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Trump steps onto world stage in the shadow of impeachment

Analysis: The president arrives at the NATO meeting with allies divided, relationships fractured, and his own political struggles looming large.
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LONDON — This is the contrast President Donald Trump wanted — at least, in theory.

On this side of the Atlantic, he'll be representing the United States in high-level talks with Western leaders about the rising threats of Russia, China and perpetual turmoil in the Middle East. On the other, in his telling, his domestic political rivals in the House Democratic majority will be busy indicting him in absentia in an impeachment investigation he calls a "hoax" designed to undermine his presidency.

For Trump, it's an opportunity to distill for voters the argument that he's doing his job while Democrats are ignoring the needs of the American public so they can hurt him politically.

"The Democrats, the radical-left Democrats, the do-nothing Democrats decided when I'm going to NATO — this was set up a year ago — that when I'm going to NATO, that was the exact time," he said of the House Judiciary Committee's first impeachment hearing, which is scheduled for Wednesday and is on track with long-standing Democratic plans to bring a vote to the House floor before Christmas. "This is one of the most important journeys that we make as president."

But as Trump meets with world leaders at the NATO meeting here this week, his moment on the international stage is at risk of being upstaged by the intensifying impeachment inquiry back home.

Likewise, any portrait of him as the leader of a free world confronting the alliance's common adversaries is mottled by his withdrawal from the climate and Iran nuclear deals, his chummy relationships with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other autocrats, and the fact that the impeachment is centered on his decision to freeze vital military aid to Ukraine.

The House Intelligence Committee was due to deliver to the Judiciary Committee on Monday its report on the president's dealings with that nation, which included witnesses testifying to the particulars of Trump freezing aid to that country while directing top lieutenants to work through his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to pressure officials in Kyiv to open investigations into the Bidens and a conspiracy theory that claimed Ukraine framed Russia for interfering in the 2016 election.

Trump administration officials delivered the message to anxious Ukrainian officials that the military support would flow again if President Volodymyr Zelenskiy publicly announced that the investigations would be launched — a boon to Trump's re-election campaign in the form of harming rival and former Vice President Joe Biden and creating a cloud around what intelligence experts have said is the certainty that Russia ran a sophisticated effort to intervene on Trump's behalf in his first bid for the presidency.

A report of dissenting views circulated by House Intelligence Committee Republicans on Monday contends that the president pursued investigations not for his personal or political benefit but because he had legitimate concerns about possible corruption in Ukraine and the fabricated case that Ukraine conspired with Democrat Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election — a claim that former National Security Council aide Fiona Hill dismissed as a Russian disinformation campaign during her testimony.

As the full Intelligence Committee report lands in Washington on Tuesday, Trump is scheduled to spend the day meeting with French President Emanuel Macron, having tea with Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and attending a reception with world leaders at Buckingham Palace.

On Wednesday, the day of the Judiciary hearing, Trump is slated to participate in a series of NATO ceremonial events followed by meetings with world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

He'll have a chance to address global issues — and the impeachment hearing slated to take place at the same time — at a press conference planned before his return to Washington.

Before he even arrived, it already seemed clear that Trump would have a hard time leaving domestic politics behind him.

“Democrats purposely scheduled an Impeachment Hoax hearing on the same date as NATO. Not nice!” he tweeted moments after departing for London, including a video of his plane taking off in the tweet.

While over the Atlantic, he tweeted that “the Impeachment Scam” was only bringing Republicans closer together and sent out his support for Rep John Kennedy, R-La., who critics say was echoing Russian propaganda talking points about Ukraine during an appearance on NBC’s "Meet the Press" on Sunday.

Beyond the facts of the impeachment case, there are problems with Trump's portrayal of House Democrats neglecting their legislative work to focus on investigating him.

On the same day of the public release of a whistleblower report detailing allegations of impropriety in his Ukraine dealings — Sept. 26 — Trump signed into law a bill written by Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., that would provide a cost-of-living adjustment for disabled veterans for fiscal 2020. The next day, Trump signed a House-passed measure keeping the government running on a short-term basis and ensuring that Ukraine's defense money would get out the door before expiring.

Overall, 20 of the 77 bills that became law since Democrats took control of the House in January did so between the date of the whistleblower report's release and now.

On this side of the Atlantic, Trump has a tangible accomplishment to promote.

He's had some success in getting countries to boost military spending; if he can break through the noise of impeachment, he may get some credit for that. Member countries are now projected to increase spending by about $130 billion between 2016 and 2020, higher than previously forecast, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week. NATO also said it would reduce the U.S. contribution to its budget.

But it also provides the potential for more pitfalls than positives with relationships between Trump and the other leaders fractured and allies divided over how to handle trade, China, Syria and Iran.

Trump has had a tumultuous past with the alliance. At his first summit, he shocked leaders when he failed to reaffirm a core principle of the alliance — that an attack against one member is an attack on all. During last year’s gathering, he threatened that if members didn’t immediately increase their defense spending, the U.S. would pull out of the alliance.

And while spending by member countries has increased, 22 of the 29 NATO allies, including Germany, currently aren’t reaching the recommended spending level — despite Trump’s repeated demands. Last year he accused Germany of being “captive” to Russia because of an energy deal it had struck.

Biden, a leading contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination whom Trump pushed Ukraine to investigate while withholding that defense funding over the summer, said Monday that the existence of the NATO coalition is in peril if Trump wins re-election.

"Just take a look at what he's done so far," Biden said in response to a question from NBC's Mike Memoli. "The way he has, you know, embraced Putin. The way he's embraced oligarchs. The way he's poked his finger in the eye of NATO and maybe — you know, look there's always time for redemption but up until now he's treated NATO like it's a protection racket."

In the case of Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO but is getting support from Western nations that would prefer it not fall back under Russian control, the allegation against Trump is that he abused his powers as president to create a protection racket aimed at disabling Biden's candidacy.

That issue will be inescapable for Trump as he rubs elbows with foreign leaders here.

Shannon Pettypiece reported from London, and Jonathan Allen from Washington.