Trump's abroad but the headlines are at home
Posted November 10, 2017 6:05 a.m. EST
DA NANG, Vietnam (CNN) — When President Donald Trump awoke on his first day in Asia to news that a gunman had massacred more than two dozen people at a church in Texas, it presaged a week of events back home that -- in a well-worn pattern -- have overshadowed his attempts at diplomacy abroad.
Like presidents before him, Trump is discovering here that foreign travel can prove an exhausting, scripted exercise that is easily obscured by developments elsewhere in the world.
In Japan, South Korea, and China, Trump has dutifully stuck to his talking points about trade fairness and isolating North Korea, while political controversies that would ordinarily spur an outsized response have gone largely unmentioned.
Even his eyebrow-raising comment blaming his predecessors -- and not China -- for unfair trade practices was read from a set of prepared remarks. Despite Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's insistence the comment was "tongue-in-cheek," Trump repeated it twice on Friday.
The scripted sessions have eased concerns -- both among his Asian counterparts and his own advisers -- that Trump would employ his trademark bombast during intensive talks about delicate subjects. But they have also allowed other stories to eclipse his message.
As it turned out, the Texas shooting was only the first interruption.
An hour before he was due to deliver the centerpiece speech of the trip in Seoul on Wednesday, television networks back home began announcing a wave of Democratic wins in local and state elections -- the first electoral rebuke of Trump since he took office.
Three days later, as he prepared to depart Beijing for Vietnam, news emerged that the Alabama Republican Senate candidate, Roy Moore, was accused of making sexual or romantic advances toward teenagers.
Throughout the trip, the Russia investigation has crept closer to Trump's inner circle. News emerged Thursday that his top policy aide Stephen Miller, who is traveling with Trump this week and drafted most of his formal remarks, was interviewed by investigators working with special counsel Robert Mueller. And Trump's aide-de-camp Keith Schiller testified behind closed doors at the House Intelligence Committee.
Compared to some prior political pitfalls, Trump's response to the wave of Democratic wins on Tuesday was muted. He tweeted the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, Ed Gillespie, "worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for." He left it at that.
And news of Moore's alleged sexual improprieties ahead of Alabama's senate election spurred a statement from Trump's spokeswoman, but not from the President himself.
"The President must and will remain focused on representing our country on his historic trip to Asia, where he has been treated with great respect and made unprecedented progress in further strengthening alliances and promoting America's interest above all else," Sarah Sanders said
Yet it may be perfect timing for a president, easily prone to distraction, to be out of town.
The constant stream of distractions may outwardly appear to diminish Trump's message in Asia. But some officials traveling with Trump privately say the stream of damaging headlines in the US come at a convenient time. Some said they were relieved the trip has proceeded without any self-inflicted dust-ups, either in Trump's meetings or in the hours he's spending in foreign hotel rooms.
The President and aides traveling with him have spent their downtime reminiscing about his election victory a year ago, according to people familiar with the sessions. Trump posted a photo on Twitter Wednesday aboard Air Force One, surrounded by former campaign operatives who are now jetting around Asia representing the United States. They all flashed thumbs-up.
The anniversary, paired with a time change and busy schedule that have kept Trump from viewing hours of cable television, has buffered some of his frustrations at GOP election losses this week, which included the Virginia and New Jersey governor's races, according to one official.
In distant time zones, discussing issues that rarely make headlines in the United States, Presidents abroad often find their messages crowded out by unforeseen events or acts of violence, which they're forced to respond to, often belatedly, from the road. Their response then generates its own headlines, and the message of the day -- on trade, security, or human rights -- becomes secondary.
On Trump's first foreign trip, a suicide bomber detonated at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England -- Trump's first brush at responding to a crisis while on foreign soil. After learning of the attack inside his Jerusalem hotel room, Trump followed the standard script for a traveling President: secure briefing, phone calls to Washington and a solemn statement delivered before the traveling press corps.
It's a cycle President Barack Obama repeated again and again during his foreign travels. In capitals in Asia, Europe and Latin America, Obama often woke up to news of violent incidents in another corner of the globe, either back on US soil or on another continent.
When terrorists attacked the airport in Brussels, he was midway through a history-making trip to Cuba. When the Bataclan nightclub in Paris was attacked by gunman, he was hours from departing for security and trade talks in Turkey, the Philippines and Malaysia. And when five police officers were shot in Dallas, Obama was attending NATO talks in Poland -- and cut short a planned visit to Spain to return home.