By Jordan Fabian, The Hill–
President Trump used his four-day trip to Asia to jumpstart his sputtering diplomatic efforts with China and North Korea, moves he is touting as significant victories but that also carry big risks heading into the campaign season.
The president returned to Washington on Sunday evening after trumpeting the historic nature of his visit-which included the first foray into North Korea by a sitting U.S. president-as proof that his unorthodox style of foreign policy leadership is working.
But by resuming his efforts to strike trade and nuclear deals with China and North Korea, respectively, Trump is also raising expectations that he can produce results, meaning the fall could be much steeper if talks break down once again during the 2020 campaign season.
“Now, we’re going to see whether it works or doesn’t work but this is the way the president does diplomacy,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said Sunday on ABC News’s “This Week.” “This is Donald Trump…the essence of who he is-is he believes he gets into a room, he can convince anyone of anything. And we’re going to find out if he’s right.”
Democrats immediately went on the attack against Trump for stepping onto North Korean soil, casting him as an impulsive leader who cozies up to autocrats while getting little in return.
To them, the Asia trip highlighted what they believe will be Trump’s foreign policy weaknesses as he seeks reelection: a trade war with China that hurts American farmers and consumers, an embrace of North Korea that legitimizes its hermit leader and a reluctance to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin on election meddling.
“President Trump’s coddling of dictators at the expense of American national security and interests is one of the most dangerous ways that he’s diminishing us on the world stage and subverting our values as a nation,” said Andrew Bates, campaign spokesman for former Vice President Joe Biden, a front-runner in the Democratic race to challenge Trump next year.
Members of the national security establishment who served during the Obama administration raised similar concerns.
Former acting CIA Director Michael Morell warned Sunday that “we’re paying a price” for Trump’s decision to stage a photo-op with Kim after months of virtually no progress on denuclearization.
“This comes at a very high cost. This gives Kim Jong Un a lot of legitimacy. This is gold for him politically at home and in the world,” Morrell said during an appearance on CBS News’s “Face the Nation.”
Trump throughout his trip dismissed such criticism as naysaying.
“We’ve made tremendous strides. Only the fake news says that they weren’t,” Trump said during a press conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in when asked why Kim deserved a presidential visit despite no substantive changes since their failed nuclear summit in Hanoi in February.
Trump also highlighted another top campaign issue — the U.S. economy — during his travels, which included attending the Group of 20 summit in Japan.
“The leaders of virtually every country that I met at the G-20 congratulated me on our great economy. Many countries are having difficulties on that score. We have the best economy anywhere in the world, with GREAT & UNLIMITED potential looking into the future!” Trump tweeted on Saturday.
His agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping on a trade truce and the resumption of negotiations that collapsed in late May is sure to further juice markets that already finished the first half at their best pace in years.
If Trump and Xi eventually strike a deal to reduce or eliminate tariffs, that would likely add momentum to the U.S. economy and deprive Democrats of a point of criticism next year.
But past negotiations have been repeatedly tripped up over Beijing’s wavering commitment to change its laws to address long-standing irritants for the U.S., such as intellectual property theft, forced technology transfers and foreign ownership restrictions.
Trump also must win over China hardliners within the Republican Party who were quick to criticize his reversal on a ban of sales of American equipment to the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, which U.S. officials have cast as a threat to national security.
“To me, Huawei in the United States would be like a Trojan horse ready to steal more information from us,” Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), the No. 3 Senate Republican said on NBC News’s “Meet the Press” when asked about Trump’s decision. “It does concern me, yes.”
In Kim, Trump is dealing with an even more elusive negotiating partner. While the president has long touted his personal relationship with the 35-year-old leader, many foreign policy experts doubt that Trump will secure a final deal by Election Day.
They believe Kim is trying to draw Trump into a lengthy negotiation process in order to buy time.
James Clapper, who was former President Obama’s director of national intelligence, called Trump’s brief visit to North Korea “a great historic moment,” while adding that “when it comes to the hard business of negotiating here, I think that’s another story.”
“I personally don’t believe the North Koreans have, long term, any intent to denuclearize. Why should they? It’s their ticket to survival. And they’re just not going to do that,” Clapper said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
While Trump’s trip featured new developments in high-stakes negotiations, it also renewed old controversies.
His decision to joke with Putin about election meddling as well as his failure to publicly confront Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman over the murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi gave Democrats, and some Republicans, new fodder to argue that the president does not stand up for American values abroad.
“The President’s praise for MBS, the man who US intel says ordered or authorized the heinous murder of a WaPo columnist & Saudi dissident, sends the wrong message to the world,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) tweeted Saturday.
Trump later told reporters he mentioned the Khashoggi killing privately with the crown prince, but also defended his interactions with both the Russian and Saudi leaders.
The president has often held up Saudi Arabia as a key ally in his administration’s effort to counter Iran. Tensions between Washington and Tehran neared high alert before Trump’s trip to Asia.
“I get along with President Putin. I get along with Mohammed from Saudi Arabia,” he said.