In male-dominated field, pair of women found space on Team Pence

In male-dominated field, pair of women found space on Team Pence
© Courtesy of The White House/Greg Nash

Andrea Thompson and Joan O’Hara are used to being the only women at the table.

As the top members of Vice President Pence’s national security team — until this week, Thompson, 51, was his national security adviser and O’Hara, 47, was her deputy — the two women counseled and assisted a vice president who is particularly active in U.S. foreign policy.

Now, O’Hara is taking over for her friend and colleague. A senior official in the vice president’s office tells The Hill that Thompson is headed to the State Department, and her deputy is stepping into her shoes in the interim.

Pence’s all-female team stood out in a field that is not seen as traditionally feminine — and in an administration that has faced allegations of sexism. Pence himself faced blowback after reports re-emerged that he had once told The Hill that he never dines alone with women who aren’t his wife. 

But ask either Thompson or O’Hara if they have ever experienced gender-based discrimination in the workplace and they shrug, even as they acknowledge that they are an “anomaly” in the national security field. 

“I was an elite athlete prior to my legal life and I trained with men all the time and I never really felt that difference,” said O’Hara, who was a national sculling champion and went on to coach crew at the collegiate level before going to law school. 

“Maybe in some respects I’m not treated differently as a woman because I don’t see myself as different.”

For eight months, the two women — who are close personal friends — have been a visible part of a strategy of foreign engagement that Thompson describes as “continuous touch points” for partners and allies. 

“I find rather than carving up the globe and saying ‘the vice president will have these two or three regions and the secretary of State will have these two or three regions’ ... every few months one of the senior leaders is engaging. I find that incredibly successful and I hope we continue with that,” she said in a joint interview with both women conducted before Thompson’s move. 

The vice president’s national security team is much slimmer than the broader National Security Council — it is fully staffed at just 12 functional and regional advisers — but can borrow expertise from the hundreds of NSC staffers as needed. Thompson refers to the team alternately as “light fighters” and “family.” 

Both Thompson and O’Hara came from the House Homeland Security Committee, where Thompson was Chairman Michael McCaul’s (R-Texas) national security adviser and O’Hara was general counsel. 

Thompson, a retired Army colonel and intelligence officer with more than 28 years and service and deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, also worked at the consulting firm led by retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal. 

When Pence told Thompson she could pick her own team, “one of my criteria was: Who would I want to spend 20-some hours a day with and not want to kill after two to four years?” she said. 

O’Hara was on the forefront of the encryption debate on Capitol Hill, drafting the committee’s legislation establishing an independent commission to study the matter. The House has not yet taken up the legislation, but it was seen as one of the more popular options in a variety of proposals that cropped up after the public 2015 feud between Apple and the FBI over a locked iPhone belonging to one of the shooters in San Bernardino, Calif. 

Working for Pence, Thompson and O’Hara didn’t see as much of each other as they used to on Capitol Hill; O’Hara says it was more like a passing high-five in the hallway of the Executive Office Building. The two were rarely in the same meeting, kept busy by a vice president who is taking a hands-on role in foreign policy matters.

Although the former governor of Indiana is often thought of in a domestic context, Pence was a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee during his final two terms in the House, and his former colleagues see him as a serious student on the subject. McCaul called him a “level head” in an administration whose national security team has been roiled by a number of high-profile departures — President Trump’s first national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, lasted just 24 days.

“Any changeover in leadership is going to be a challenge to the team. Was it disruptive for a bit? Yes, because it pulls energy away,” Thompson said when asked about Flynn’s dismissal, which came after reports emerged that he had misled Pence about his interactions with Russian officials.

“But as I tell the vice president, we wake up every morning looking at the national security for the vice president of the United States and for this country. No distractions, that’s what we do.”

Pence was recently dispatched on a swing through Latin America to discuss trade and the constitutional crisis in Venezuela, a sensitive diplomatic mission that came on the heels of Trump’s controversial suggestion that the U.S. might be considering a military intervention in Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela. 

Perhaps most notably, Pence was sent to Europe earlier in the year to reassure allies that Trump would stand by the United States’ NATO commitments, despite the president’s calls for European partners to pay more for common defense.

“The first foreign policy speech that Mike gave, trying to give reassurance to NATO that they are an ally — I thought he gave an excellent speech on that — I could see that it had Andrea and Joan’s fingerprints all over it,” McCaul said. 

But while Pence has come to be seen as a steady hand in foreign policy matters, he has faced fierce controversy in the past for a personal policy some critics characterize as sexist. 

Pence, then a freshman lawmaker, told The Hill in 2002, in the wake of the scandal caused by former Rep. Gary Condit’s (D-Calif.) extramarital affair with intern Chandra Levy, that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and won’t attend events with alcohol without her by his side. 

Critics have argued that by limiting access that female staffers might have to the principal, the practice was a form of discrimination. 

Thompson brushes those criticisms aside, insisting that it “hasn’t affected me at all.” If she needed to have a one-on-one meeting with Pence, she said, she simply left the door open. 

“That’s just the way I was raised in the military, when you counsel soldiers of a [different] gender — it’s just protection for both individuals,” Thompson said. “You know you’re always going to do the right thing, but for perceptions, I wouldn’t go to dinner with one of my male counterparts, by ourselves.”

“That’s been my mantra as a professional,” she continued. “That’s never impacted my job because I’ve never had it where I couldn’t have a dialogue.”

Instead, Thompson and O’Hara focused on encouraging the next generation of women in the field. Both take a keen interest in the art of good leadership — they cite both O’Hara’s background in sports and Thompson’s military background — and see representation as an important issue. 

Thompson is now preparing to take on another high-level role at an agency that has been criticized as what former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) once called “white, male and Yale.” 

The move to State comes on the heels of a pledge by Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonUS steps up its game in Africa, a continent open for business Matt Drudge shares mock ‘Survivor’ cover suggesting more White House officials will leave this summer 'Daily Show' trolls Trump over Pruitt's resignation MORE to boost the department’s female personnel.

In an August address to students of the agency’s internship and leadership program, Tillerson expressed regret that only about one-third of senior Foreign Service officers are women, vowing to close the gender gap. 

“Although the numbers are improving, there are very few women in the national security field. For both of us, mentoring men and women [is important], grooming that next generation of leaders to make sure this isn’t an anomaly,” Thompson said.