Trump derails his own narrative as Asia tour thunders on

US president’s tweets and claims about the Russia inquiry threaten to overshadow the trip

US president Donald Trump speaks to Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit gala dinner in Manila. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

US president Donald Trump speaks to Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit gala dinner in Manila. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters


For the last week on the road, US president Donald Trump had been measured, disciplined and studiously scripted as he picked his way through the geopolitical minefields of Asia.

Then came the weekend.

In a stream of tweets on Sunday, the president said those who wanted to investigate his ties to Russia were “haters and fools”, ridiculed “crooked” Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated effort to reset US relations with Russia and fired back at North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, for calling him old, saying that he could call Kim “short and fat” — but had restrained himself.

That followed a freewheeling session with reporters on Air Force One on Saturday, in which Trump dismissed the Russia investigation as a Democratic “hit job” and derided as “political hacks” three former chiefs of the US’s intelligence agencies, all three of which had concluded that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election.

It was hard to say what prompted the sudden change in the president’s demeanour, though the first lady, Melania Trump, who often plays a moderating influence on her husband, had dropped off the trip in Beijing, after visiting the Great Wall of China and stroking the paw of a panda bear at the Beijing Zoo.

Trump (71) could also simply be tired, though his aides insist he is not, even if the people around him are.

Pressed again on Sunday about whether he believed Russian president Vladimir Putin’s denials that Russia had intervened in the election, Trump seemed to walk back his earlier comments somewhat. He said he did not dispute the assessment of the intelligence agencies that Moscow had interfered.

“As to whether I believe it or not, I’m with our agencies, especially as currently constituted, with their leadership,” Trump said at a news conference with Vietnam’s president, Tran Dai Quang. “I believe in our agencies. I’ve worked with them very strongly.”

Still, Trump’s endorsement was grudging — he noted that the assessment of Russian interference reflected only four agencies, not 17 — and he repeated his assertion that Washington needed to move on from the Russia investigation to co-operate with the Russians on issues from North Korea to Syria.

“What I believe is, we have to get to work,” he said. “It’s now time to get back to healing a world that is shattered and broken.”

Broken narrative

In the short run, Trump’s comments broke with a narrative that the White House had carefully constructed during this 12-day trip — that of a statesman marshalling a worldwide coalition to confront a nuclear North Korea, and a populist leader working to right trade imbalances.

The president’s tweets and comments also complicated life for White House officials, who had been encouraged by his friendly meetings with the leaders of Japan, China and South Korea and by what they characterised as one of the most effective foreign-policy speeches of his presidency, on the need to confront a nuclear North Korea.

Speaking to reporters in Hanoi on Sunday, the White House chief of staff, John F Kelly, insisted that he did not pay attention to Trump’s tweets or allow his staff to be distracted by them.

“They are what they are,” Kelly said. “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.”

Until Sunday, Trump had been careful not to make things personal with Kim. But after his speech in Seoul, in which he catalogued the brutality of the Kim government, North Korea described him as a “lunatic old man” and urged Americans to force him out of office or face an “abyss of doom”.

That prompted an indignant response from Trump, who seemed more offended by the gibe about his age than about his mental condition. Shortly before leaving his hotel to meet the Vietnamese president, he tweeted: “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’ Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend.”

Once at the Presidential Palace, however, Trump seemed to have gotten over it. Asked whether he could see himself becoming friends with Kim, he said: “Strange things happen in life. That might be a strange thing to happen, but it’s certainly a possibility.”

“If that did happen,” he continued, “it would be a good thing for — I can tell you — for North Korea. But it would also be good for lots of other places, and it would be good for the world.”

Trump’s comments were in keeping with his hot-and-cold approach to Kim. At times, he has floated the idea of a meeting with Kim and praised the North Korean leader for consolidating power in his country at a young age. But he has also ridiculed him as “Little Rocket Man” for his ballistic missile tests.

Position on Putin

With Putin, Trump has been more consistent.

“I believe that president Putin really feels — and he feels strongly — that he did not meddle in our election,” Trump said on Sunday, when he was asked to clarify his comments about Putin’s sincerity on that question the night before. “What he believes is what he believes.”

Standing next to the Vietnamese president, Trump did not repeat the contempt he had shown the day before for three intelligence officials who served under president Barack Obama: John Brennan, the former director of the CIA; James Comey, the former director of the FBI, and James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, who had also previously served as the director of the Defence Intelligence Agency.

But he was no less insistent that the Russia investigation was a distraction.

“People don’t realise Russia has been very, very heavily sanctioned,” Trump said. “And I feel that having Russia in a friendly posture, as opposed to always fighting with them, is an asset to the world and an asset to our country, not a liability.”

When the news conference was over, Trump reverted to his script. Sitting with the general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, before a bust of Ho Chi Minh, he stressed the importance of fair trade relationships.

“We are opening up and you are opening up and it’s going to even out,” Trump told the Communist leader.

For those wondering if the president’s trip will pack in any more surprises, he then boarded Air Force One and later landed in Manila, where he is to officially meet on Monday with the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, one of the few world leaders who outdoes him in unpredictability.

In anticipation of Trump’s arrival, leftist activists, rights groups and students protested on Sunday in the streets of the Philippines.

“His first Asian visit is turning out to be preposterous, cringe-worthy and a disaster waiting to happen for southeast Asia people,” said a farmers’ group called Union of Agricultural Workers. It called Duterte the US’s “main puppet in Asia”.

– New York Times