This week, President Trump returned from a 12-day trip in Asia. On Wednesday, he held a press event — not quite a conference, which would imply he took questions from reporters — to commend himself for his hard work on the international circuit, despite little evidence thereof.
To be fair, the president's first two stops in Hawaii and Japan were uneventful. The trouble started in South Korea.
The Trump Administration has long had an internal conflict when it comes to North Korea. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attempts the backchannel diplomacy nuclear powers use to avoid catastrophe, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis often emphasizes the deterrent power of America's military might while urging de-escalation. President Trump, however, prefers to goad Kim Jong Un on Twitter with nicknames for his equally insecure rival, including "little Rocket Man." Seeing the president, then, attempt to deliver a serious address before the South Korean parliament after playing such an unserious role in his own team's messaging was like watching a dog trying to walk on its hind legs: It was tenuous, comical, and altogether unnatural.
The trouble continued In China, where President Trump enjoyed the elegant trappings of a state visit, including a flag-waving promenade and a historic look (the first by a U.S. president) in the Forbidden City. In return, the leader of the free world lavished President Xi — who recently took steps to consolidate his power over China's Communist Party until at least 2022 — with praise on Twitter, calling him "highly respected" and a "powerful representative of his people." It seems that Beijing learned from watching Saudi Arabia during the president's Middle East trip some months back, understanding that pomp, circumstance, and flattery was the key to avoiding traditional and thorny U.S. rebukes on human rights.
On the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Economic Leaders' Meeting in Vietnam, President Trump met with Russia's Vladimir Putin. The leader of the same nation that brought down the Soviet Union appeared to emerge from the short conversation persuaded that the U.S. intelligence community's judgment that the Kremlin had meddled in the 2016 presidential election was false; President Trump fretted, moreover, that Putin was "insulted" by our continued assertion of his misbehavior. In all fairness, after blowing through women, the disabled, POWs, and Gold Star families, it was a relief to discover that Donald Trump cared if he insulted someone. (The President halfway walked back his remarks the day after, in the face of bipartisan outcry and a public dissent from the CIA.)
And finally, in the Philippines, President Trump touted his improved relationship with President Rodrigo Duterte via photo-ops and matching shirts. Duterte and President Obama had a famously acrimonious relationship, largely due Duterte's approach to the rule of law having an unfortunate tendency to prefer extrajudicial killings to due process in his ongoing, very violent war against drugs. These details appeared to be of little consequence to President Trump, however, as he laughed along while Duterte asserted that the media assembled for a press conference were "spies" — (un)funnily enough, a frequent accusation in societies less free than ours that leads to members of the press facing imprisonment and torture.
So what did President Trump achieve on his grand Asia adventure? Not much quantifiable, let alone meaningful.
On North Korea, he got a 'verbal commitment' from President Xi to pressure Pyongyang, and tweeted that Kim Jong Un was "short and fat." With respect to trade, a new TPP — excluding the United States — was announced while the president was canoodling with Putin in Vietnam. (To be sure, the TPP had its flaws, but pulling out with no plan for further engagement left China a massive opening.) And at every turn, it seemed that President Trump turned a blind eye to human rights issues, abdicating an American tradition of attempting to hold our allies and adversaries alike to a higher standard of conduct.
President Trump's Asia trip was the longest since President George H.W. Bush took a similar journey; the elder Bush's, however, infamously included a stomach flu-induced vomiting at a Japanese state dinner. If President Trump's presser was to celebrate his trip's success by that low bar's measure, it was justified; otherwise, his administration would do well to explain what it is, exactly, that they think he actually achieved in the past two weeks.
Graham F. West, communications director for Truman Center for National Policy and grandson of longtime Garden City residents Duane and Orvileta West, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Distributed by Cagle Cartoons.