WASHINGTON -- Former Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday criticized his boss-turned-rival, Donald Trump, for calling retired Gen. Mark Milley, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a traitor over phone calls he made to China in the final stormy months of Trump's presidency.
"Frankly what Donald Trump said about him in that tweet, about treason and death, was utterly inexcusable," Pence said at a national security and foreign policy forum at Washington's Georgetown University.
The GOP candidate also reacted to the news that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has been ousted from his post, saying, "Chaos is never America's friend."
The appearance was the first in a series of conversations with 2024 Republican presidential candidates on the topic co-hosted by The Associated Press and Georgetown's Institute of Politics and Public Service.
Trump in a recent social media post lashed out at Milley over the calls, saying Milley committed "an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH! A war between China and the United States could have been the result of this treasonous act."
Milley has defended those calls as "routine" and "perfectly within the duties and responsibilities" of his job.
Still, Pence declined to respond to Milley saying in his retirement speech that, "we don't take an oath to a wannabe dictator."
Pence has positioned himself as a foreign policy hawk in his party's crowded primary, advocating for "peace through American leadership" on the world stage. He has railed against the growing populist tide in the party, accusing rivals like Trump and his followers of abandoning U.S. allies.
"America is the leader of the free world. If we're not leading the free world, the free world is not being led," he said.
The contrast has been particularly stark on Ukraine. Pence has called on the Biden administration to deliver more military aid to the country as it fights Russia's invasion and has criticized those in his party who question ongoing U.S. involvement.
Congress averted a partial government shutdown last weekend with a deal that excluded additional aid to the country. The White House and Pentagon say U.S. aid to Kyiv could be in danger without more funding. But a bloc of Republicans in Congress has refused to vote for it.
Pence has argued rivals like Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis do not grasp the broader implications of their calls to limit military assistance, saying there is no room in the party for "Putin apologists" and pushing back against those who want the U.S. to take on a more limited role on the world stage.
And he's criticized entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who has argued the U.S. should end its support for Ukraine so that it can ally with Russia against China.
While Pence's posture was once the standard in the Republican Party, his views have fallen out of favor with many Republican voters who have become increasingly skeptical about supporting Ukraine.
About four in 10 Republicans (44%) say the U.S. is providing too much aid to Ukraine, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in June. That's up from just 9% of Republicans who said the U.S. was giving too much shortly after Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
A February poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found only about a quarter of Americans -- 26% -- believe the U.S. should have a major role in the conflict, down from as high as 40% in March 2022. Among Republicans that number was even lower, with just 17% saying the U.S. should have a major role.
Pence has also cast China as a major threat. In a speech at the Hudson Institute last month, he called the country "the greatest strategic and economic threat to the United States of America in the 21st Century" and said it was at risk of becoming an "evil empire."
In response, he has said the U.S. should work to bolster Taiwan's defense capabilities to stave off any threat. He also wants to ban China from purchasing new U.S. farmland and has called to move high-tech manufacturing out of the country.
More broadly, Pence has called to increase military spending by at least $1.2 trillion and called for new investments in naval shipbuilding. A staunch social conservative, he has also said he would end "woke military programs" at the Department of Defense.
Pence's appearance comes as he has been struggling to build momentum in a GOP primary dominated by his former boss. Three months ahead of Iowa's kickoff caucuses, Pence continues to poll in single digits and was positioned at the far right side of the stage at the last GOP debate.
Colvin reported from New York. Associated Press writer Linley Sanders in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.