There is one phrase Vice President Mike Pence is almost guaranteed to deliver on his six-day trip to Latin America that begins Sunday: "The president of the United States of America, President Donald Trump, sent me here with a simple message." Pence delivers a variation on that line almost everywhere he goes from the middle of America to Asia and beyond.
Pence's trip comes less than two weeks after he returned from Eastern Europe where he sought to reassure allies about the U.S. commitment to stand against Russian aggression in the region. Pence and second lady Karen Pence will visit four American allies in Central and South America: Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Panama.
The trip starts in Colombia, which shares a border with Venezuela, a country in the midst of political upheaval as President Nicolás Maduro cracks down on dissent and tries to rewrite the country's constitution to consolidate his power. The Trump administration has instituted new sanctions against Venezuela and Maduro and on Friday President Trump said he wouldn't rule out a military option.
"Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering and they're dying," Trump said from his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. "We have many options for Venezuela including a possible military option if necessary."
White House aides say the deteriorating situation in Venezuela will be on the agenda with each stop, even as Pence plans to also discuss trade, anti-corruption efforts and, in the case of Colombia, its peace process.
"What the situation in Venezuela demonstrates is the divide between the future of Latin America and the past of Latin America," said a White House official who spoke on background. "And that will be a theme that will be highlighted throughout the trip — is that Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Panama, they represent the future, the future of freedom, opportunity, prosperity, trade growth. Whereas Venezuela is going into the past of dictatorship, oppression."
A major aim of the trip, the official said, is to highlight the progress these countries have made in recent years and to strengthen bilateral relationships.
Pence is expected to hold at least one press conference on the trip and there are many topics that could arise. In addition to regional issues, Pence is likely to be asked about his own political ambitions and the rising tensions between the U.S. and North Korea.
Pence has carefully cultivated his image as a loyal lieutenant to the president, effusively praising Trump at almost every turn and making sure to tell world leaders when he's visiting that he's doing so on behalf of the president. But these trips also burnish Pence's own credentials at a time when he has had to bat down stories about his own behind-the-scenes efforts to fortify his political operation ahead of a possible future presidential run.
After the New York Times published a story outlining some of Pence's political moves, including the unusual step of setting up his own political action committee to raise campaign cash, Pence issued a statement calling it "disgraceful" and "offensive."
"The allegations in this article are categorically false and represent just the latest attempt by the media to divide this Administration," the Pence statement said. "Whatever fake news may come our way, my entire team will continue to focus all our efforts to advance the President's agenda and see him re-elected in 2020. Any suggestion otherwise is both laughable and absurd."
And just when it seemed to have faded from the news, President Trump was asked during a Q & A with reporters Friday afternoon whether he thought Vice President Pence would be a candidate for president in 2020.
"I don't think so. No. No, I don't think so at all," Trump said. "He's a good guy. He's just — as you know, he's left for Colombia and various other places. He's been terrific. He's been a great ally of mine and a great friend of mine."
At the time of the president's remarks, Pence was still in the United States.