wealthy supporters of both parties who live here, candidates have long swooped into the state to raise money and court influential Republicans.
But California may have an elevated role in next year’s presidential race because its 2024 primary is taking place relatively early — in March. Given that it has the largest number of delegates of any state in the nation, California’s Republican voters could have a substantial voice in deciding their party’s nominee.
In early polls of the state’s GOP voters, Pence is far behind the double-digit support for DeSantis and Trump. In February, Pence had the support of 3%; six months earlier, he had more than twice as much in surveys by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies poll co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times.
Among all the Republicans pondering a run against Trump, Pence is in a singular spot because of his complicated relationship with his former running mate, which precedes their election in 2016.
While Pence shored up Trump’s support among evangelical and other socially conservative voters in that campaign, he also struggled with Trump’s behavior, notably after the “Access Hollywood” recording of the real estate mogul turned reality television star making crass statements about women emerged shortly before the election.
Their relationship was tumultuous, peaking when Trump tried to pressure Pence to contest the certification of the 2020 election results. Pence, acting as the president of Senate, refused and then was a target of Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrectionists who called for the then-vice president to be hanged.
“His reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol that day,” Pence said in a March speech. “I know history will hold Donald Trump accountable.”
Trump did nothing publicly to attempt to protect the vice president or his family from physical harm, the nadir of their relationship. In the months since, Pence has vacillated between defending his former running mate, speaking out against about Trump’s actions and opposing the former president by proxy in intra-party races.
This has led to challenges with some grass-roots Republicans, such as getting booed Friday when he took the stage at a National Rifle Assn. convention in his home state.
Pence did not mention these issues on Wednesday at the Nixon library, where he gave an address at an energy policy conference.
Instead, he castigated Democratic efforts to fight climate change and lauded the Trump administration’s energy policies, such as withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement that was signed during the Obama administration, approving the Keystone pipeline and opening up part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling.
“We recognize the truth that America has virtually a limitless supply of energy right under our feet. We recognize that those resources belong not to government, but to the American people,” Pence said. “We knew that if we unleashed American energy we would create millions of good-paying jobs, reclaim American sovereignty over our God-given resources, reclaim our economic strength from foreign suppliers and strengthen our position as leading the free world. And that’s exactly what we did.”