Trump’s Worst Trip Ever. Until His Next One.
A look back at the American president’s rollercoaster ride through Asia.
Donald Trump’s trip to Asia was the most embarrassing foray by an American president abroad since… Donald Trump’s trip to Europe in July. That was the visit, recall, where he embraced the hard-right government in Poland. Trump’s speech is now cited as inspiration by the tens of thousands of fascists who marched through Warsaw on Saturday demanding a “White Europe” and an “Islamic Holocaust.” It was on this same trip that Trump blasted the American media while abroad and embraced Vladimir Putin after a lengthy meeting with the Russian dictator in Hamburg.
What a coincidence — Trump just went abroad again and embraced Putin again. Once again, he accepted the Kremlin autocrat’s duplicitous denials of responsibility for the hacking of the Democratic National Committee last year. “Every time he sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump said of his pal, Putin. “I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country.” For good measure, the president blasted the apolitical heads of the U.S. intelligence community — who unanimously concluded that Russia was behind the theft of Democratic emails last year — as “political hacks.”
Under pressure from his own aides, Trump seemed to walk back these outrageous remarks, but there is no doubt where his heart lies — with the strongman in the Kremlin. White House aides would be well advised to keep these BFFs separated as much as possible at future international gatherings, because every time Trump finds himself in close proximity to Putin, he makes a fool of himself. He is like the reformed alcoholic who falls off the wagon after meeting his old drinking buddy and winds up parading around with a lampshade on his head. In fairness, of course, Trump often makes a fool of himself even when Putin isn’t around, and he did so on several occasions in Asia.
The trip actually got off to as good a start as possible. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe welcomed Trump to his first stop in Tokyo with practiced glad-handing. The two leaders played golf, and odds are that Abe let the insecure American win. Out of all the world leaders, Abe has been the smoothest in exploiting Trump’s weakness for flattery. Thus Trump has all but dropped any anti-Japanese rhetoric from his vocabulary after years of complaining about all of the money America spends to protect Japan and all of the success that Japan has enjoyed in exporting goods to the United States.
Trump’s next stop was Seoul, where he delivered one of the few good speeches of his presidency. Eschewing the kind of bombast he had earlier directed against North Korea — at the United Nations General Assembly in September, Trump called Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man” and threatened to “totally destroy” his country — the president delivered the kind of tough but measured message that could have come from any of his predecessors. Speaking to North Korea, Trump said, “The weapons you are acquiring are not making you safer — they are putting your regime in grave danger,” and he rightly described North Korea as “a hell that no person deserves.”
Things began to go sideways at Trump’s next stop — Beijing. Trump gushed over Chinese President Xi Jinping in ways that might make Vlad jealous. He called his meetings with Xi “tremendous,” said that his feeling toward Xi is “an incredibly warm one,” and described him as a “highly respected and powerful representative of his people.” Correction: Xi is not the “representative” of his people. He is their dictator, and it’s impossible to know how respected he is because anyone who is less than respectful to him is likely to be locked up. Xi is currently orchestrating the most intense cult of personality that China has seen since the days of Mao Zedong — and Trump is doing his level best to help.
Naturally Trump made no mention of human rights, not even to commemorate Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and democracy campaigner who died in a Chinese prison in July. When Xi did not want to take questions from reporters, Trump happily went along — unlike previous presidents who insisted on respecting the rights of the press. Trump even gave China a pass on its thefts of intellectual property and other unfair trade practices. “Who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for benefit of their citizens?” Trump said. “I give China great credit.”
The president’s conduct in Beijing serves as a reminder that bullies are also cowards. Trump is aggressive in confronting those weaker than he is — Gold Star parents, for example, or journalists — but when confronted with a true tough guy like Xi or Putin, he cowers and simpers.
Only when Trump arrived at his next stop, in Vietnam, did he go back to tough talk on trade. He delivered his familiar “America First” message, telling the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, “We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore. I am always going to put America first, the same way I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first.”
It does not seem to occur to Trump that his go-it-alone message is at odds with his attempts to mobilize other countries, China in particular, against North Korea. Such unilateralist talk also leads other country to conclude that they can no longer count on the United States, and therefore they must somehow go their own way. Thus America’s Pacific allies are moving ahead with the Trans-Pacific Partnership minus the United States, Trump having pulled out of this important trade treaty at the start of his presidency.
Trump claimed in Danang that bilateral trade accords are somehow superior to multilateral treaties. This makes no sense — the more countries, the bigger the benefits — except as a cover for Trump’s unwillingness to enter into any trade treaties at all. He is sacrificing America’s economic well-being and security on the altar of his protectionist ideology.
The wily Xi Jinping, who spoke after Trump at APEC, took the opportunity to posture as a defender of openness and globalization. He is trying to usurp the role America has played in the post-World War II world. But Trump was too busy flinging insults to notice.
The restraint he had shown earlier in the trip broke down after a few days on the road. After North Korea’s state media blasted him as a “dotard” who “begged for nuclear war,” Trump felt compelled to respond in kind: “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’ Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend — and maybe someday that will happen!” Note that Trump only objects to being called old; he let pass the charge that he is leading America into a nuclear war.
Coming from any other president, such a bizarre message would prompt speculation about whether he is having a mental breakdown and whether it’s time to invoke the 25th Amendment. We have all, of course, gotten used to such effusions from Trump, but that does not make them any less weird or disturbing. This simply is not the way that the leader of the world’s richest and most powerful nation is supposed to talk. Heck, not even the leaders of the world’s poorest and smallest nations talk like this.
Trump’s journey to Asia concluded with a stop in the Philippines, where he was predictably effusive about Rodrigo Duterte, who, in the name of fighting drugs, has unleashed death squads that have killed thousands without trial. Trump trumpeted a “great relationship” and a “warm rapport” with Duterte, and according to Duterte’s spokesman, he did not bring up the issue of human rights abuses even in private.
While meeting with Trump for a photo op, Duterte refused to take questions, calling the assembled media “spies.” Trump laughed loudly and appreciatively. Duterte’s intemperate attacks on the press aren’t so funny, however, in a country where journalists are regularly killed with impunity. Any other American president would be speaking up for the cause of freedom instead of yukking it up with this abusive thug.
Trump’s reward was to have Duterte sing a love song in his honor; its lyrics include, “You are the light in my world, a half of this heart of mine.” If you’re the president of the United States and autocrats are literally singing your praises, you’re doing something wrong.
Trump’s trip should be labeled the Farewell Tour: farewell to American power, farewell to American ideals, and farewell to American credibility. Already former President Barack Obama began to pull back from American global leadership, and Trump has accelerated that parlous trend. In the process he is ceding power to China and undercutting the values that America has long championed in the world. What does Trump get out of it?
It’s interesting to note that among those attending his private meeting with Duterte was the wealthy developer Jose E.B. Antonio, who is working with Trump to build a $150 million, 57-story building in Manila. Also of note: China has granted Trump and his daughter Ivanka Trump dozens of potentially valuable trademarks that were denied to them before he won the presidency. By every indication, the company Trump leads greatly benefits from such trips. The same cannot be said for the country he leads.