Published 5:37 PM EDT Oct 15, 2018
WASHINGTON – In a rare difference with his boss, Vice President Mike Pence has been more forceful than the president in condemning the disappearance of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi – including emphasizing the dangers of the situation for freedom of the press.
Pence was first to take to Twitter last week after Turkish officials alleged that Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi regime who had been living in the U.S., was killed after he entered Saudi Arabia’s consulate there for some routine paperwork.
"If true, this is a tragic day," Pence said. "Violence against journalists across the globe is a threat to freedom of the press & human rights. The free world deserves answers."
Pence, a former radio talk-show host, again stressed the importance of press freedom in a radio interview that aired Monday.
"Any attack against an innocent individual should be offensive to any American," Pence told WIBC's Tony Katz. "But an attack on a journalist is an offense to a free and independent press."
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press praised Pence for speaking out – and said authoritarians across the globe have been "emboldened by the rhetoric coming from the United States that paints reporters as `enemies' and `the opposition.'"
"The press has a duty to inform the people, and the vice president is right that attacks like the alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi are a grave threat to press freedom," said Jenn Topper, the committee's communications director.
Turkish officials reportedly have audio and video recordings to support their allegations. Saudi officials say Khashoggi left the building unharmed, but they have not produced any evidence to back their claim.
President Donald Trump has oscillated between threatening “severe punishment” against the Saudi regime to downplaying the importance of Khashoggi’s fate. He noted last week, for example, that Khashoggi is not a U.S. citizen and that the incident occurred in Turkey.
Trump – who routinely dismisses coverage critical of him as "fake news" and encourages his supporters to boo the media covering his rallies – did mention the press freedom angle briefly in an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes" that aired Sunday in which he took a harder line.
“There’s a lot at stake,” he said. “And maybe especially so because this man was a reporter. There’s something — you’ll be surprised to hear me say that."
But Monday morning Trump emphasized to reporters that the king of Saudi Arabia has "firmly denied" any involvement. And he floated a theory that “rogue killers’ may have been involved."
Pence is usually extremely deferential to Trump and rarely departs from him on messaging.
In fact, after saying in the radio interview that "there will be severe consequences" if the Saudi government is complicit in Khashoggi's disappearance, Pence added: "I don’t want to get ahead of that. That will be the president’s decision."
But his forcefulness, particularly on the freedom of the press angle, still stood out.
Pence's relationship with the media has varied over the years. After he was first elected to Congress in 2000 following a decade as a radio talk-show host in Indiana, Pence was a frequent guest on others' programs and a go-to quote machine for print reporters. He also unsuccessfully pushed legislation to make it harder for the federal government to force reporters to reveal confidential sources.
Pence had a more contentious relationship with the media during his four years as Indiana's governor. He vetoed bills that critics said would have limited access to public records. And he scrapped a plan to start a state-run news outlet after the nascent idea became an object of ridicule.
But Pence loved his years behind the microphone of "The Mike Pence Show," his daughter said in a book on her father that comes out Tuesday.
"He always had a special place in his heart for the media," Charlotte Pence wrote, "and still does.”
More: Charlotte Pence's book about her dad: 'D.C. Hillbillies' and that 'Hamilton' performance
Contributing: Deidre Shesgreen, USA TODAY