DES MOINES, Iowa—Former Vice President Mike Pence strongly advocated for additional military aid to Ukraine despite challenges from Tucker Carlson about religious freedom under the Ukrainian government and pressing domestic problems facing the United States.
“Anybody that says that we can’t be the leader of the free world and solve our problems at home has a pretty small view of the greatest nation on earth,” Mr. Pence said.
“We can do both. And as President United States, we will secure our border; we will support our military; we will revive our economy, and stand by our values. And we will also lead the world for freedom under my administration. I promise you.”
The remarks came after a tense exchange between Mr. Pence and Mr. Carlson on July 14 at the Family Leadership Summit, an event hosted by a conservative parental training organization.
Mr. Carlson served as a guest interviewer, grilling six of the 14 Republican presidential candidates in 15-minute segments.
Also interviewed at the daylong event were Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former U.N. Ambassador and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Mr. Carlson noted reports of religious persecution in Ukraine and asked if Mr. Pence had raised the issue with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a recent visit to the country.
“I raised it with the leader of the Orthodox Church and asked him about concerns about religious liberty,” Mr. Pence said.
“He assured me that the Zelenskyy government of Ukraine was respecting religious liberty, even while recognizing that they were very small elements of the Russian Orthodox Church that were being utilized for the purpose of advancing the Russian cause in Ukraine, and that they were taking steps to hold them to account.”
Mr. Zelenskyy issued a decree in December to introduce legislation prohibiting religious organizations that are “affiliated with centers of influence in the Russian Federation” to operate in Ukraine, according to the U.S. State Department.
The Security Service of Ukraine also searched a number of sites associated with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, citing the church’s collaboration with the Russians. Jehovah’s Witnesses have reported assaults on their members that have not been prosecuted, according to the State Department.
Mr. Carlson pressed the point, citing the alleged arrest of priests who disagreed with the government’s view. “I sincerely wonder how a Christian leader could support the rest of Christians for having different views,” he said.
When Mr. Pence repeated that he had raised the issue and received assurances that the Ukrainian government was not engaged in religious persecution, Mr. Carlson continued to argue the point.
“The problem is that you don’t accept my answer,” Mr. Pence said.
“I just told you that I asked the religious leader in Kyiv if it was happening. You asked me if I raised the issue, and I did. I also raised it with the Ukrainians. And I was told that there are religious leaders who have been working with the Russian military that is murdering people by the thousands,” he said.
Mr. Pence added that, as president, he would not tolerate religious persecution in any nation supported by the United States.
In his view, the real threat in Europe is the aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which would certainly lead to an incursion into a NATO country if not stopped in Ukraine.
Help at Home vs. Abroad
As Mr. Pence continued to press his case for supporting Ukraine, Mr. Carlson questioned the priority of sending arms overseas while the United States faces difficult domestic problems.
“Every city in the United States has become much worse over the past three years,” Mr. Carlson said.
“Our economy has degraded, the suicide rate has jumped, public filth and disorder and crime have exponentially increased. And yet your concern is that the Ukrainians . . . don’t have enough tanks,” he said. “Where’s the concern for the United States in that?”
Mr. Pence then chided Mr. Carlson for mischaracterizing his position, saying, “Tucker, I’ve heard that routine from you before.”
“I’m running for president of the United States because I think this country’s in a lot of trouble. I think [President] Joe Biden has weakened America at home and abroad,” Mr. Pence said.
“And as president United States, we’re gonna restore law and order in our cities. We’re gonna secure our border; we’re gonna get this economy moving again. And we’re gonna make sure that we have men and women on our courts at every level that will stand for the right to life and defend all the God-given liberties enshrined in our Constitution.”
Despite touching on a number of themes that are important to conservatives, Mr. Pence drew a tepid reaction, receiving only mild applause and even some boos after saying that U.S. interests were served by continuing to aid Ukraine militarily.
Even so, the former vice president did not adjust his stance. He continued to assert that he did not have the constitutional authority to invalidate the electoral college vote on Jan. 6, 2021, and that those who committed acts of violence on that day should be held accountable.
Nathan Worcester contributed to this report.