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'Nobody expected this moment' — the top takeaways from Trump's trip to Asia

Analysis: In an eventful overseas trip, the president extended olive branches to foes while keeping an eye on how it was being received back home.
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un stands with President Donald Trump north of the Military Demarcation Line that divides North and South Korea on Sunday. Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

SEOUL, South Korea — As President Donald Trump headed to Asia last week, there was anticipation in the air amid burning questions over how he’d handle his interactions with many of the world’s most important leaders.

Could Trump and China achieve a breakthrough in their trade war? Would he admonish Vladimir Putin not to meddle in next year’s election? How would he deal with the cast of dictators on his schedule?

Three days in Japan and South Korea saw the president extend olive branches to U.S. adversaries in ways that may have lowered short-term tensions but left some critics lamenting that he hadn’t held a firmer line.

He even briefly stepped foot in North Korea during an extraordinary, hastily arranged meeting with Kim Jong Un that yielded a restart in nuclear negotiations.

All the while, he made clear he was keenly attuned to how his global jaunt was playing back at home, on TV screens and on social media.

“If he did not show up, the press was going to make me look very bad. So you made us both look good,” Trump said of Kim in the DMZ after the historic meeting. But Trump was ready to go home, telling U.S. troops: “I want to get the hell back on that big plane.”

Some key takeaways from Trump’s whirlwind trip to Japan, South Korea and the Demilitarized Zone:

Fondness for firsts

There’s nothing Trump seems to like more than to say he’s made history or done what no president has done before.

It began within minutes of his taking office on 2017, when he boasted of having the largest inaugural crowd size in history, though that claim was immediately called into dispute. Trump was also the first Republican presidential nominee to speak about LGBTQ rights during a Republican National Convention and first to have an Indian-American, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, serve in his Cabinet.

And the firsts continue this week when Trump abandons the typical presidential plans for the Fourth of July and hosts an unprecedented, grandiose “Salute to America” on the National Mall — complete with Air Force One flying over Washington — that has left security and logistics officials on edge.

Already, as he traveled to Asia, Trump had made history by being the first sitting president to meet with a North Korean leader, first in Singapore last year and then in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February. But Trump was intent on notching up another first by meeting with Kim Jong Un in the DMZ — and even taking a few steps onto North Korean soil as no president before him has done.

“The media was saying this could be a very historic moment, and I guess that is what it is,” Trump said.

Bucking the hawks

It’s no secret that Trump has surrounded himself by national security advisers who advocate a hardline approach to dealing with America’s adversaries: Iran, North Korea and Russia, to name a few. Many of his trade advisers have also urged him to hold firm in the trade war with China and not ease up on increasing rounds of tariffs until Beijing capitulates.

But within a few short days, Trump agreed to hold off on his next threatened round of 25 percent tariffs on another $300 million in Chinese goods, and also lifted his ban on U.S. companies exporting technology to Huawei, the tech and telecom firm that the U.S. has accused of conducting surveillance for China’s government.

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He expressed openness to meeting with Iran’s leaders with no preconditions, and joked with Russian President Vladimir Putin about election meddling, later telling reporters that Putin “denies it totally,” without mentioning the U.S. intelligence community’s unwavering view that Putin did meddle in 2016 and plans to again.

And some of the hawks advising Trump would have preferred he not grant Kim a feel-good photo opportunity in the DMZ despite no measurable progress toward striking a nuclear deal.

The softer stance toward longstanding U.S. enemies may have been another blow to Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, who just weeks ago had urged Trump to approve a retaliatory strike against Iran that the president called off at the last minute. On his Asia swing, Trump at one point referred to his adviser as “Mike Bolton,” a mistake he’s made several times before.

Dealing with dictators

The cast of characters that Trump met with during his stop in Japan for the Group of 20 summit read like a list of the most brutal, authoritarian leaders in the world, save for a few in Africa and Latin America.

“Presidents, prime ministers, dictators — I met them all,” he said before departing South Korea.

Meeting with powerful leaders is a key part of the job for any U.S. president, and the United States doesn’t get to pick who’s in charge in other parts of the world. But typically, U.S. leaders have sought to be more measured in their interactions with leaders who work against America’s interests or are implicated in serious abuses of human rights, women’s rights and democratic freedoms.

Trump wanted the public to know he gets along well with everybody, rarely mentioning any of the allegations against his interlocutors unless pressed directly on them by reporters covering his trip.

He called Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who imprisoned many of his rivals in a purported corruption purge and was implicated by the CIA in ordering the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a “terrific ally,” telling him that he’d done “really a spectacular job.”

He called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who cracked down aggressively on civil liberties and detained tens of thousands in the wake of a coup attempt, “a friend of mine” whom he’s “become very close to.”

Even as he wages a trade war with China that has spooked economic markets, Trump called President Xi Jinping “a brilliant man” who he said is “probably considered to be one of the great leaders in 200 years.”

But perhaps no cozy interaction raised alarm bells back at home more than his meeting with Putin, seen as undermining U.S. interests everywhere from Syria and Libya to Ukraine and Venezuela. Trump said he gets along with the former KGB officer and touted their “very, very good relationship.”

“It's appalling. It's disgraceful. It shows he shouldn't be president,” responded Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.

Affection for Asia

Although Trump seems to despise the grueling task of attending major world summits like the G-20 where the sessions focus on wonky economic issues and not on him, he’s built a particular affection for Asia, making five trips here already as president. In fact, his visit to Osaka was his second trip to Japan this month alone.

“I’m thrilled to be back. I always like being back in Japan,” Trump said.

It’s unclear why Trump has developed such a fondness for Asia, but it may stem from the tradition in the region for hospitality and deference, and the tendency of many leaders in the region — especially Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — to lavish praise on Trump. Perhaps that’s because foreign leaders and their intelligence agencies who have been closely studying Trump since his election have come to believe that flattery is an effective way to curry favor with the publicity-minded president.

On multiple occasions, Trump told reporters how everywhere he went on this trip, he was being congratulated, both for his election victory more than two years ago and for the buoyancy of the U.S. economy since he took office. He even brought up his trip to China last year, saying that he’d spoken about it in Osaka with Xi and other leaders.

“The red carpet was rolled out for all of us — for this country, for our country,” Trump said.

Stealing the show

The first two days of Trump’s Asia swing brought an unusual development for the president: For once, he was not at the center of attention on the U.S. political scene.

After all, his time in Japan coincided with the first Democratic primary debate, and the media at home was abuzz with talk not of Trump but of Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., former Vice President Joe Biden and the other Democrats vying to unseat Trump.

That fact was clearly on the president’s mind, as he repeatedly tweeted — even in between summit meetings — about the debates and his poor assessment of his competitor’s performances. In his news conference in Japan, he took it upon himself to dismiss the performance of Harris, who was widely perceived as the winner of Thursday's debate.

“You never know who's going to be tough,” Trump said of the Democrats. “One that you think is going to be tough turns out to be not much.”

But by the end of the trip, Trump managed to steal back the headlines with his historic step into North Korea and handshake with Kim Jong Un. By the time Americans woke up on Sunday, it was Trump’s face plastered on TV screens and dominating social media.