Donald Trump's excellent Asian adventure is almost over, and so far he hasn't blown up the world. He sent Kim Jong-un a mean-girl tweet on Saturday, but it doesn't seem to have inspired the North Korean dictator to set off any bombs, at least not yet. And Trump managed to get through a big speech in South Korea with just a couple of unintelligible teleprompter mistakes and only a brief digression into advertise his golf courses.
In Japan, Trump bonded once again with his old buddy "Shinzo" and reminisced about the early days of his presidency, when he was was surprised to learn "there were so many countries." In China, he seemed as wide-eyed and awestruck by the pomp and pageantry as a six-year-old seeing the big Snoopy balloon at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade for the first time.
In fact, all the Asian countries went out of their way to put on a really big show for the president, making sure he knew that the show was bigger for him than any other president in history. They clearly saw that he was easily flattered and manipulated by watching his reaction to the trip to the Middle East earlier this year, when Saudi Arabia staged a glittering spectacle on his behalf and Trump glowed with visible pride that they recognized his greatness.
After all, he graciously responded later in June by shrugging off the Saudi-led blockade against Qatar, a longtime American ally, much to the surprise of his own Secretary of State. Saudi flattery is still paying off, with Trump apparently supporting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's arrest of his rivals, sending his right-hand man Jared Kushner to chew the fat with the young prince into the wee hours and later tweeting that he has "great confidence" in Prince Mohammed.
The Chinese clearly took a page from the Saudis' book, feting Trump like a visiting emperor with nonstop accolades and what they called “state visit plus,” complete with the first tour of the Forbidden City ever offered to a visiting president, as well as parades, formal banquets and visits to the opera. Trump couldn't have been happier, so much so that he pretty much decided that all of his complaints about Chinese trade practices on the campaign trail were actually the fault of his predecessors.
Trump didn't come away with anything substantial. But his ego was stroked so masterfully that he believes that his "great chemistry" and “incredibly warm” feelings with Chinese President Xi Jinping are extraordinary accomplishments that solidify his place in the pantheon of great leaders. Indeed, Trump appears to think that all foreign policy rests on his own personal charisma and charm and that because these leaders are treating him like royalty they are all somehow in his power. The opposite, of course, is true.
As Peter Beinart pointed out in the Atlantic, this is a pattern with Trump. He insults foreign leaders mercilessly from afar but becomes obsequious and compliant in their presence. This goes back to his earliest such interaction during the 2016 campaign. Remember when he made that bizarre trip to Mexico to meet with President Enrique Peña Nieto and said it was a “great, great honor,” insisting he had “tremendous feelings” for the people he'd been demeaning for months as rapists and criminals? After that meeting, Trump flew straight to Phoenix and gave one of the most outrageously xenophobic speeches of his outrageously xenophobic campaign, praised by Ann Coulter as "the most magnificent speech ever given." He is, in other words, a "sniveling coward," in the words of no less an authority than Ted Cruz (now of course a loyal sycophant). It's obvious that world leaders have figured this out.
There is one exception to this pattern, however. Trump's relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin is different. While Trump is just as unctuous in Putin's presence as he is with other foreign leaders, he's equally submissive from a distance. Indeed, he hasn't said a harsh word about Putin or Russia for years and goes out of his way to defend the Moscow strongman. This trip was no exception.
There was no formal meeting between the two men at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Hanoi, but they reportedly had several informal discussions. Clearly, Trump was once again dazzled by the Russian leader. When the president finally held a freewheeling press conference aboard Air Force One on Saturday, he was asked whether he and Putin had discussed the issue of election interference, and responded this way:
He said he didn't meddle. He said he didn't meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times. Every time he sees me, he says, 'I didn't do that' and I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it. I think he is very insulted by it. Don't forget, all he said is he never did that, he didn't do that. I think he's very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country.
Another reporter pressed him, asking, "Do you believe him?" Trump responded, "I think that he is very, very strong in the fact that he didn't do it" and launched into a rant about John Podesta and the DNC server. He ended up by calling former CIA head John Brennan, former FBI director James Comey and former director of national intelligence James Clapper all "hacks," before saying, "So you look at that, and you have President Putin very strongly, vehemently says he had nothing to do with that."
Some people have contended that didn't mean Trump necessarily agreed with Putin. But when you look at the entire quote in context, it's clear that at the very least they are on the same wavelength on this issue: It didn't happen, but if it did, neither one of them had anything to do with it.
Trump went even further in this latest round of denials, seeming to take the position that even if Putin is lying, he's very insulted by the accusation, which is not as important as working with Russia on Syria and North Korea. He went so far as to say that "people will die" because "this artificial Democratic hit job" is getting in the way. In other words, we need to let Putin interfere in our elections, or the world gets it. For a would-be strongman, it's hard to imagine weaker words than that.
On Sunday, Trump half-heartedly backtracked, saying, "I am with our agencies as currently constituted," but the damage was done. He has spent the last week demonstrating to the world that the United States is led by a man who is so shallow and vain he can easily be outsmarted by any world leader willing to flatter him and put on a show. Allowing him to go overseas has become a threat to national security.