Only Richard Nixon could go to China, but President Trump may follow in his footsteps.
In the past week, the administration has softened its rhetoric about China while taking a noticeably harder line against Russia.
The Trump Treasury Department declined to label China a currency manipulator on Friday, although the country was one of six major trading partners placed on a "monitoring list." "They're not currency manipulators" is a sentence that came out of the president's own mouth earlier in the week.
On Russia, however, Trump is pulling a Nixon-to-China transformation in reverse. "Right now, we're not getting along with Russia at all," the president said Wednesday. "We may be at an all-time low in terms of a relationship with Russia. This has built for a long period of time."
At the same press conference, Trump spoke almost warmly of China's political leaders.
"President Xi wants to do the right thing," he said. "We had a very good bonding. I think we had a very good chemistry together."
In both cases, Trump is departing from his campaign rhetoric. He regularly denounced China's allegedly predatory trade and currency valuation practices on the stump while he frequently declined to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin. After winning the presidential election, Trump was slow to embrace the intelligence community's conclusion that Russian hacking occurred during the 2016 campaign.
"The president said it from day one," said Ryan Price, a Republican strategist. "He's a deal-maker."
This transformation seemed complete when China abstained on the United Nations Security Council rather than siding with Russia in seeking to thwart a UN resolution condemning Syria for using chemical weapons, an act that triggered a U.S. military response ordered by Trump.
"I think it's wonderful that they abstained. As you know, very few people expected that," Trump said while standing next to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the White House. "We are honored by the vote. That's the vote that should have taken place."
"He love to negotiate," said a former Republican national security official. "He takes the first step in negotiations and then he's willing to be flexible later. That's very normal for a businessman but not very normal for a politician."
Asked if this approach could work in international affairs, the official said, "Diplomacy is all about negotiation."
Trump still says he hasn't given up hope he can improve relations with Russia. "It would be wonderful, as we were discussing just a little while ago, if NATO and our country could get along with Russia."
"And I'll also see about Putin over a period of time," Trump added later. "It would be a fantastic thing if we got along with Putin and if we got along with Russia. And that could happen, and it may not happen, it may be just the opposite."
Nixon, a fervent anti-communist, used his opening with China against the Soviet Union. Few see any similar connection here, other than that Trump has allowed his advisers to be much tougher on Russia out of the gate than ever seemed likely during the campaign.
"One way to read events is that Trump hoped — like Bush and Obama before him — that he could shift Putin toward a more pro-U.S. position," writes Walter Russel Mead. "The Bannonite dream of a Christian coalition against Islam may have been a factor, but Trump seemed to hope that he could dramatically simplify America's complex Middle East dilemmas by peeling Russia away from Assad and Iran."
A Republican diplomat recalled watching past officials like Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice in their negotiations with difficult foreign governments.
"We Americans like to sit across the table and make moral arguments to the other side," the diplomat said. "We say things like 'You should do this because it's what the international community wants,' or 'It's the right thing,' or 'We need you do this.'"
"The Russians don't give a shit about any of that," the source concluded, adding that moral suasion was not always an effective tool in dealing with China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or increasingly even NATO ally Turkey.
According to this view, Trump's flexibility and willingness to talk about interests rather than values (although he has made moral arguments against the behavior of the Syrian government) are assets.
Trump can say he wants a better relationship with Putin's Russia, but can also demonstrate he is willing for relations to remain hostile.
"Unlike Russia, China has been successfully integrated into the global economy and as a result, its relationship with the United States is less zero-sum than Russia's," writes Mead. "Trade with the United States is a vital component of China's growth; Trump's willingness, indeed his eagerness, to make trade a political instrument, offering 'good deals' to friendly countries and tougher deals to bad actors, opens up a range of negotiating opportunities with China that simply don't exist with Moscow."
None of this will endear Trump to Democrats — and a non-trivial number of Republicans — who view the president's interest in Russia with suspicion and believe the probe of Russian interference in U.S. presidential election will ultimately reveal unsavory ties.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is already trying to outflank Trump on China and thereby win back some of the working-class voters they lost to the president's populist appeals last year.
"We are urging him to get tough on China," Schumer told reporters Tuesday. "If he does, he'll find a willing and eager partner in Democrats."
Plenty of national security observers worry that there is no grand Art of the Deal strategy behind Trump's recent maneuvers and that the new president is simply winging it on the world stage.
Yet others are heartened by Trump's willingness to take advice from the experts he has brought into his administration and then take decisive action, "It's been a long time coming," said the former GOP national security official.