As President Donald Trump and his aides patched together a summer calendar laden with foreign travel, the images flashing through their collective minds were clear: as Trump was playing imperial palaces and aircraft carriers, his potential rivals would be working to fill living rooms and pizza parlors in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Trump, they believed, could project an air of a commanding incumbent president, haggling deals and being feted on red carpets by foreign leaders as his potential Democratic rivals squabble among themselves back home.
As the first of Trump’s four overseas trips this summer concludes, those ambitions appear elusive. His stop this week in Japan proved neither the Pacific Ocean nor the world’s oldest royal hereditary line can distract the President from the political fray.
Instead of rising above domestic politics – and using the trappings of his office to separate himself from those vying to replace him – Trump used his time abroad to continue slinging at rivals.
A 13-hour time difference and diary full of male bonding activities with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did little to divert Trump’s attention from the man he views as his most formidable potential opponent, Vice President Joe Biden.
Nor did it appear to prevent him from fixating on all manner of trouble-spots back home, no matter their scale or proximity to the job of being president.
Among the items he found himself tweeting about as he whiled away the wee hours in his Tokyo hotel: the financial problems plaguing the Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally, which he seemed to identify and remedy in the span of a day; the Indianapolis 500; and the actor Jussie Smollett, who he accused of committing a hate crime against his supporters.
At the same time, he remained focused on congressional investigations into his finances and administration, and questioned some Democrats who are calling for impeachment proceedings. In one tweet, he cited his favorite Saturday evening television program, “Judge Jeanine,” as it aired back home.
Tracking Trump in Japan:
In another, he suggested he’d discussed Democrats’ intentions with his Japanese hosts, though no officials here would confirm the details of those conversations or whether they’d actually taken place. Indeed, many in the Japanese government are more familiar with Biden – who visited as vice president and as chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee – than with Trump, despite Abe’s fervent efforts at be-friendship.
Even halfway across the planet, Trump still felt a compulsion to weigh in against perceived slights or comment on whatever is transpiring in the culture.
Not that Trump’s visit was devoid of opportunities to project authority. Standing on a literal pedestal in the courtyard of the Imperial Palace, the President observed stoically as cordons of Japanese troops presented in formation. After he landed in Marine One on a Japanese helicopter carrier, he was dramatically lowered on a hydraulic platform below deck, where he greeted cheering troops.
It’s not every American politician who can convincingly step onto the “sacred mound” of a sumo wrestling stadium to present a 70 pound gilt trophy, topped with a spread-winged eagle, that he claimed later to have purchased himself.
Yet the set pieces seemed mostly that – a backdrop for a leader still engrossed in the political back-and-forth that occupies most of his time at home.
Trump has complained to aides before that traveling abroad takes him away from the political conversation. Hours ahead of the United States and obligated to sit through a series of meetings, the President has expressed frustration at missing out on a preferring pastime: watching and commenting upon the news.
To solve the problem – and lure the President out of the country – White House officials procured a system early in the administration that allows Trump to continue watching his preferred cable channels, even when they are not available at the hotel where he is staying. And he spends most of each flight either watching the news or complaining about it, often to the dismay of sleep-deprived staffers.
As at the White House, ample free time is built into the President’s schedule, though his days abroad are typically fuller than at home. In Japan, Trump carried out multiple engagements with Abe, his host, though still found time early in the morning and during stretches in the afternoon the catch up on and tweet about that day’s fixation.
Even during his events, Trump’s penchant for veering off script was evident. Speaking to US troops on the aircraft carrier USS Wasp on Tuesday, Trump diverted from his teleprompter to poll the crowd on their reference for steam- or electric-powered catapults – a result, he said, of massive cost overruns on the newer electric versions.
Foreign officials, when preparing for a presidential visit, are often conscious of the prospect their careful planning and attempts at flattery could be unwound by one of Trump’s tweets. That was the case this week when Trump declared early Sunday that recent short-range missile tests by North Korea did not bother him – a view directly opposed to Abe, who was at that moment preparing to serve the President breakfast at a country club south of Tokyo.
Publicly, Abe revealed no disturbance whatsoever.
“They are my dearest friends,” he said of Trump and wife, Melania, during a Monday news conference. But the disappointment of inviting Trump for days of overt flattery, only to be publicly undercut, is an experience he and other world leaders have come to expect.
When Trump visited the United Kingdom last year, the black tie dinner and tea with Queen Elizabeth orchestrated by Prime Minister Theresa May did not stop Trump from telling a newspaper that one of her rivals, Boris Johnson, would himself make a good prime minister.
As it turns out, the next stop on Trump’s summer foreign tour is London, where May has recently announced she will step aside and Johnson is vying to replace her.