BRUSSELS — Vice President Mike Pence said Monday that he "fully supported" Michael Flynn's ouster last week as national security adviser, setting himself firmly against the former general, who told untruths about his contacts with Russian officials.
"I was disappointed to learn that the facts that have been conveyed to me by Gen. Flynn were inaccurate," Pence told reporters during a visit to NATO headquarters in his first public comments about a scandal that has rocked the young Trump administration.
Pence pushed for Flynn's ouster after learning from the Washington Post that the national security adviser had been captured on tape speaking to Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergei Kislyak on the topic of sanctions. The conversation happened the day the Obama administration announced measures against Russia to retaliate for what U.S. intelligence services say was the Kremlin's efforts to influence November's presidential election. Flynn told Pence that he had not spoken about sanctions with Kislyak, an assertion Pence went on to repeat on television.
Pence's remarks came as he assured nervous European leaders Monday that the Trump administration is committed to "cooperation and partnership" with the European Union, trying to quiet fears that the White House wants to break up the 28-nation bloc.
Pence's reassurance was a striking departure from some of President Trump's comments about Europe, which have painted the European Union in dark terms. Trump called Brussels "a hellhole" and praised Britain's decision to leave the European Union. But in meetings with top EU officials, Pence offered a far more conventional vision of relations with the bloc.
"It is my privilege on behalf of President Trump to express the strong commitment of the United States to continued cooperation and partnership with the European Union," Pence said after meeting European Council President Donald Tusk, who represents the leaders of the 28 EU nations in Brussels. "The United States' commitment to the European Union is steadfast and enduring."
He said he looks forward to increased coordination on dealing with economic matters and fighting terrorism. And he urged peace efforts in Ukraine, promising to push Russia hard.
"We are separated by an ocean, but we are joined by a common heritage and a common commitment to freedom, to democracy and to the rule of law," Pence said.
European fears of Trump's attitude toward the European Union spiked when Trump said shortly before his inauguration that he was indifferent to the fate of the bloc and that he expected that more countries would split from it in the coming years.
Worries spiked even further after a business professor, Ted Malloch, said that he was in the running for the ambassadorship to the European Union. Malloch believes in breaking up the union, and EU officials took the highly unusual step of ordering a review to outline how they might reject an ambassador, even though there has been no confirmation from the State Department or the White House that Malloch is a candidate.
And Trump termed NATO "obsolete," sending shivers through Eastern Europe, which relies on U.S. security guarantees to keep it safe from Russia.
Pence and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis were deployed to Europe last week to try to calm European fears about a shift in U.S. foreign policy attitudes that have otherwise remained constant since 1945. Both leaders pushed hard for increased European defense spending in meetings at the Munich Security Conference, and Mattis delivered a stern message to NATO defense ministers in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday.
But in public and in private, European leaders don't know how much to trust Mattis and Pence's message, which came at the same time that Trump called the news media an "enemy of the people" and appeared to invent a terrorist attack in Sweden.
Tusk said that he was satisfied with the meeting.
"Too much has happened over the past month in your country, and in the EU. Too many new and sometimes surprising opinions have been voiced over this time about our relations, and our common security, for us to pretend that everything is as it used to be," he said.
"The world would be a decidedly worse place if Europe were not united," Tusk said. "It is in the interest of us all to prevent the disintegration of the West."