WASHINGTON >> President Donald Trump is being pulled in different directions as he heads to Asia on a grueling 12-day trip.
The president’s loyal supporters are eager to hear him take a hard line on the Chinese trade and economic practices he railed against as a candidate. But many in his administration are pushing Trump to sweep those concerns aside as he works to pressure China’s Xi Jinping to tighten the screws on North Korea.
At the same time, much of the president’s attention has been occupied by urgent matters at home, including indictments against two top campaign aides, the deepening Russia investigation and a high-stakes fight over his tax plan. By the admission of his own chief of staff, Trump has been distracted — as also demonstrated by the flurry of tweets he unleashed Friday before departing Washington and continued from aboard Air Force One. In 14 tweets over six hours, the president dug deep into intrigue surrounding Hillary Clinton and the 2016 presidential race and other issues, with just one tweet devoted to his trip.
Even before the latest news, concerns abounded over how the president, a homebody who dislikes long stretches on the road, would fare during a marathon trip that will take him to five counties in 12 days.
“There were always questions as to what the end of the trip would look like. Would he become distracted?” said Mireya Solis, a senior fellow at the Brookings Center for East Asia Policy Studies. “Now I think the question has shifted: Is he going to be distracted from the get-go? Are the domestic political problems going to be first and foremost on his mind?”
The administration projected confidence as it scrambled to lock down Trump’s itinerary, describing the president as well-versed in the region and familiar with its leaders. National security adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters Thursday that Trump had placed 43 calls to Indo-Pacific leaders as president and met with the heads of Japan, South Korea, China and Vietnam, among others in the region — some several times. Trump has also worked to develop close personal relationships with Xi and Shinzo Abe of Japan — ties he hopes will pay dividends.
Two senior administration officials said the president had been preparing for the trip by reading briefing materials — with lots of the maps, graphs and charts, one said — and holding conversations with key aides and Cabinet members, including McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, and senior National Security Council staff. One of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, like others, to discuss the president’s private preparations, said the president was also in close touch with his large network of business contacts.
Still, the lead-up has felt frantic. Less than an hour before liftoff, Trump announced to reporters that he would be changing his schedule and tacking on an extra day to attend a summit that he’d been criticized for skipping.
Ryan Hass, who served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, said that past presidents had their Asia trips “preceded by six months of legwork — really hard, intensive engagement in the region by Cabinet and sub-Cabinet-level officials to tee up deliverables. … That has not occurred in this instance.”
Part of the problem, according to some observers, is that Trump has yet to fill a number of top Asia positions in his administration, including finding his own pick to take over as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and naming a new ambassador to South Korea.
One person familiar with the trip preparations said that, as late as this week, embassy staff in several of the countries Trump is set to visit were still in the dark about agreements in the works and key messages to be delivered. There’s also nervousness about the president’s mood on such a long trip. On his trip to the Middle East, for instance, Trump didn’t sleep well, and spent many nights calling back to the U.S. at all hours, according to another person familiar with his habits.
The first half of Trump’s trip is expected to be dominated by North Korea. While trade issues will most certainly be a recurring theme, the administration has signaled that it does not expect to announce any significant concessions from China on trade or market access — areas in which Trump hammered China throughout his campaign, accusing the country of “ripping us off.” Back then, Trump was vowing to slap a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods and suggesting that Japan and South Korea obtain nuclear weapons to protect themselves instead of relying on the U.S.
“We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing,” Trump told an Indiana rally crowd last year. Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has described the U.S. as “at economic war with China” and described Chinese efforts to pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear program as a “sideshow.”
Asked by Fox News’ Laura Ingraham on the eve of his trip whether he would push Xi in areas such as intellectual property theft, government subsidies and the dumping of products, Trump demurred.
“You have to understand something very important: We have a problem called North Korea,” Trump said.
Instead, Trump is expected to announce several major Chinese purchase deals from U.S. companies — potentially on planes, agricultural products and natural gas exports that could be worth billions.
It’s “a way of distracting from the fact that there’s been no progress in China on structural reform, market access, or the big issues that the president has tried to make progress on with regard to China,” said Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.