TOKYO — President Trump flew over 14 hours, passed through 13 time zones and crossed the international date line to — essentially — be feted by the Japanese.
But like many strategies to influence and contain the president, the carefully planned Japanese attempt hit something of a skid on Trump’s first full day in Tokyo on Sunday, when Trump fired off a tweet that, in a single missive, undermined his national security adviser, aligned himself with a brutal dictator and attacked a Democratic rival on foreign soil.
Then Monday, in a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump continued his headlong plunge into diplomatic mayhem, expressing such eagerness for a deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that he backed Kim over his own top aides (notably national security adviser John Bolton), his allies (Japan) and his fellow Americans (former vice president Joe Biden).
Calling Kim “a very smart man,” Trump said he was not “personally” bothered by North Korea’s short-range missile tests this month and does not believe the tests violate United Nations Security Council resolutions — a transgression about which Bolton had previously told reporters there was “no doubt.”
“My people think it could have been a violation,” Trump said, as Bolton sat just feet away. “I view it a little differently.”
Abe, meanwhile, referred to the North Korean tests with “great regret” — though, in an apparent attempt to maintain his bromance with Trump, Abe also credited the president with beginning negotiations with North Korea, saying Trump “cracked open the shell of distrust” with the regime.
Trump also seemed to side with Kim and his repressive regime over Biden, violating an unofficial rule of presidential behavior — that partisan politics stops on foreign soil. Asked about a tweet in which Trump appreciatively recounted North Korea’s state media calling Biden a “fool of low IQ,” the president simply doubled down on the insult.
“Well, Kim Jong Un made a statement that Joe Biden is a low-IQ individual,” the president said, as Bolton and the U.S. ambassador to Japan, William Hagerty, chuckled lightly. “I think I agree with him on that.”
And Trump expressed openness to improving relations with Iran, currently one of America’s biggest geopolitical foes, after recently ordering 1,500 additional troops to the region.
“We’re not looking for regime change,” he said, in another tacit rebuke of Bolton, who has long pushed for a more aggressive, hard-line stance against Iran. “I just want to make that clear. We’re looking for no nuclear weapons.”
Still, when Trump wasn’t making unplanned news, he largely basked in his elevated status, with Abe playing humble guide.
In some ways, the president’s Japan sojourn revealed Trump as part reluctant tourist, part eager honoree and always deeply perplexed when the spotlight was not squarely on him.
At Ryogoku Kokugikan stadium for the sumo championships Sunday, for instance, Trump suddenly found himself spectator rather than actor, and was notably subdued. After entering the arena to applause and craned necks, the crowd returned its collective attention to the ancient grappling, and Trump sat almost stone-faced as he took in the final matches.
After donning slippers — no shoes are allowed in the ring — Trump did rise to present the 25-year-old champion with the first “President’s Cup,” a more than four-foot-tall and 60-pound silver trophy with an eagle taking flight set atop it. But he appeared to lack his trademark panache. He read from a certificate, smiled, clapped and bowed slightly before exiting the ring.
In other moments, Trump’s interests seemed to drift stateside, at least according to his social media feed. During his four days abroad, the president tweeted about sports (the Indianapolis 500), culture (actor Jussie Smollett) and, of course, politics.
The president attacked Democrats, impeachment efforts and Biden, even using the 1994 crime bill as a foil to argue that Biden — who supported the legislation — is unelectable to large swaths of the Democratic base.
“Anyone associated with the 1994 Crime Bill will not have a chance of being elected,” Trump wrote from Tokyo. “In particular, African Americans will not be able to vote for you.”
Abe, for his part, at least publicly largely tried to ignore disagreements between himself and the president, and instead focused on honoring and entertaining his guest — the first foreign leader invited to an official state visit following the May enthronement of the new emperor, Naruhito.
After all, Trump is a president who at times prefers to be treated like a monarch, reveling in the spotlight and celebrations of himself. And the Japanese were happy to oblige, hoping to woo Trump on everything from trade to security by tailoring the trip to his whims and professed likes.
Abe and Trump played golf, took a selfie and, in a nod to the president’s preferred palate of bland Americana, consumed a carnivore’s bovine delight — burgers (at the country club), Wagyu beef (at the traditional robatayaki charcoal grill) and côte de boeuf rôtie (at the six-course black-tie gala at the Imperial Palace).
And the president was simply thrilled to be the guest of honor — even if, at least at first, he seemed a little unclear on just what the celebration was. Before leaving for Japan, Trump told reporters that Abe persuaded him to visit the country twice in roughly a month — he returns in June to Osaka, for the Group of 20 leaders’ summit — by inviting him to a “very big event” that the prime minister promised Trump would be “100 times bigger” than even the Super Bowl.
Once here to help usher in the Reiwa era under Naruhito, Trump continued to enthuse about Abe’s invite to be the first leader to meet the new emperor after he ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne.
“That was a great honor,” he said Monday, sitting alongside Abe. “That’s a big thing. Two hundred and two years — that’s the last time this has happened.”
Trump has four foreign trips this summer, and a senior White House official said he was most excited about this first one to Japan and next week’s journey to Britain and France, which similarly includes an official state visit — complete with pomp and grandeur — during his British stop.
Before Trump departed for Japan, another senior White House official promised a “substantive” trip with “some substantive things.” Yet it was hard to point to any major diplomatic breakthroughs.
As NBC’s Hallie Jackson quipped on MSNBC as the trip wound down, the only real deliverable “has been the delivery of that trophy to the sumo wrestling championship.”
Still, Trump did try to imbue his trip with some substance. Out of respect for Abe, he met with the relatives of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea, never to be seen again — his second such meeting with the families.
“The United States also remains committed to the issue of abductions, which I know is a top priority for Prime Minister Abe,” he said during their news conference Monday. “The United States will continue to support Japan’s efforts to bring these abductees home.”
And he announced a new space agreement, albeit with few specifics. “I am pleased to confirm that Prime Minister Abe and I have agreed to dramatically expand our nations’ cooperation in human space exploration,” Trump said.
“We’ll be going to the moon,” he continued. “We’ll be going to Mars very soon. It’s very exciting.”
Before leaving Japan on Tuesday, Trump visited American troops — some sporting “Make Aircrew Great Again” patches on their uniforms — for Memorial Day at Yokosuka Naval Base outside Tokyo.
“From America’s earliest days, fearless Americans have said goodbye to their loved ones, gone off to war and stared down our enemies, knowing that they may never, ever return,” Trump said. “Memorial Day links every grateful American heart in eternal tribute to those brave souls who gave their last breath for our nation, from Concord to Gettysburg, from Midway to Mosul.”
Despite some notable policy cracks between Trump and Abe, from the Japanese perspective, the trip was still largely a success.
Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University in Tokyo, said Abe must be pleased the summitry sent “a strong message of solidarity” to Beijing and Pyongyang.
“Trump reveled in all the pomp and circumstance, and the fawning — judged excessive by some — paid off in generating good vibes that will stand Abe well domestically and regionally,” he said.
For Japanese officials, one of the main goals was simply to strengthen the U.S.-Japan relationship, and Abe is a careful student of Trump — understanding, among other things, that he is most likely to influence the president when physically by his side.
To that end, Abe flew to D.C. in April to visit Trump, and by June, the two men will have met three times in as many months. They have also spoken and met in person more than 40 times.
Noting all the red carpets — literal and proverbial — that the Japanese had rolled out for their American guest, one Japan-based journalist assessed the trip with a quip: “I’m surprised they didn’t put on a geisha show for him.”