WASHINGTON (Circa) — After a week in which he made some of the most dramatic foreign policy moves of his presidency, President Donald Trump declared Thursday that “America is respected again,” but critics say his record on international affairs is still incomplete and a lack of focus on domestic matters could prove costly in November.
Trump opened his speech at a campaign rally in Indiana on Thursday night by recalling greeting American hostages who returned from North Korea early that morning and mocking those who had suggested his bellicose threats against leader Kim Jong Un could provoke a nuclear war.
“You know what gets you into nuclear wars and what gets you into other wars?” he asked. “Weakness.”
The hour-long address also included multiple riffs on how bad Trump believes the Iran nuclear deal was. He had announced Tuesday that he is withdrawing the U.S. from the agreement, which the Obama administration reached with several other countries with the intent of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
“Among the many great national security blunders of the previous administration, one of the worst was the disastrous Iran nuclear deal,” Trump said Thursday.
With his latest decisions on North Korea and Iran, Trump dismissed the fears of experts and allies about disastrous ramifications while potentially upending the status quo in volatile regions of the world. It may be years before it is clear whether those gambles will pay off, but in the short-term, he may be able to capitalize on them for political gain at home.
According to Tom Whalen, author of “JFK and His Enemies: A Portrait of Power” and a professor of social sciences at Boston University, Trump appears to view foreign and domestic affairs as “one broad political mosaic.”
“I guess you could say that foreign policy is front and center for him right now, but he has one eye on domestic politics, in particular his own precarious position in the polls,” Whalen said. “In his mind, he sees the two as interconnected, that if he can pull off a North Korea deal…this will be a major point for fellow Republicans to run on.”
Trump’s focus on foreign affairs will continue in the days ahead as his administration prepares to open a new embassy to Israel in Jerusalem on Monday, a move past presidents have promised but always delayed. His daughter and son-in-law are among those scheduled to attend the embassy opening.
Preparations will likely then heat up for Trump’s planned meeting with Kim, now set for June 12 in Singapore. Trump is scheduled to discuss the summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on May 22.
International trade remains a top issue as well, with a deadline to reach an agreement in principle on renegotiating NAFTA fast approaching next week. Threats of tariffs and counter-tariffs between the U.S. and China continue to escalate, with potentially severe implications for American farmers.
The headlines about historic shifts in U.S. foreign policy provide a respite from the domestic controversies surrounding the White House that occupy much of the media’s attention, experts say.
“There are so many domestic crises blowing up in the press every day,” said Carey Cavanaugh, a former ambassador and a professor of diplomacy and conflict resolution at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.
Some foreign policy issues are bubbling to the forefront for reasons beyond Trump’s control, but on others, he is advancing aggressively by choice as he attempts to rack up victories abroad.
“He had to make a decision on the Iran JCPOA by May 12,” he said. “That had a deadline. North Korea has less of one. He sees a prospect of moving forward in a positive way so he seized it.”
In doing so, Cavanaugh warned that Trump has skipped many steps that typically proceed such high-level talks to set parameters and clearly define what issues are on the table. If this summit fails to produce an actionable agreement, the next step is unclear.
“One outcome of this could be there’s no further diplomatic engagement because you’ve taken the diplomatic option to the highest level first,” he said.
.@SecPompeo with FM Kang: U.S. and #ROK remain committed to achieving the permanent, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. If Chairman Kim chooses the right path, there is a future brimming with peace and prosperity for #NorthKorea and its people. pic.twitter.com/rl6Pw0LuTf— Department of State (@StateDept) May 11, 2018
The chaos and the high stakes may to be part of the appeal for Trump.
“This is Trump’s atmosphere,” Whalen said. “He loves the drama. He loves having all these various political and diplomatic balls in the air. Ultimately, he is a juggler.”
Asked to grade the president’s handling of international affairs, members of Trump’s party gave him predictably high marks this week while Democrats offered, at most, faint praise.
Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill., gave Trump a B+ on both domestic and foreign policy, predicting success in his dealings with Pyongyang.
“We’ve defeated ISIS. No one thought that was possible,” he said. “We’re going to have peace with North Korea in the future in terms of a denuclearized North Korea and a unification with South Korea. We’ve also rebuilt our military, so I think the president has done an excellent job.”
Overall, Rep. John Faso, R-N.Y., offered “a solid B” on foreign policy. He applauded the Israel embassy move and expressed optimism about the general direction of events with North Korea, but his praise was not universal.
“I’m concerned with a lot of the administration’s rhetoric on trade,” Faso said. “I don’t think it’s been well-timed or suited and not conducive to good relations with our allies or a better economy here at home.”
Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., has also been troubled by Trump’s trade talk.
“Renegotiating NAFTA is fine, I wasn’t a big fan of it to begin with, but you don’t do it with a big hammer,” he said.
Schrader gave Trump credit for bringing North Korea to the negotiating table, earning him a passing grade, but not by much.
“On foreign affairs, I’d probably give him a D,” he said. “He’s destroyed our world leadership position almost single-handedly. Our allies are now our adversaries; our enemies are now his friends. I don’t think that’s a tenable place to be.”
Still, he acknowledged that Trump’s brash, unconventional approach to diplomacy has sometimes produced positive results.
“He has a tendency to go rogue and do his own thing and at the end of the day accidentally it might actually work out,” he said. “I hope so.”
According to Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., Trump’s handling of North Korea, Iran, and trade issues might eventually earn him an A, but it is too soon to say whether it will succeed.
“It’s hard to judge, a year-and-a-half into a dramatically different foreign policy, the end result,” he said.
Polls suggest public opinion of Trump’s foreign policy is improving. A CNN/SSRS poll released this week found that approval of his handling of foreign affairs has risen three percentage points since June, and his handling of foreign trade has jumped four points.
On North Korea specifically, 53 percent of respondents approved of Trump’s approach, a leap of nearly 20 points up from where it was six months ago in the same poll. Approval of a Trump-Kim meeting is also rising, with 77 percent of Americans now supporting it.
Whether the U.S. is “respected again,” as Trump claimed Thursday, is harder to judge. A Gallup poll conducted across 134 countries in January found approval of U.S. leadership plummeted from 48 percent to 30 percent during his first year in office.
Trump has forged a bond with French President Emmanuel Macron—though Macron was unable to sway him to support the Iran deal—but traditional alliances with Britain and Germany have grown strained. His attempts to improve relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin despite the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 election continue to stir controversy.
“Right now, it’s not playing well at all,” said Cavanaugh of European response to Trump’s behavior. “Trump has championed that he is an unpredictable leader. No one knows what he can do next. Our partners don’t like that.”
While Trump’s domestic policy efforts have often been stymied by procedural rules in Congress and lawsuits in federal court, he has largely been free to pursue whatever policies he chooses on the international stage.
On immigration in particular, Trump has made clear changing immigration laws and building a border wall are among his top priorities, but he has not been able to accomplish either. Congressional gridlock cannot stop him from abandoning the Iran deal or scheduling a meeting with a North Korean dictator.
“Congress doesn’t have a role at this point,” Cavanaugh said. “There isn’t a budget issue at this point. He gets to act as diplomat-in-chief.”
.@RepJohnFaso to @CBS6Albany : “Kim Jong Un is a 34-year-old guy looking to keep the Kim dynasty in place for another 30 or 40 years with him in the throttle. So he’s looking at staying in power and he cant do it, I don’t think, with his economy in freefall” #C2C pic.twitter.com/W2Ujtj4F1F— C2C Sinclair (@SBGC2C) May 9, 2018
Experts say presidents often turn their attention to foreign policy when domestic policy stagnates. According to Whalen, this was particularly true of President Richard Nixon.
“In his mind, being president wasn’t about raising minimum wage a few cents. It’s really about shaping world events,” he said. It was a domestic scandal that did eventually force Nixon to resign, though.
Where some see a concerted effort to fulfill his campaign’s “America First” promise driving Trump’s policy decisions, others see a president careening haphazardly from one crisis to the next making instinctive judgments without consideration of the consequences.
“There’s no overarching strategy here…,” Whalen said. “That’s how Trump is. He does not see a grand design here. It’s just gut instinct.”
There are recurring themes of uncertainty and of undoing agreements made by previous presidents, particularly the most recent one. Before the Iran deal, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accords, and he often threatens to throw out NAFTA entirely if he is not happy with negotiations.
“The United States’ word around the globe doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot,” Whalen said.
Trump’s perceived successes and the apparent lack of negative consequences have reportedly emboldened him to continue following his gut on foreign policy. With hawkish new advisers, he may grow more aggressive, particularly if he finds his actions are winning him more support at home.
“He feels it certainly rallies his base,” Cavanaugh said. “His supporters get excited by this.”
Based on Thursday’s event in Indiana, it seems clear Trump aims to make his handling of international affairs part of his midterm sales pitch, but Whalen said that strategy has rarely worked for past presidents. The last time he can recall a president’s party being buoyed by foreign policy matters in the midterms was in 1962 after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but given the way the country is now, how divided people are, I think that’s unlikely,” he said.
With low unemployment, healthy economic growth, and a strong stock market, touting domestic progress may make a more convincing midterm motivation for voting Republican, even if Trump and the GOP majority have accomplished less than he would like at home.
“Most Americans care about balancing their checkbooks, paying off their mortgages, making sure their kids go to the right college…,” Whalen said. “They’re more attuned to pocketbook issues, not grand geopolitical strategy.”