MANILA — President Trump departed for a five-country, 12-day swing through Asia facing one overarching question: Could he avoid what The Onion satirical website jokingly predicted would be a “bizarre, easily avoidable international incident”?
The answer, it turned out, was no.
After an eight-day stretch of mostly good behavior, Trump wandered off script this past weekend in Vietnam as he headed into the final leg of his visit. Chatting with reporters on board Air Force One, the president suggested that he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assertions that Russia had not meddled in the 2016 presidential election and, on foreign soil, disparaged three former U.S. intelligence agency heads as “political hacks.”
The next day, Trump took to Twitter to criticize the “haters and fools” who dared to question his attempts to improve relations with Russia and antagonized North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by essentially calling him “short and fat” in another tweet.
In many ways, the president is similar to a tea kettle, with an almost physical need to let off steam after a period of contained pressure — and White House aides are now largely resigned to his periodic eruptions. So as Trump departed from his team’s carefully laid plans, senior administration officials presented a public face of calm.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not flinch when Trump began recounting Putin’s denials to the White House press corps — “I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” the president said — and no one from the West Wing made any effort to explain or clarify his initial remarks.
In a news conference the next day, however, Trump was asked exactly what he meant, and explained that he ultimately believes his own intelligence agencies — which have concluded that Russia did, indeed, meddle — over Putin’s claims to the contrary.
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, meanwhile, all but shrugged when asked about Trump’s tweet insulting Kim with schoolyard taunts, saying that Trump alone “put it out.”
“They are what they are,” Kelly said of the tweets. “But like, you know in preparation for this trip, we did the staff work, got him ready to go and then at each place we brief him up on whatever the next event is and all that. The tweets don’t run my life — good staff work runs it.”
And in fact, for the better part of the president’s trip through the region, staff work did seem to win out.
The Trump that the five nations encountered, especially initially, was something of a Trump-lite — a more polite, restrained version of the leader he often presents himself as back home. It was the result, perhaps, of some combination of travel-induced exhaustion, savvy flattery on the part of the Asian leaders and a visit carefully choreographed by White House aides to leave little down time for mischief-making.
With national security adviser H.R. McMaster taking the lead, Trump’s staff briefed him in the run-up to the trip, and then used the flights between countries to focus him again on his upcoming meetings and objectives, walking him through everything from whom he’d be meeting with to what his goals were, White House officials said.
Trump himself largely played the role of honored and delighted tourist. He autographed white-and-gold “Make Alliance Even Greater” hats in Japan; shook hands with Putin while gamely donning a midnight-blue silk shirt in Vietnam, in keeping with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit tradition; and engaged in an even more elaborate group handshake at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in the Philippines, with unintentionally comedic results.
Here in Manila, Trump seemed briefly befuddled by the traditional group handshake, which required the leaders to cross their right arm over their left and grip the hands of their fellow participants on both sides. Photos from the moment depict the president struggling to perform the ritual, before finally straining to reach the hand of the far shorter Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on his left and completing the greeting with a wincing grimace.
But Trump mostly acted the good sport, in part because his trip was greased by Asian leaders all playing to his ego and his fondness for grand gestures.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe organized a day of golf for Trump, serving him an American burger in the Kasumigaseki clubhouse before nine holes. The two men then hit the greens with Hideki Matsuyama, a world-ranked Japanese golfer, and photographers captured a relaxed Trump waving from his golf cart and bestowing Abe with a fist bump.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, meanwhile, treated Trump to a state dinner he said was in celebration of “the first anniversary of President Trump’s victory,” and featured painstaking native touches — ancient 360-year-old soy sauce, chocolate-covered persimmons personally picked and dried by South Korea’s first lady, and black tea with hydrangeas harvested from the mountain village where the country will host the 2018 Winter Olympics.
“President Trump’s election victory one year ago is already making America great again,” Moon said, echoing Trump’s campaign slogan.
And Chinese President Xi Jinping similarly dazzled Trump with what he dubbed a “state visit plus” — “He actually said, ‘state-plus-plus,’ which is very interesting,” Trump gushed later — that included a Peking opera performance (scenes from “The Monkey King” and “A Tipsy Beauty”), a military honor guard welcome ceremony, and cannon fire.
Trump, then, responded in kind, heaping praise on his host nations.
When asked by reporters about an embarrassing tumble Abe took into a sand trap during their afternoon of golf, Trump said he had not witnessed the fall in real time. And though he did watch the aerial footage later, he said he told the Japanese prime minister he couldn’t be sure it was him — though if it was, he was simply impressed with Abe’s acrobatics.
“I said, ‘I will not ask if that’s you, but if it was, I’m very impressed because you’re better than any gymnast I’ve ever seen,’ ” Trump recounted.
In China, Trump was similarly effusive, touting his “incredibly warm” feelings toward Xi and the “great chemistry” between the two men. He also marveled over his enthusiastic reception: “They say in the history of people coming to China, there’s been nothing like that,” Trump said.
And despite repeatedly attacking China during his campaign and promising to label it a currency manipulator on the first day of his presidency, Trump refrained from pushing his hard line on trade while on Chinese soil, going so far as to say he did not blame China for taking advantage of the United States.
He also acquiesced to Xi’s demand that the two men take no questions from reporters at a joint news conference — a win for the Communist leader, who has sought to limit free speech and the press in his country.
In Manila, on his penultimate day of the marathon swing, Trump declared it “a very fruitful trip,” saying the countries he’d visited had rolled out the “red carpet like, I think, probably nobody has ever received.”
“That really is a sense of respect, perhaps for me a little bit, but really for our country, and I’m very proud of that,” he said.
Trump still displayed trademark flourishes but at times seemed to offer a more muted version of himself. He took evident relish in dumping a wooden box full of fish food into a Koi pond at a Japanese palace, even if he was following Abe’s lead, if less gracefully.
He attempted a “surprise” trip to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea but was thwarted by foggy weather, which forced the Marine One presidential helicopter to turn back. And he couldn’t help but plug his private golf course during a muscular foreign policy speech in Seoul to South Korea’s National Assembly that focused on the “menace” of North Korea.
“The women’s U.S. Open was held this year at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, and it just happened to be won by a great Korean golfer, Sung Hyun Park, and eight of the top 10 players were from Korea,” the president said, to appreciative laughter. “Congratulations. Now that’s something. That is really something.”
Even in the moments when Trump went rogue, such as when he insulted North Korea’s leader on Twitter, he seemed willing to perform a complete about-face if given the opportunity.
Asked at a news conference at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi about the second half of his Kim tweet, in which Trump lamented that he tries “so hard to be his friend,” the president said a friendship with the North Korean dictator was “certainly a possibility.”
“Strange things happen in life,” Trump mused.
He might as well have been talking about his entire trip.