DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has cast aside his running mate's suggestion that the U.S. should be ready to strike Syrian targets to protect civilians caught in the country's escalating humanitarian crisis.
The comment Sunday evening in debate was yet another illustration of Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence's challenge as he attempts to validate the GOP nominee's unusually vague positions on international diplomatic and military affairs.
"He and I haven't spoken, and I disagree. I disagree," Trump said during his face-off with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Trump was referring to Pence's suggestion, made five days earlier during the vice presidential candidates' debate, that the U.S. be ready to use force to keep Russian-backed Syrian forces from killing civilians in Aleppo, a city caught in the five-year civil war. Trump has advocated a hands-off approach to dealing with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
"If Russia chooses to be involved and continue, I should say, to be involved in this barbaric attack on civilians in Aleppo, the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime to prevent them," Pence said during the debate with Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine on Tuesday.
The discrepancy on such a critical national security issue was an awkward development for supporters of the Trump-Pence ticket who are experts on the subject.
"This is for the candidates to sort out," former CIA Director James Woolsey said Monday on CNN's "At This Hour with Berman & Bolduan." "I'm an adviser," he added. "I'm not going to sort out the politics and decision-making for you."
On Sunday, Trump did not suggest a different plan for dealing with Aleppo. He instead restated his support for creating so-called safe zones for Syrian refugees, to be paid for by Arab nations, and said his primary Middle Eastern focus was eradicating the Islamic State group in the region.
"We have to worry about ISIS before we can get too much more involved," he said, using an acronym for the group.
Trump did not suggest that the Sunday debate moderator who had asked the question, ABC News' Martha Raddatz, had mischaracterized Pence's position. But Pence made that claim on Monday.
"I think Martha Raddatz just mischaracterized the statement that I made in my debate a week ago," Pence said during an interview on Fox News.
However, Raddatz quoted Pence verbatim from the Oct. 4 vice presidential debate transcript, including the key part: "the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime."
The difference underscores Pence's superior fluency on such issues, as a former 10-year member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee as a U.S. representative from Indiana.
Pence's campaign did not reply to a request for comment by The Associated Press on Trump's disagreement with Pence's statement.