Essential Politics: In dueling trips to Eastern Europe, Harris and Pence spotlight their aspirations

Vice President Kamala Harris shakes hands with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis
Vice President Kamala Harris shakes hands with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis during her three-day trip to Eastern Europe last week. Her predecessor, Mike Pence, was also in the region.
(Alexandru Dobre / Associated Press)
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Just as Vice President Kamala Harris was meeting with Polish leaders and refugees in Warsaw on Thursday, her predecessor, former Vice President Mike Pence, was at the Ukraine-Poland border on a humanitarian mission.

Good morning and welcome to Essential Politics: Kamala Harris edition. Today, I’ll discuss what brought the two vice presidents within 250 miles of one another near a war zone and what their trips say about their political aspirations.

The invasion’s political ripple

Harris was in Poland and Romania, a hastily arranged trip aimed at reassuring newer and more vulnerable members of NATO bordering Ukraine. The former Soviet satellites are at the greatest risk if Russia’s invasion escalates. They are also absorbing a large share of about 3 million refugees in what has quickly become a crisis.

President Biden is likely to go to Poland next week. But Harris, so far, is the highest ranking American to visit the region since war broke out. Her presence, more than her actions, was an important symbolic gesture of support.

Not far away was Pence. The timing of his visit was purely coincidental, said Marc Short, who served as Pence’s chief of staff. Pence visited Ukraine following a three-day visit to Israel with Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian aid group run by Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, Short said.

A senior administration official traveling with Harris said that the two teams had not been in touch with each other, despite their proximity.


Short said “there was awareness” in the Biden administration that Pence would be at the border for a day, but he would not provide details about who was informed and what they were told. A U.S. official said he was not aware of any contact from Pence’s team with the administration before his travel commenced.

Still, the dueling visits were a reminder that both Pence and Harris see themselves as potential future presidents.

And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has altered both of their courses. This is especially true of Pence, who is inching away from former President Donald Trump after four years of unquestioned fealty.

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Boxed in by their presidents

Pence separated himself from Trump by refusing to help him overturn the 2020 election, which made Pence a target of the Jan. 6 mob. Even so, Pence has teetered on how far to venture from Trump’s side, given Trump’s hold on the party and his penchant for demolishing critics. It’s not like Trump and the party he has built is known for nuance, and the former president has not cut any slack to Pence, even if the former vice president’s life was arguably in jeopardy on Jan. 6.

Earlier this month, Pence took another step away from Trump, criticizing Putin “apologists” in his party at a closed GOP event. Short insists that Pence was not directing that jab at Trump, whose longtime praise of Putin includes calling him “savvy” and “genius” during the run-up to the Ukraine invasion.

Umm, sure.

Pence is clearly banking on the Republican Party bending back toward its traditional skepticism of Russia and Putin as the brutal invasion of Ukraine worsens. That looks like an easy bet, despite Trump’s Teflon quality with Republicans. A Wall Street Journal poll released Friday showed just 4% of voters held a favorable view of Putin.


Pence’s political nonprofit recently announced a $10-million media campaign aimed at urging American energy independence in the face of Russian aggression, another mainstream Republican position.

The Ukraine trip adds a visual to those positions for Pence.

But Pence has only ventured so far from Trump. For example, Pence has not faltered from his public defense of Trump against his first impeachment, in 2019, after Trump held up military aid to Ukraine while urging President Volodymyr Zelensky to damage Biden politically.

The effort to calibrate his criticism of Trump, even as it pertains to Ukraine, shows how difficult his path is to navigate.

Harris and Pence are nothing alike in policy or style.

But like Pence, Harris’ aspirations are framed by her relationship with a unique president. In her case, the burden comes from serving with Biden, who at 79 is the oldest American to hold the top job. Harris’ role as a potential successor, and her status as a Black and South Asian woman, have made her the subject of unusual expectation and scrutiny.

I wrote over the weekend about how Harris’ last three trips to Europe suggest a new role for her after a rocky first year on the job. Harris has had a hard time showing results in her first major foreign assignment, curbing Central American migration by addressing the root poverty, corruption and violence in the region.

Foreign policy experts said Harris did what she needed to do in Poland and Romania, mostly by showing up. She provided high-level reassurance to a pair of countries bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis while also facing the very real threat of a Russian invasion.

But she did not escape without criticism. In Warsaw, she was ridiculed for laughing awkwardly during a joint press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda after reporters asked her a serious question about refugees.

I was in the room and did not think she was laughing at the refugees themselves. The questions were tough, and she and Duda were deferring to each other over who should answer. But the laughing, even if not meant to undermine the serious tone, detracted from it.


The longer-term problem for Harris is the sense that she is being carefully scripted and is either not allowed or not willing to move beyond talking points.

At the Munich Security Conference last month, she answered questions from the reporters traveling with her for 16 minutes in lieu of a longer, more formal press conference.

She held two formal press conferences in Poland and Romania, but hewed close to her talking points. She made news in response to one question, calling for a war crimes investigation into a Russian attack on a Ukrainian hospital.

But hours after Harris made the case, an administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity downplayed her remarks.

“Yes, she was passionate about it,” the official said. “But what she said is something that we in the administration have been saying for some time, which is just the fact that deliberate targeting of civilians would be defined as a war crime, and that should be looked into.”

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The view from Washington

— In the first virtual presentation by a foreign leader to Congress, Zelensky made an emotional appeal to the U.S. on Wednesday for an urgent round of financial support and more weaponry to help his country stave off the invasion by Russia, writes Jennifer Haberkorn.

— The evidence in the Jan. 6 investigations is overwhelming — literally, writes Sarah D. Wire. The quantity of social media messages, videos and other documents rivals what the Hubble telescope has amassed in its three-decade orbit, and sorting through it all has ground some criminal cases to a halt.

— Biden told House Democrats on Friday that the party needs to better communicate its accomplishments to the American people, warning that Republican majorities in the next Congress would leave him with nothing but a veto pen, Nolan D. McCaskill reports.

— Also from McCaskill: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell openly acknowledges Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is qualified to sit on the Supreme Court, but he’s directing criticism at liberal activists championing her cause. The messaging highlights the difficulty his party is facing as it seeks to muster opposition to Biden’s historic nomination of Jackson, who would be the first Black woman on the nation’s highest court.

— Biden’s $1.9-trillion American Rescue Plan was stuffed with rental assistance, tax rebates, direct payments and money to distribute the COVID-19 vaccines that had just become available. A year later, its legacy is mixed.

— A new survey by the Brennan Center for Justice found 1 in 6 election officials nationwide said they have been threatened, part of a dramatic rise in tensions spurred by Trump’s baseless efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Even more troubling: some of those officials are quitting, writes columnist Mark Z. Barabak.

The view from California

Karen Bass is running for L.A. mayor as a progressive. But some L.A. leftists are frustrated with her positions on homelessness and crime, and even some of Bass’ longtime supporters have begun warning publicly that her more moderate stances put her at risk of dampening enthusiasm among the city’s progressive voters, write Julia Wick and David Zahniser.

— Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation Monday that will rescue UC Berkeley from a court-ordered enrollment freeze over housing issues and allow the university to resume plans to enroll more than 5,000 California first-year students, Colleen Shalby reports.

— From Phil Willon: Newsom plans to make good on his recent promise to put money “back in the pockets” of Californians amid high gas prices remain murky. Suspending or lowering the state’s highest-in-the-nation gas tax now appears less and less likely.

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