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Mike Pence brazenly contradicted Trump on Russia and Syria

GOP Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Gives Economic Policy Address In Detroit (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Late in Tuesday’s vice presidential debate, Democrat Tim Kaine accused Republican Mike Pence of praising Russian President Vladimir Putin as a strong leader. Pence denied it.

KAINE: Gov. Pence said, inarguably, Vladimir Putin is a better leader than President Obama.

PENCE: That is absolutely inaccurate.

Turns out, though, it was entirely accurate. In a September 8 CNN appearance, Pence said that Putin was a stronger leader than Obama — in nearly the exact language Kaine said he used.

"I think it's inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in his country,” Pence said at the time.

Pence was plainly disingenuous Tuesday when it came to defending his own past statements about Putin. He was pretending to be far more aggressive on Russia than he actually had been.

That was Pence’s handling of Russia — the focal point of the foreign policy portion of the debate — in a nutshell. The Indiana governor repeatedly jabbed Putin, deriding him as a “small and bullying” man who had invaded two neighbors and helped prop up Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Pence argued that a Trump administration would be harder on Putin than a Clinton one.

The problem is that Trump himself has spent months saying the exact opposite. Trump has praised Putin as a strong and a popular leader, hinted he’d be willing to lift the sanctions the US slapped on Moscow after its annexation of Crimea, and said the US wouldn't necessarily defend NATO members in Eastern Europe from a Russian invasion.

Pence, in other words, wasn't debating Kaine’s positions on Russia. He was debating Trump’s.

Pence wants to challenge Putin. Trump, not so much.

Pence’s core argument about Russia in the debate was simple: Clinton was a key member of an Obama administration that was too weak toward Putin. A Trump administration, by contrast, wouldn't be afraid to stand up to the man Pence derisively referred to as a bully.

“After the Russian reset, the Russians invaded Ukraine and took over Crimea. The small and bullying leader of Russia is now dictating terms to the United States,” Pence said. “When Donald Trump's president, we are not going to have the kind of posture in the world that has Russia invading Crimea and Ukraine … We will go back to the days of peace through strength.”

If only Donald Trump agreed. Trump has instead repeatedly expressed a desire to cooperate with Russia and “make a deal” with Putin, rather than treat him as an enemy.

“I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Putin,” Trump said in a September candidate forum. “And I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Russia.”

Moreover, Trump has repeatedly — and I’m talking for years — praised Putin personally as a strong leader and admirable man.

Just a month after announcing his candidacy, in July 2015, he said “I think I’d get along very well with Vladimir Putin.” In September 2015, he said “in terms of leadership, [Putin’s] getting an ‘A.’” In December, he called Putin “highly respected within his own country and beyond.”

Trump just doesn’t share Pence’s negative assessment of Putin’s foreign policy or Pence’s stated desire to confront it. Pence is trying to paint a Trump administration as a kind of generic Republican one that shares the party’s traditionally hostile approach to Moscow. But that isn’t the case. Pence was selling the public on a ticket that doesn’t exist.

Pence’s answer on Syria and Russia flatly contradicted Trump

You can see the gap between Pence and Trump particularly clearly in the latter’s discussion of on Syria.

Moderator Elaine Quijano pressed Pence on Russian support for Assad’s brutal assault on the embattled city of Aleppo and asked what a Trump administration would do to stop the bloodshed. Pence said Trump would be prepared to carry out air strikes against Assad if Russia didn’t stop supporting the Aleppo campaign.

“If Russia continues to be involved in this barbaric attack on civilians in Aleppo, the US needs to be prepared to strike military targets of the Assad regime to prevent them from [taking part in] this humanitarian crisis taking place in Aleppo,” Pence said.

Funnily enough, Trump has been asked nearly the exact same question. In May, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough asked specifically whether Trump would consider using military force against the Assad regime. The answer? A flat no.

"I would have stayed out of Syria and wouldn't have fought so much for Assad, against Assad, because I thought that was a whole thing. [America has] bigger problems than Assad,” Trump said.

Just to be crystal clear, Scarborough asked Trump if he “wouldn't go into Syria.” Trump’s response? “Right.”

That is consistent with Trump’s broader worldview, which is predicated on working with fellow strongmen the world over. And it's totally inconsistent with the worldview Trump’s own running mate laid out Tuesday night.

Pence used the debate to take a conventional GOP foreign policy position and cast it as Trump’s. He may be trying to reassure jittery Republican voters unnerved by their standard bearer’s warm words about Russia. He may be using language that pollsters suggest Americans want to hear. Or Pence may be stating what he actually believes, and skipping right over the fact that the president, not the VP, is the one who calls the shots.

Either way, there’s one big takeaway from Tuesday night’s debate on foreign policy: Mike Pence’s real opponent on the stage was his own party’s presidential nominee.