President Trump will depart Friday for the longest overseas trip of his presidency under a cloud of controversy resulting from the indictment this week of two former campaign aides and the guilty plea of a third.
The trip, like others before it, could provide a welcome respite for Republicans and administration officials from the chaos of an investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russians to sway public opinion during the 2016 election. But it could also amplify any lingering contradictions in the administration’s North Korea strategy and deny him the chance to claim credit for any progress that occurs in his absence on the tax reform bill that House Republicans rolled out just one day before his departure.
"Obviously, it's never a good thing when campaign operatives are indicted, but it's not a deathblow, and obviously he is leaving behind a mixed bag of good news and what could be bad news for the White House," said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist.
"I think this is a situation where he can potentially get beyond his base, because something such as trade and military interests is something that really folks in both parties want to see," O'Connell said. "He's doing what are perceived, image-wise, very presidential things."
Trump’s foreign travel has helped him stabilize his presidency when Russia-related developments have rocked the White House in the past.
For example, Trump departed for his first foreign trip, which began in Saudi Arabia in May, just three days after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein named Robert Mueller as special counsel in the Russian collusion investigation. The news had capped off more than a week of turmoil that followed Trump’s abrupt decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, and the White House was struggling at the time to contain the fallout from both Comey’s removal and Mueller’s appointment.
But the trip, which took Trump to Riyadh, Israel, Palestine, Italy, the Vatican, and Belgium, effectively stemmed the flood of negative headlines that were hitting the White House before he left and forced the spotlight to shine on his foreign policy pronouncements. Many observers — even those skeptical of Trump’s diplomatic ability — viewed the trip as a major success and applauded in particular his speech about Islam in Saudi Arabia.
Trump took off for his third overseas journey in mid-July amid fresh Russia intrigue. His trip to Paris to celebrate Bastille Day at the invitation of French President Emmanuel Macron came just two days after his son published emails that showed campaign officials had met with a Kremlin-linked lawyer in the hopes of obtaining damaging information about Hillary Clinton last year. Those emails contradicted Donald Trump Jr.’s previous characterization of his 2016 meeting with the Russian lawyer, whom he had described as being principally interested in discussing adoption policy.
The revelation again sent West Wing aides scrambling to explain an apparent misrepresentation of details in the Russia controversy and revived a scandal that had, for much of the summer, remained relatively dormant.
Trump’s two-day trip to France then gave the White House a chance to catch its breath at the height of one of the most frenzied moments in the collusion saga.
The president’s 12-day, five-country swing through Asia could offer administration officials a similar opportunity to calm the waters after a week focused on the most consequential set of developments in the Russia investigation to date.
However, the long journey could take Trump away from Washington just as House Republicans begin to reap the fruits of their labor on a tax reform package that has been months in the making. Trump has promoted the plan enthusiastically and has hyped its potential passage as one of the signature achievements of his first year in office.
David Hopkins, a political science professor at Boston College, said the timing of Trump’s trip in relation to the tax reform bill’s progression likely “won’t matter much politically.”
“By now, it's become pretty clear that the White House leaves most of the development of policy specifics to Republican leaders in Congress, and that the president himself is often personally unengaged in hammering out legislative compromises,” Hopkins said.
“It’s possible that Trump being out of the country and (perhaps) less active on Twitter over the next two weeks might even make it easier for Republicans in Congress to negotiate with each other and with interest groups over the details of tax policy without the president introducing additional complications to the process,” Hopkins added.
House Speaker Paul Ryan made light of Trump’s impending absence late last month when asked whether Republican leaders feared the president would criticize elements of the forthcoming tax reform bill that he did not like.
"He's going to be in Asia, number one. No, I'm kidding," Ryan said during an Oct. 26 press conference. "That was kind of a joke. I was sort of joking on that one."
Trump said this week that he would leave behind two of his top economic officials to work on tax reform with Congress while other senior members of his staff accompany him on the trip.
“Key administration officials, including [Treasury] Secretary [Steve] Mnuchin and [National Economic Council Director] Gary Cohn, will be staying back from the trip to Asia to remain vigilant and making sure the tax cuts pass,” the president told reporters during a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday. “So if I have any problems, I will be blaming Mnuchin and Cohn. Believe me, they’ll be hearing from me.”
O'Connell said Trump's decision to leave Cohn and Mnuchin behind could ensure the White House maintains control of the tax reform debate even with the president thousands of miles away.
"He's making sure that his people are there in case they have to push back on something," O'Connell said. "He can claim credit because he's still driving the bus on this the entire time. The reason why we had the delay was because they wanted to make sure that they meshed with the president's wishes as much as possible."
Trump's trip will also elevate the evolution of his North Korea policy to the international stage.
Trump has openly contradicted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about the role diplomacy should play in dealing with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un. Last month, the president told Tillerson to stop "wasting his time" by conducting outreach to Pyongyang after Tillerson said lines of communication exist between the administration and the Kim regime.
And Trump has labored to leave North Korea with the impression that military strikes remain on the table, quipping to reporters on Oct. 5 that a relaxed dinner with his generals could symbolize a "calm before the storm."
National security adviser H.R. McMaster shed little light on whether Trump would soften his rhetoric when he travels to the region.
"The president will use whatever language he wants to use, obviously," McMaster said while briefing reporters about the trip on Thursday. "I don't think the president really modulates his language. Have you noticed?"