After midterm elections in which their party loses political power in Washington, American presidents have traditionally used foreign travel to change the subject and more easily flex their executive muscle.
But in the wake of the Republicans’ electoral setback last month, President Trump has, once again, eschewed tradition.
Trump returned to Washington on Sunday after a relatively subdued two-day visit to the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires, where he announced modest breakthroughs on trade but chose to avoid provocative meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
His performance — coupled with his listless two-day visit to Paris days after the midterms, during which he skipped a visit to an American cemetery and appeared isolated from other world leaders — has created the impression of a president scaling back his ambitions on the world stage amid mounting political crises.
“The problem at the moment is he has no agenda,” said Thomas Wright, a Europe expert at the Brookings Institution. “He ticked through his bucket list of everything he wanted to do and declared victory on all fronts. What does he do now? They’ve not really thought it through.”
In his first 18 months, Trump withdrew the United States from Obama-era pacts — the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Paris climate accord and Iran nuclear deal — and declared that North Korea’s nuclear threat had been largely defused after his Singapore summit in June with Kim Jong Un.
In recent weeks, Trump has curtailed his foreign itinerary. Last month, he skipped a trio of annual summits in Asia — the first time since 2013 an American president has been absent. And he canceled scheduled visits to Ireland in November and Colombia on the way home from the G-20.
White House aides said the president was too busy to stop in Bogota, a visit intended as a makeup after Trump canceled a trip to Peru and Colombia in the spring. The Ireland stop, which was supposed to be tacked onto the Paris trip, reportedly included a planned check-in at Trump International Golf Links at Doonbeg. News reports in Ireland suggested mass public protests were planned to greet him.
For Trump, there appears to be diminishing bandwidth to focus on foreign affairs, given that he is weighing a Cabinet shake-up and has threatened a partial government shutdown this month over border wall funding.
Furthermore, the Democrats’ looming takeover of the House has posed new dangers for the White House in the form of potential subpoenas and investigations. And bombshell revelations last week involving former Trump associates in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election have rattled the White House.
Aides dismissed the notion that Trump is distracted and insisted that a president who campaigned on discarding convention should not be compared to his predecessors. They said his foreign policy should be judged by the results, pointing to the new trade deal with Mexico and Canada that Trump inked at the G-20.
“President Trump has achieved ‘America First’ victories during trips abroad and here at home,” said White House spokesman Hogan Gidley.
Last week, national security adviser John Bolton told reporters that aides were “trying to fill every minute” of Trump’s schedule at the G-20, arranging meetings with eight world leaders, including Putin and China’s Xi Jinping.
Yet, minutes after Trump boarded Air Force One to depart from Washington on Thursday, he tweeted that he had canceled his meeting with Putin over Russia’s seizing of Ukrainian naval ships and personnel. Press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters on the plane that two other bilateral meetings — with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — would be downgraded to more informal “pull-aside” conversations.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said it was “particularly baffling” that Trump would bypass more time with Moon, given his crucial role in the ongoing denuclearization talks with North Korea.
A White House spokesman pointed to Trump’s robust travel schedule last year — during which he visited 13 countries, along with the Palestinian Authority and the Vatican — and the 60 foreign leader meetings at the White House as evidence of the president’s commitment to global affairs.
But Argentina marks just the eighth country Trump has visited this year — with no more on his schedule this month.
His recent White House predecessors also tapered their international travel leading up to an election, but they returned to the road extensively afterward to reaffirm U.S. leadership, especially in the face of domestic political setbacks.
In the two weeks following the midterms in November 2006 — when Republicans lost control of both chambers of Congress — President George W. Bush visited seven countries, including meeting with Putin in Moscow.
In the month following the 2010 midterms — when Democrats lost control of the House, a setback President Barack Obama called a “shellacking” — he visited six countries, including a visit with U.S. troops at Bagram air base in Afghanistan. Trump has yet to visit troops in a war zone.
“I see it as an atypical, nontraditional person who is in a traditional role,” said Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security.
Trump has participated in the kind of multilateral summits — including the Group of 7 and NATO — favored by his predecessors, but he has shown more interest in major media spectacles where he is squarely on center stage, such as his historic summit with Kim and a bilateral meeting with Putin in Helsinki in July, Fontaine said.
“It’s easy to see which ones Trump himself is driving toward versus the traditional responsibilities of office,” said Fontaine, who served as foreign policy adviser on the late senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Foreign-affairs analysts said some capitals have grown wary given Trump’s sharp-elbowed performances.
Trump embarrassed British Prime Minister Theresa May by rebuking her in a newspaper interview published just as he arrived outside of London for a meeting last summer. Trump upended the G-7 Summit in Canada in June after taking umbrage at mild criticism from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and he obliquely renewed threats to withdraw U.S. support for NATO during a dispute over defense spending at a summit in Brussels in July.
“He doesn’t like these meetings, he doesn’t like the format and he doesn’t like multilateralism,” said Ted Piccone, a Latin America expert who served on the National Security Council during the Bill Clinton administration.
Piccone said the Colombians probably won’t be too unsettled that Trump has canceled twice, given that he met with President Iván Duque Marquez at the U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York in September.
But Piccone added that Trump missed an opportunity to consolidate pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro after Bolton lumped that nation with Cuba and Nicaragua as the “troika of tyranny.”
Bolton’s tough talk, during a speech in Miami, came a week before the midterm elections, and Piccone said Trump’s decision to skip the Bogota stop could be viewed as evidence that the administration’s policy was largely a political gesture to rally conservative Latin American voters in south Florida.
White House aides pointed to Bolton’s visit to Brazil last week to meet with president-elect Jair Bolsonaro, whom Bolton invited to visit the White House next year, as evidence that the administration is committed to improving key relations in South America.
Brian Hook, a senior aide to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, pointed to an emerging “Indo-Pacific” strategy to confront China, the campaign to defeat the Islamic State, pressure on Venezuela and Cuba and attempts to isolate Iran.
In Buenos Aires, Trump reaffirmed plans to hold a second summit early next year with North Korea’s Kim and he appeared to indicate he will participate in the G-20 next year in Osaka, Japan.
“I could go around the world and keep going,” Hook said.
Yet Trump’s approach to Asia offers a sharp contrast in his use of foreign travel.
In November 2017, White House aides boasted that Trump’s 12-day swing through five Asian nations, aimed at rallying support for his pressure campaign on North Korea, represented the longest presidential trip abroad in 25 years.
But this year, amid the administration’s deepening trade war with China, Trump skipped three Asia summits last month in Singapore and Papua New Guinea. Vice President Pence traveled in his place and crossed paths briefly with Xi.
“Someone said recently that ‘The Apprentice’ was full of twists but no plot,” said Wright, referring to Trump’s reality television show. “That’s the question of Trump’s foreign policy. There will be twists, but is there a plot? Is there a direction?”