Donald Trump and Mike Pence: Tensions at the top

The US president’s relationship with his VP looks strained, and the Doonbeg stay hasn’t helped

The churn of personnel at the highest levels of the White House resumed this week as Donald Trump parted ways with his third national security adviser. The mustachioed foreign policy hawk John Bolton was relieved of his duties on Twitter by the president, though he later disputed the president's characterisation of events, arguing that he had resigned first.

Few people were sorry to see Bolton go. The 70-year-old national security official was a key figure in George W Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. Prior to his surprise appointment to the Trump inner circle he last year advocated attacking North Korea. As president Trump caustically put it, as he defended his decision in the Oval Office this week, “John is known as a tough guy. He’s so tough, he got us into Iraq”.

But while the latest White House infighting has left yet another vacancy, Trump’s relationship with another senior figure in his administration has also been the subject of speculation.

Vice-president Mike Pence has skilfully remained above the fray during the tumultuous Trump presidency.


Pence has been a quiet but loyal presence by the president's side, often sitting smiling beside Trump in the background of photos. But in recent months there have been signs that the relationship may be under strain

A surprise pick by Trump when he named him as running-mate in July 2016, the choice of the evangelical Republican governor of Indiana was widely seen as an attempt by the New York businessman to appeal to the Christian conservative base.

Since Donald Trump assumed office in January 2017, Pence has been a quiet but loyal presence by the president’s side, often pictured sitting smiling beside the president in the background of photos.

But in recent months there have been signs that the relationship may be under strain.

Rumours that Trump was considering picking a different running mate in next year’s presidential election surfaced this summer. Former UN ambassador Nikki Haley cryptically referred to “false rumours” about Pence in a tweet, adding to speculation that she is vying to replace Pence on the Trump ticket next year.

The vice-president, in response, said that he was “looking forward to running with this president and winning in 2020”.

Tensions appeared to deepen following this month’s visit by Pence to Ireland.

Plans for the vice-president, a proud Irish-American, to visit the country had been in the pipeline throughout the summer, with Pence expected to visit Iceland and Britain first. A last-minute schedule change meant that Ireland was his first stop, with the vice president spending two nights in Doonbeg, and shuttling back and forth to Dublin.

While US journalists covering the vice-president’s overseas visits usually complain about the pedestrian nature of the trips, which rarely make news, this time, Pence’s trip hit the headlines.

In Dublin, the vice-president's unexpected intervention in the Brexit debate in which he spoke of UK sovereignty and the need for the EU and Ireland to "negotiate in good faith" occupied minds. But back in the US it was his decision to stay in his boss's Doonbeg hotel that dominated coverage.

Comments by his chief of staff to reporters travelling with the vice-president between Shannon and Dublin on Air Force Two that the president had suggested that Pence stay at his Doonbeg hotel sparked an outcry.

Within 24 hours the vice-president’s office had issued a statement clarifying that it was “solely a decision by the Office of the Vice President,” adding that “at no time did the president direct our office to stay at his Doonbeg resort and any reporting to the contrary is false”.

The controversy continued this week, with president Trump tweeting on Monday that he “had nothing to do with the decision of our great Mike Pence to stay overnight at one of the Trump-owned resorts in Doonbeg, Ireland”.

The House Oversight Committee has opened investigations into whether the president benefited from the vice-president's decision to stay in Doonbeg

His problems deepened further when Politico reported that flight crews on US military planes have stayed on several occasions at Trump’s resort in Turnberry, Scotland, en route to the Middle East and elsewhere. The crew was ferried to and from Prestwick airport, which has seen an increase in US military planes refuelling there over the past few years according to reports.

Trump hit back. “I know nothing about an Air Force plane landing at an airport (which I do not own and have nothing to do with) near Turnberry Resort (which I do own) in Scotland, and filling up with fuel, with the crew staying overnight at Turnberry (they have good taste!). NOTHING TO DO WITH ME,” he wrote.

But the controversy shows no sign of abating. The US air force announced it is opening a review into its layover policy following the reports. Democrats have also escalated the matter. The House Oversight Committee has opened investigations into whether the president benefited from the vice-president’s decision to stay in Doonbeg.

Pence's entourage was about 300-strong, and figures this week showed that ground transportation costs totalled $600,000. A letter sent to Pence by the ranking member of the Senate committee on homeland security and government affairs outlines a "conflict of interest … which creates the risk that taxpayers' funds are being used to directly profit the President."

The House Oversight Committee has also demanded information from the department of defense about the reported increase in military planes landing at the Scottish airport.

The controversy over Pence’s stay in Ireland comes at a sensitive time for the president.

Trump was already under pressure for suggesting at the G7 summit in Biarritz last month that his Miami golf resort should be the venue for next year’s G7 gathering, which will take place in the US.

Democrats have long argued that the president could be in breach of the emoluments clause in the US constitution which prohibits presidents from accepting any “present, emolument, office or title” from a foreign state or king while in office.

The watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) cites more than 2,300 instances of conflicts of interest by the president due to his business interests. It states that the president has visited his properties 362 times at taxpayer expense during his administration.

Trump’s hotels and golf courses have faced particular scrutiny. Lawsuits were brought by the attorney generals of Maryland and the District of Columbia claiming that Trump had profited from foreign dignitaries staying in his hotel in downtown DC, which is located just blocks from the White House.

While a court in Virginia ruled in Trump’s favour this summer, the decision may be appealed, and other challenges are making their way through the courts.

The president is also under pressure to disclose his tax returns from key congressional committees, which have sought access to his financial accounts amid concerns about potential conflicts of interest by the president.

Pence is likely to continue his efforts to gratify the president. This week he posted a distinctly Trumpian tweet in which he echoed his boss's views on 'fake news', complete with capitalisation and exclamation marks

Questions also surround the impact of the Trump presidency on the business interest of the president's family, including his daughter Ivanka Trump. While the 37-year-old business owner has temporarily stepped back from her clothing business, the decision last year by Chinese authorities to approve trademarks for her fashion brands raised eyebrows.

As Democrats return to Washington this month and prepare to resume their oversight of the president’s financial and ethical affairs, with many still calling for impeachment, the controversy over the use of the president’s properties in Ireland and Scotland for official business is unlikely to go away.

What is clear, however, is that Pence is likely to continue his efforts to gratify the president. This week the vice-president posted an uncharacteristic but distinctly Trumpian tweet in which he echoed his boss’s views on “fake news”, complete with capitalisation and exclamation marks.

Posting a link to president Trump’s tweet about his decision to invite the Taliban to Camp David and reports that the vice-president had opposed the plan, Pence tweeted: “That’s Absolutely Right Mr. President. More Fake News! The Dishonest Media never contacted our office before running with this story and if they had, we would have told them I FULLY support your decision.”

For senior figures within the Trump administration including Pence, this week’s abrupt departure of Bolton, is a salutary reminder that loyalty is prized by Trump above all else in the White House.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent