Written by Peter Baker
At one point during his eventful swing through Asia, President Donald Trump took time out to slam Jimmy Carter. Responding to criticism from the former president, Trump hurled his usual insults. Then he unleashed this cutting barb: Carter, he said dismissively, was “the forgotten president.”
Whatever else may be said about Trump, that is one thing he seems absolutely determined not to be. The man who emblazoned his surname on buildings, golf courses, airplanes and even bathrobes, cuff links, steaks, neckties and men’s fragrances appears intent on inscribing “Trump” in large, bright letters in the history books as well.
His whirlwind 72 hours in Japan and South Korea could be seen as his pitch for posterity. He had, in his telling, built “the best economy in the world.” The deal he hoped to reach with China “could be very historic.” And when he went where no president had gone before by stepping across the border into North Korea, “historic” was not good enough. Even before the visit was over, he was characterizing it as “legendary.”
More than most presidents, Trump appears driven by a quest for superlatives — whatever he is doing must be the first, the most, the biggest — and it shapes his policy choices even as he frames his own narrative with the branding skills of a career in business and entertainment. During one news conference on the trip, he used the word “best” nine times, “incredible” 16 times, “tremendous” 28 times and “great” or “greatest” 50 times.
“We’re the hottest show in town,” he told reporters in Osaka, Japan, referring specifically to the economy but in some ways to his presidency as well as he once again seized the spotlight back from Democrats who were debating themselves at home. “We’re the hottest show in the world right now.”
While at times he stretched, ignored or made up facts, Trump nonetheless pursued an agenda of breathtaking ambition. He was at once seeking to rewrite the rules of the global economic order with China amid a dangerous trade war of his own making while engaging in a high-stakes pas de deux with the leader of North Korea over his nuclear program.
He repeatedly offered to sit down with Iran to negotiate an end to decades of hostility even as he was joined by his son-in-law, who was fresh from the Middle East where he was opening a long-shot drive to forge peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He sought to open negotiations with Russia and China to broker an unprecedented three-way treaty limiting nuclear arms. And while he was in Asia, his government resumed talks across the world with the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan.
If his goals required cozying up to autocrats believed to have blood on their hands, like Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia or President Vladimir Putin of Russia, that did not bother him in the least. If he offended traditional allies along the way, they had it coming. If he crossed lines others would not, so be it.
To his critics, it was all spectacle with no payoff. He may have gotten trade talks with China back on track, but he was the one who disrupted the relationship in the first place. He may have made a splashy encounter with Kim Jong Un of North Korea at the Demilitarized Zone, but he got no closer to eliminating even a single nuclear warhead.
“Trump’s habit of manufacturing a crisis, followed by phony, made-for-TV fixes, can’t obscure the fact that he has done nothing to actually address the greatest security challenges America faces,” said Colin H. Kahl, who was a national security adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden. “That isn’t realism — it’s disaster.”
Kahl, now a director of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, said the costs had been profound.
“Our moral authority and credibility have been shredded as Trump has unilaterally ditched one international agreement after another just to prove he’s not Barack Obama,” he said. “And our core democratic alliances in Europe and Asia are in the shakiest position since the end of the Second World War because of Trump’s tariffs, sanctions and constant bashing.”
To Trump’s supporters, however, the president’s willingness to try what others might not is refreshing, even if it has yet to achieve as much as he has set out to accomplish.
By confronting China, he has finally used the tools of government to pressure Beijing to rein in abusive trade practices in a way that many people beyond Trump’s usual supporters felt was long overdue. Kim has not given up his nuclear program, but he is no longer detonating warheads or firing missiles over Japan or at Guam, lowering the temperature in a volatile area.
“There is still no real evidence that the diplomatic outreach is going to pay off,” acknowledged James Jay Carafano, a senior fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation. But “there is no real evidence it’s failing, either. Frankly, diplomacy is a low-risk part of the strategy for Trump. Sure, he gets criticized, but he doesn’t care. The critics would likely come after him no matter what. He is willing to put himself out there in personal diplomacy and take all the criticism.”
Using the initials for North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Carafano added: “If DPRK doesn’t come through, then his supporters will give him chips for trying, we are no worse off and DPRK is just as isolated, no matter how many selfies Kim has with Trump.”
The selfie with Kim was Trump’s most celebrated and criticized act during his trip, the one that put on display his flair for improvisation and spectacle. No other president would have posted a message on Twitter inviting North Korea’s dictator to meet him at the Demilitarized Zone barely 24 hours later and then step over the line to become the first sitting president to enter North Korea.
In another administration, such a move might have been deliberated for weeks, put through an interagency process and approved only as part of a comprehensive approach to pressuring North Korea into giving up its nuclear program — a reward for progress. Trump himself had previously been talked out of just such a move by cautious advisers. But this time he could not resist the idea of a showy “first,” whether it fit a long-term strategy or not.
In creating his preferred version of the story, Trump said he just came up with the idea when he woke up in Osaka on Saturday morning and spontaneously posted the message on Twitter. It was true that he caught his aides off guard, forcing them to scramble to see if a tweet could be turned into reality.
But it was not true that he just thought of it Saturday morning. He had talked about it at least five days earlier with journalists for The Hill news organization, which was then asked by the White House not to reveal that out of security concerns.
As with so many things, that reality did not fit neatly into the story line Trump was fashioning, so it was disregarded. The other part of his chronicle was how he was cleaning up the “fiery mess” he said was left by Obama.
He said that Obama wanted to meet with Kim only to be rebuffed and that had the last president stayed in office, he would have gone to war with North Korea — a pretty fanciful revision of history, according to advisers to the former president, but one that suited the heroic epic Trump was writing for himself.
He has to write it himself because he does not trust anyone else to. Trump spent much of Sunday expressing bristling resentment that he was not getting enough credit for reducing tension with North Korea — tension that he himself ratcheted up with talk of “fire and fury” in 2017, but that preceded his tenure, too.
“I hate to hear the media, you know, give false information to the public when they say, ‘Oh, what’s been done?’ ” he said at one point. “What’s been done? A lot has been done.”
He had a point; the state of affairs in East Asia has settled down significantly in two years. The question is whether it stays that way.
As eager as Trump is to shape his chapter in the history books, he repeatedly expressed patience throughout the trip. “I’m in no rush with Iran,” he said. “We’re in no rush” on North Korea. “I’m not rushed” on China.
But the clock is ticking. With just 16 months until the election, and even fewer before the campaign becomes all consuming, time will soon run short on big initiatives. The history books will read very differently depending on whether he succeeds or fails.
Yet, for good or bad, it seems fair to say he will not be a forgotten president anytime soon.
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