With three Americans freed from prison in North Korea set to touch down at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington around 2 a.m. Thursday, President Trump knew he wanted to be on the moonlit tarmac to greet them, with the full White House press corps in tow.
It would be a cinematic homecoming produced by a president impatient to trumpet a foreign policy triumph — and a prelude to the most anticipated tête-à-tête in years: Trump’s planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
By making brash and risky moves on the world stage — from shredding the Iran nuclear deal to negotiating nuclear disarmament with the North Koreans to imposing tariffs on Chinese imports — Trump has a chance to change the way voters evaluate his presidency.
Trump is trying to convince Americans that they have good reasons — not only foreign policy advances but also a growing economy — to protect his presidency from the threats posed by the Russia investigation, not to mention impeachment charges that Democrats might file next year should they retake control of the House in the midterm elections.
For Trump, each bold stroke is like a spritz of Febreze on his narrative of domestic scandal, momentarily masking the expanding Russia probe of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Or the federal criminal investigation into his longtime attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen.
Or his reimbursement of the $130,000 hush-money payment to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels.
Or his support for Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt despite an avalanche of ethical lapses.
“Most of the coverage gets dominated by ping-pong-ball-sized issues, which are hurled through the air, but it misses the bigger point of the Trump presidency,” said Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union and a Trump booster, arguing that foreign policy breakthroughs would be more resonant with voters than possible Russian collusion or obstruction of justice.
To that point, when White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked last week whether Trump would rather sit down with Kim or Mueller, her answer was unequivocal.
“I certainly think that the president feels like stopping a nuclear war and helping protect the safety and security of people across the globe would certainly be the number one priority of the president of the United States, and certainly, I would think, would be the priority that most Americans would share,” Sanders said.
As Trump discussed the North Korean breakthrough at a Cabinet meeting Wednesday, a reporter asked, “Do you deserve the Nobel [Peace] Prize?”
“Everyone thinks so,” the president replied, with characteristic embellishment, “but I would never say it.”
The Nobel Peace Prize.
Letting that sink in is precisely what Trump wants — especially as he leads embattled Republicans into November’s midterm elections, where they are forecast to lose seats and possibly their majorities in one or both houses of Congress.
“These events absolutely can make a difference,” said former New York congressman Thomas M. Reynolds, a GOP strategist. “There’s certainly people that say his approach to doing stuff isn’t necessarily how I am comfortable, just watching it or knowing it, but he seems to be getting it done.”
Democrats have a different interpretation.
“If he wanted to drown out domestic scandals, he’d have to stop having so many domestic scandals and so many self-inflicted wounds,” Democratic pollster Margie Omero said. “That kind of recklessness makes it hard to separate Trump’s day-to-day demeanor from his international performance.”
Trump is not the first president to focus on foreign policy in a period of personal political crisis. As the Watergate investigation intensified in 1973, President Richard M. Nixon tried to play up his role as commander in chief.
“Nixon tried to make the point that ‘you Americans may be upset by my scandal, but I am doing such important things in foreign policy that you should think twice before wanting to throw me out,’” presidential historian Michael Beschloss said.
What was expected to be explosive Senate testimony by White House counsel John Dean that summer had to be delayed because Nixon was welcoming Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to the United States for a summit. And later that year, after Nixon ordered the firing of a number of Justice Department officials in what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” he opened a news conference not by defending his actions to intervene in the Watergate investigation but by updating Americans on the Arab- Israeli conflict.
“The tougher it gets, the cooler I get,” Nixon told reporters.
Trump’s approval rating stood at 40 percent in a Washington Post-ABC News poll in mid-April, slightly more than his 36 percent approval rating in January and his highest level in Post-ABC polling since his first 100 days in office.
The April poll found that over half of all Americans, 56 percent, disapprove of Trump’s overall performance. But a clear majority of those surveyed, 56 percent, said they believe Trump should hold his summit meeting with Kim to try to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons; 36 percent said he should not.
“The proof is in the pudding,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who has been critical of Trump. But, he added, “we know that most Americans simply do not care about so much of the drama that consumes the Beltway. It’s all a matter of what results are produced.”
Trump has vented frustration privately to advisers as well as in public statements that he is not given what he considers due credit in news coverage and in public opinion polls for what he sees as foreign policy and economic successes.
On Wednesday morning, just an hour before announcing the release of the North Korean prisoners, Trump castigated the media and threatened to revoke journalists’ White House credentials. “The Fake News is working overtime,” Trump wrote in a tweet, complaining that “despite the tremendous success we are having with the economy & all things else, 91% of the Network News about me is negative (Fake).”
To shape coverage, Trump has taken personal control over the North Korean prisoner story, directing it with the showman instincts that helped make his reality television show, “The Apprentice,” a ratings success.
It was the president who announced dramatically on Tuesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was en route to Pyongyang to meet with Kim and possibly secure the release of the three detainees. It was the president who revealed Wednesday morning — “I am pleased to inform you,” he tweeted — that they were en route home to the United States with Pompeo and in good health. And it is the president who plans to depart the White House in the middle of the night to meet their returning aircraft at Andrews.
“It’ll be 2 o’clock in the morning,” Trump said at Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting. “It’ll be quite a scene.”
The high-suspense approach extends to his summit with Kim, the details of which Trump has kept closely held. The president said he had picked a time and location for the meeting, and added that the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea had been ruled out.
“As I always say, ‘Who knows?’ ” Trump said. “Who knows what’s going to happen? But it’s going to be a very important event.”
The approach is a marked departure from past presidents such as Barack Obama, who oversaw several North Korean prisoner releases but did not stage them as elaborately as Trump is doing this week.
There are inherent risks in Trump’s foreign policy, of course. He abruptly withdrew from the Iran deal without an apparent alternative plan to contain the rogue state’s nuclear program, which experts said risks war in the region. And his overtures to Kim could easily be stymied. “Everything can be scuttled,” Trump acknowledged.
Ian Bremmer, a foreign policy expert and the founder and president of Eurasia Group, said there is high potential for Trump to misstep in foreign policy considering his lack of traditional experience.
“If you have the biggest stack of chips at the poker table, you can get a whole bunch of people to fold against you, all the time,” Bremmer said. “That’s what Trump has done with the North Koreans, with the South Koreans, all over the world. But eventually your bluff is going to be called. That strategy works very well until it doesn’t, and at some point Trump’s number of wins may lead to a big loss.”
Then there is the possibility that no number of wins in foreign policy could compensate for destructive developments at home. One year after trying to focus on the Soviet Union and the Middle East, Nixon resigned under the threat of impeachment.
“There is no example in history where accomplishments like that save a president who is otherwise in dire trouble,” Beschloss said. “They may help him, but not save him.”