President Donald Trump is headed to Asia. His political troubles are coming along for the ride.
Trump leaves Friday on his most crucial foreign trip yet, to confront rising fears of a US war with North Korea, an increasingly bullish China and perceptions that US power has ebbed in the region since he took office.
But he will struggle to escape problems haunting his presidency back home, including Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe, his low approval ratings, and his failure so far to enact major legislation.
On the eve of his departure, the pressures now bearing down on Trump’s inner circle intensified, when it emerged that Mueller has now begun asking about his son in law Jared Kushner’s role in the firing of former FBI chief James Comey — one possible avenue of an obstruction of justice investigation.
The controversy and chaos that has rocked Trump’s Washington is being closely watched around the world and could influence not just how the President is perceived by foreigners, but could affect his leverage in summit talks.
If there are more indictments or breaks in the Mueller inquiry in the 12 days he is away, they will be sure to overshadow the critical goals of his trip, and paint a picture of a beleaguered President shadowed by scandal.
Still, if there is a silver lining for Trump, it is that expectations are low, and a strong performance overseas might just, for a while at least offer him a break from the cascade of criticism he has been facing at home.
Given boiling tensions with North Korea — and genuine fears that the US is preparing for war in Asia — the trip would be a challenge even a president with soaring approval ratings and a wealth of experience.
Trump’s own team has expressed worries that the fallout from the Russia investigation is taking so much of his time.
“It is very distracting to the President as it would be to any citizen, to be investigated for something while at the same time trying to carry the weight of what being president of the United States means on his shoulders,” Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly told Fox News this week.
It will be difficult for the President to insulate himself from any blockbuster developments that take place in the Russia probe when he is abroad, since White House reporters and foreign journalists will use press availabilities to cross examine him. That’s one reason why the White House may schedule fewer news conferences than is normal for a President abroad. Most US leaders out of the country for a prolonged period look for ways to inject themselves into news programs back home.
The greatest danger that Trump faces from his diminished political standing is the possibility that foreign leaders could see him as weak, and therefore susceptible to pressure.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, for instance, fresh from a Communist Party Congress that enshrined him as the most powerful leader in generations, is in a much stronger political position than Trump. Xi also knows that Trump is relying on China to help solve the North Korea nuclear crisis — a factor Beijing might use to blunt the hard line on trade with the Asian super power the President laid down during his election campaign.
Asian leaders, especially in US-allied nations like Japan are highly attuned to the optics of the way Washington chooses to use its power in the region and to changes from one administration to another.
That is one reason why it is vital for Trump to project strong imagery that might counteract worries about his political viability.
“The Japanese are paying very close attention to what’s happening here in the United States. And in large part, of course, they’re going to want the United States president to be strong and able to concentrate on what’s happening in the region,” said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Anything that takes away from the strength of the US president, and for especially one like President Trump, who has embraced the US-Japan alliance so firmly, they’re going to be a little bit anxious about his future.”
Given Trump’s inexperience with regional policy, and his tendency to exacerbate controversies with his off the cuff rhetoric — in person or on Twitter — his temperament and behavior will be closely watched in Asia.
Comforts of home
Another complication is the length of the journey, which will challenge a man who aides say likes to sleep in his own bed and enjoys the comforts of home. The longer Trump is away, and the more tired he gets, the higher are the risks of gaffes or explosive remarks.
CNN has reported that White House aides have asked for familiar food to be on hand for Trump’s meals, rather than the region’s exotic cuisine, that could knock the President off balance.
But there is one advantage for Trump being across the other side of the world: He will have far less exposure to the cable news coverage which appears to watch at all hours and which drives his most controversial tweets.
As Trump travels between Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines, he must ensure that his compromised political standing does not underscore concerns about his temperament and Asia strategy.
Trump’s decision to pull out of the vast Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal was widely seen as eroding US power in the region and leaving a power vacuum for China to fill. There is a sense that Washington is facing decisions that could dictate its standing in the region for decades to come and questions about whether the President appreciates the gravity of the challenge.
“With a rising set of players on the West Coast of the Pacific, where does America want to go? Do you want to be engaged, do you want to participate more, do you want to deepen your economic relations?” Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong asked during a trip to Washington last month.
“Or do you want to find some other balance, which really will leave the determination of affairs to other participants in the region?” he said at a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Trump is not solely to blame for the tumult in Washington, but the political paralysis and endless controversy is also raising doubts in Asia about US consistency and staying power — anxieties that a strong performance by the President in Asia could help suppress.
“We have got a long way to go to fully reassure a region that is experiencing a great deal of uncertainty over US-China relations, North Korea and the ability of the US political system over the long term to deliver reliable foreign policy outcomes,” said Ambassador David Shear, former assistant secretary of defense for Asia and the Pacific.