The first criminal charges stemming from the Russia investigation landed this week at a perilous point in Donald Trump’s presidency, threatening both his standing with foreign leaders ahead of an important trip to Asia on Friday and his effectiveness in selling the Republican tax plan set to be released Wednesday.
Aides insisted the twin challenges at home and abroad would not be undermined by the indictments, but the frustration of the president — whose job approval ratings hit a new low this week in Gallup polling — was evident Tuesday. He started the day with a spate of tweets in which he lashed out at the media and “Crooked Dems” and urged a focus instead on the “Massive Tax Cuts” he has promised to deliver by Christmas.
In a bid to show he remains focused on the tasks at hand, Trump later in the day allowed reporters to witness the start of a White House meeting with business leaders at which he boasted that the December signing of the yet-to-be-unveiled GOP tax bill would be “the biggest tax event in the history of our country.”
But the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe loomed large. Trump ignored shouted questions at the event from reporters related to the indictments of three campaign officials unveiled on Monday, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and a foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, whom Trump derided on Twitter as a “young, low level volunteer” and “a liar.”
Foreign policy analysts expressed concern that Trump’s political crisis could distract from or complicate his message on a high-stakes 12-day trip to five Asian nations aimed at building regional support for his bid to pressure North Korea over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
It’s not just that Trump might tweet about his domestic problems, analysts said, but that the issue could dominate the U.S. press corps’ coverage of the trip, with reporters asking him about the Mueller investigation on foreign soil.
Michael Green, an Asia policy aide to former president George W. Bush, recalled the 43rd president being asked about the Iraq War during trips to Asia even as he attempted to sketch a vision of U.S. engagement in the region.
“My prediction is that it will be a story for the White House press corps and then the Asian press will pick up on it like an echo chamber,” said Green, who was in Japan when news of Mueller’s indictments broke early Monday. He added that “having been on those trips, it can be very, very hard for the White House to get their strategic and foreign policy message through.”
Trump plans to visit Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines, engaging in bilateral meetings with a host of foreign leaders. Aides have been heavily briefing him.
The trip comes as Chinese President Xi Jinping has consolidated power on the heels of the Communist Party Congress, creating another problematic narrative for Trump.
“Trump is by far the weakest leader in modern U.S. history and Xi is by far the strongest leader,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a global risk assessment firm. “That’s going to make the meeting uncomfortable.”
Bremmer, who also was in Japan last week at a security conference, said Japanese officials are concerned that Trump could be motivated to take a more provocative stance on North Korea or on U.S. trade relations with South Korea and China to distract from his domestic problems.
Unlike past U.S. leaders who have tried to stay on message in Asia while dealing with distractions at home, Trump “always wants to create a distraction,” Bremmer said. “To what extent will he play harder ball with the Chinese or North Koreans or on trade and, most importantly, will he decide to really fulminate against the North Koreans? It is dangerous, the combination of all that.”
Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was in Beijing last week and said that “the Chinese are worried that his domestic problems will cause Trump to do something internationally that will bolster his domestic position and distract people from his problems at home.”
“The biggest worry is an attack on North Korea,” she said. “Those who think he is not bluffing — they think this is something they should be worried about.”
In interviews, several prominent Republicans argued that the tax bill would rise or fall based on factors unrelated to Trump’s level of distraction. Heading into next year’s midterm elections, Republicans in Congress are under tremendous pressure to show they can get something done with control of both chambers and the White House.
“This bill was never going to pass because Donald Trump went up to the Hill and negotiated it,” said Barry Bennett, a GOP consultant who advised Trump during last year’s general election. “It’s going to pass because Republicans have to pass it. … They’re not really counting on much leadership from the president.”
A senior Republican congressional aide largely echoed that sentiment and said lawmakers do not expect Trump to have much of an impact in the days following the bill’s introduction on Wednesday and its subsequent markup by the Ways and Means Committee, a stretch where he’ll be out of the country.
“It’s kind of an inside-the-cone process,” said the aide, who requested anonymity to speak more candidly. “I’m not sure how much Trump would make a difference.”
But the aide said there will be points later in the process that could benefit from presidential leadership, including help selling the legislation to the public before the full House votes and navigating differences that emerge after the Senate passes a bill.
The aide also said lawmakers have become accustomed to having to navigate distractions created by the White House.
“When this year have we not had some big story about Russia or something else supposedly looming over us?” the aide said. “This is kind of the new normal.”
Other observers suggested the pervasiveness of the Russia probe — which continued to dominate cable television news much of Tuesday — will have a more significant impact on Capitol Hill, particularly if more indictments are handed down in coming weeks.
“It brings more chaos into an already chaotic situation, where they’re operating on an almost-impossible timeline to begin wtih,” said Jim Manley, a lobbyist and longtime aide to former Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
Manley and others also argued that Trump tends to lash out on Twitter when he’s agitated — and often not in a helpful way.
Last week, for instance, he tweeted that the tax cut plan would not include any changes to tax-deferred retirement accounts such as 401(k)s, following reports last week that House Republicans were weighing a sharp reduction in the amount of income American workers could save through such programs.
While they say they would welcome Democratic support, leaders of both chambers are preparing to pass the bill with only Republican votes. In the Senate, where there are 52 Republicans, that means the party can lose only two GOP votes.
“They don’t have margin for error, so it doesn’t take much to get off track,” said John Weaver, who was chief strategist for the 2016 presidential campaign of Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio).
Doug Heye, a GOP political consultant, said the Mueller indictments have largely overshadowed would could have been a string of positive stories about Trump’s week: his push for tax cuts, the expected announcement of a new Federal Reserve chairman on Thursday and a major trip abroad.
“This distraction makes it harder to see any successes they have,” Heye said. “It highlights a problem this administration had since the beginning: staying out of its own way.”
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