President Trump’s long tour of Asia this week may have brought ground-breaking overtures to North Korea, provocative pushback on trade in the region and a marathon of high-profile summits with world leaders, but a series of setbacks at home overshadowed many of the president’s achievements abroad.
On the same day, Trump opened the door to a potential deal between North Korea and the U.S., Republicans lost a series of races from state legislatures to governorships. As Trump touched down on Wednesday for his first visit to China as president, White House allies were busy explaining away Democrats’ gains in Virginia and New Jersey. And just hours before Trump delivered a scathing speech about trade imbalances at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam, sexual misconduct allegations rocked the Senate campaign of Republican Roy Moore in Alabama, threatening to upend a race that was already getting too close for the GOP’s comfort.
“I thought the president’s trip was a smashing success but was overwhelmed by other news, which limited its impact domestically,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist.
Trump began his 12-day, five-country tour of Asia late last week by stopping through Hawaii on his way to Japan, where he began outlining his vision for how the U.S. should deal with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
“We will not stand for that,” Trump said in Tokyo on Monday of North Korea’s activities. “The era of strategic patience is over. Some people said that my rhetoric is very strong, but look what's happened with very weak rhetoric over the last 25 years. Look where we are right now.”
In South Korea on Tuesday, Trump offered a combination of his trademark tough talk on North Korea and his most direct offer to date of potential negotiations with Pyongyang in exchange for denuclearization.
“We will offer a path to a much better future. It begins with an end to the aggression of your regime, a stop to your development of ballistic missiles, and complete, verifiable, and total denuclearization,” Trump said in Seoul as he aimed a challenge at North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un.
“The regime has interpreted America’s past restraint as weakness. This would be a fatal miscalculation. This is a very different administration than the United States has had in the past,” Trump said during the same speech. “Today, I hope I speak not only for our countries but for all civilized nations, when I say to the North: Do not underestimate us and do not try us. We will defend our common security, our shared prosperity, and our sacred liberty.”
And in Vietnam on Friday, Trump took his criticisms of Asian trade practices to new heights, telling leaders at APEC that activities like currency manipulation and intellectual property theft were “unacceptable” and would no longer be tolerated by the U.S.
Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for National Interest, said Trump’s speech about the Kim regime in Seoul marked a departure from his past tone on North Korea.
“There was a shift in the president’s rhetoric when he talked to the South Korean parliament,” Kazianis said. “He was very clearly offering carrots and sticks.”
Overall, however, Kazianis said Trump’s trip has not been uniformly successful.
“I think the trip, to be completely honest, was a complete mixed bag,” Kazianis said.
Trump’s efforts to communicate his vision for how the “America First” agenda should look in Asia — such as seeking bilateral trade deals rather than multilateral pacts — resonated, Kazianis noted.
But he said Trump’s speech at APEC failed to strike the right note with Asian countries that are likely still reeling from the president’s decision to exit the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major multilateral trade agreement from which Trump withdrew shortly after taking office.
“It was too aggressive, the rhetoric was too harsh, and our Asian allies and friends would not be warm to that language,” Kazianis said of Trump’s remarks to leaders at the trade summit in Vietnam.
“They’re fine with being told the straight talk when it’s in private, but when it’s in public like that, they feel like they’re being talked down to,” Kazianis added.
Trump’s APEC speech singled out China as one country whose trade practices have inflicted particular harm on the U.S. economy. His comments marked an escalation of the criticism Trump has leveled at Beijing since taking office.
Although he frequently railed against Chinese currency manipulation during the presidential race, for example, he has refrained from going after China with the same aggression as president out of a desire to secure its cooperation on North Korea.
Trump’s breakthroughs on North Korea and Southeast Asia trade policy had to compete with news of Republicans’ electoral woes and Moore’s underage sex scandal back in Washington, however.
For instance, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders had to begin a gaggle with reporters aboard Air Force One on Friday by reading a statement about the allegations of impropriety against Moore before getting to the topic on Trump’s agenda: his upcoming APEC speech. Sanders later tamped down speculation about whether Trump would sit down with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the trade summit, although she acknowledged that the two would “likely...say hello” to each other despite failing to schedule a formal meeting.
Bradley Blakeman, a GOP strategist, said he thinks Trump’s trip to Asia will still attract attention despite the drama surrounding the Alabama Senate race.
“I don't think the Moore allegations will dampen the [president’s] visit,” Blakeman said. “For sure, it is a distraction, but the success of the China visit coupled with the drama of Putin at the summit will drive news unless Moore was to drop out or conclusive evidence emerged to warrant proof of what is alleged.”
Beyond the political firestorm that Moore's scandal touched off this week, GOP lawmakers have grappled with increasingly visible divisions over tax reform.
Senate Republicans unveiled their version of the House's tax cut legislation this week and included in it some key departures from the plan House Republicans have spent weeks advancing, such as a delay in the timing of corporate tax cuts and a lower rate for top earners.
The focus on points of contention between House and Senate Republicans further distracted from Trump's maiden voyage to Asia, the longest overseas trip of his presidency so far.
Trump returns from his travels on Nov. 14. His final stop will be in the Philippines, where he is expected to meet with controversial Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte.