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[WASHINGTON] Vice President Mike Pence will bear the responsibility of assuring Europe this weekend that the US is a reliable ally despite the Trump administration's "America First" strategy of a hard line on Nato contributions and trade relations.
His challenges in making the case at meetings of leaders in Munich and Brussels have been compounded by the tumultuous opening of Donald Trump's presidency: a ban on travel to the US from seven predominantly Muslim countries that riled much of the European public, and the resignation of Mr Trump's national security adviser over contacts with officials of a Russian regime many of them consider a rising threat.
Mr Pence's own credibility was damaged on the eve of his trip by the revelation that the White House kept him in the dark about Michael Flynn's Russia contacts for two weeks - causing some to question his sway within the Mr Trump administration. As a deputy to a president who has displayed a knack for making foreign policy from his Twitter account, Mr Pence faces some skepticism.
"Europe will not just take one speech and one meeting as the be-all and end-all," said Wendy Sherman, a former undersecretary of State for political affairs during the Obama administration. "There are too many questions about the policy of this administration: Who's in charge, who knows the truth of what's going on, and what is the fundamental relationship between the Trump administration and Russia?"
In his first foray on the world stage since taking office, Mr Pence will use an address to the Munich Security Conference on Saturday to vouch for Mr Trump's commitment to the trans-Atlantic partnership and the need to confront a resurgent Russia, an administration official said. He then travels to Brussels to meet with European Union leaders.
At the same time, he also will repeat demands that European allies contribute more to the alliance. At a Nato gathering in Brussels, Defense Secretary James Mattis said Wednesday that the US is prepared to scale back its pledge to defend Europe unless ally nations increase military spending and do so quickly.
Questions about the new administration's posture mounted this week after media outlets reported that the FBI is probing contacts between Russian officials and Mr Trump campaign aides and associates in the months leading up to the November 2016 election. There are multiple investigations to determine the full extent of the contacts, according to four national security officials with knowledge of the matter.
Mr Pence will have several opportunities to address the concerns of allies during his visit, which is stacked with meetings with Europe's top leaders. During the three-day trip, the vice president will meet one-on-one with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko, EU President Donald Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, among others.
In those private meetings, Mr Pence is likely to face leaders seeking clarity on Mr Trump's positions, as the president has rocked European officials with incendiary and occasionally conflicting statements.
In an interview published in two European newspapers Jan. 15, Mr Trump slammed the EU by branding it a vehicle for German domination, predicted other countries would follow the UK in leaving the bloc, and called Nato "obsolete." He has made several overtures to Russia, calling President Vladimir Putin "very smart" and floating the idea of easing sanctions imposed on the country for its incursions into Ukraine.
European leaders have been vocal in questioning whether the US will stand by its support of Nato in the face of aggression by Russia.
Mr Pence's public explanations of the thinking on Russia have been undermined by Mr Trump in the past, including after an Oct 4 vice presidential debate, when Mr Pence called for US military action to stop Russia-backed attacks on civilians in Aleppo, Syria.
Asked about those comments during an Oct 9 presidential debate, Mr Trump undercut Mr Pence: "He and I haven't spoken, and I disagree," he said. "I disagree." The administration's relationship with Russia continues to stir controversy, with near-daily revelations and intelligence leaks casting doubt on Mr Trump's repeated claims that "I have nothing to do with Russia."
At a surprise news conference on Thursday, Mr Trump said that he didn't believe any of his associates had been involved with Russia during the campaign and that the stories linking him to the Kremlin are "a ruse" and "fake news". Mr Pence became ensnared in the controversy after he appeared on CBS's "Face the Nation" on Jan 15 and said Mr Flynn hadn't discussed sanctions in his calls with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak after the November election. He based his claims on a conversation he had with Mr Flynn.
The Washington Post, citing nine unnamed current and former officials, reported Feb 9 that Mr Flynn had in fact discussed sanctions during those calls, including a conversation that came shortly after then-President Barack Obama imposed fresh penalties on Russian officials for interference in the US presidential election campaign.
While Mr Trump was briefed on the discrepancy in Flynn's statements in mid-January, Mr Pence's spokesman, Marc Lotter, said the vice president learned about it from media reports on Feb 9. Asked by a reporter why he didn't inform Mr Pence, Mr Trump said Thursday he didn't think Mr Flynn's discussion of sanctions with Mr Kislyak was inappropriate.
Several European countries have elections this year, and officials have voiced concern about Russian attempts to boost far-right candidates in an attempt to destabilise the European Union. Several of those candidates have sought to link themselves to Mr Trump, who has praised the Brexit vote and formed a bond with former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage.
"The Europeans have an increasing concern about their own elections and the prospects of Russian interference," said Fran Burwell, distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council's Future Europe Initiative in Washington. "When they think about Flynn talking to the Russians, they have that in the back of their minds." Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign affairs chief, said last week after meeting US officials in Washington that keeping multilateral sanctions on Russia, maintaining the Iran nuclear deal and dealing with the refugee crisis are areas where the EU will seek to work with the White House.
Reassurances from Mr Pence will be a first step, but Europe's leaders will want to see Mr Trump's actions back up any positive remarks they hear from the vice president, said Ms Sherman, now a senior counselor at the advisory firm Albright Stonebridge Group in Washington.
"Europe will be looking for the right signals, the right speeches, the right private reassurances," she said. "But more importantly, they'll be looking for constancy and for affirmation and action by the president of the United States."