(North Country Public Radio) In what his wife, Karen Pence, called his last speech as Vice President, Mike Pence came to thank the troops at Fort Drum near Watertown Sunday, just days before he and President Donald Trump leave office.
The visit was a signal of North Country Congresswoman Elise Stefanik’s power in Trump’s Republican Party. But it comes as the future of that party is unclear after the pro-Trump attack on the U.S. Capitol. Meanwhile, Stefanik is facing growing pressure from donors and supporters for standing by Trump and his false claims of election fraud.
A solemn tribute to Fort Drum's service
Unlike when President Donald Trump spoke at Fort Drum two years ago, there were no political attacks Sunday, no grousing over vendettas, no boasting.
Vice President Mike Pence repeatedly thanked members of the 10th Mountain Division, which has deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq 46 times, he said, since September 11th, 2001. In fact, its 2nd Brigade Combat Team and 10th Sustainment Brigade are currently in Afghanistan, including Fort Drum's commander, Maj. General Brian Mennes.
"Your mission in Afghanistan has been vital to the security of the American people," Pence told a much smaller gathering of soldiers than in previous high profile political visits, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Soldiers and spouses were wearing masks and spread socially distanced in the large hangar.
"There’s never been a day gone by that I and every American hasn’t been grateful to the 10th Mountain Division and every American hero in uniform," Pence said.
Pence touted an increase in military spending and pay raises for troops, including the recent National Defense Authorization Act Congress passed last month by overriding Trump’s veto, an important fact Pence didn’t mention. But he did mention North Country Congresswoman Elise Stefanik’s role in it.
"None of that would have been possible without the strong support of Congresswoman Elise Stefanik on the Armed Service Committee in the House of Representatives," Pence said to applause. "Would you join me in thanking Congresswoman Stefanik for her strong support for Fort Drum and our Armed Forces."
Stefanik, a Trump loyalist despite pressure
With President Trump largely absent since his supporters laid siege to the U.S. Capitol ten days ago and his approval rating at its lowest level, Pence has become the central figure of the outgoing administration, and of the Republican Party. That he came to Stefanik’s district now is a reward for her loyalty.
And Stefanik continued to stand by Trump and Pence as she touted her achievements for military families. "These results would not have been possible without the unwavering support of the Trump Administration and President Trump," Stefanik said, "who signed the National Defense Authorization Act right here two years ago."
The 'elephants in the room', though, were many — the ongoing fallout over the insurrection at the Capitol, Trump’s second impeachment, and Stefanik’s vote against certifying the election results in Pennsylvania.
The North Country institution, Stewarts Shops, has joined a growing list of political donors to pause campaign contributions to Stefanik, because of her vote and for repeating election fraud claims that have been disproven by courts, state governments, and fact-checkers.