President Trump returned from a 12-day trip to Asia Tuesday carrying little except some souvenirs and a sense of umbrage. Wednesday afternoon, he stepped to a lectern in the White House and showed the nation what he brought home with him.
Trump’s speech, delivered formally, from a teleprompter, was confusing. The president had tweeted that the nation could expect a “major statement” upon his return, feeding speculation about what he might offer: New sanctions on North Korea? A diplomatic breakthrough? A trade agreement? But as the president spoke, it quickly became apparent that there was no big announcement. Instead, the speech was more like a narration of what Trump did on his fall vacation, missing only a slideshow to go along with it.
Trump’s trip didn’t go poorly, exactly. With the exception of a few outbursts and some appalling coddling of authoritarian leaders’ anti-press policies, Trump avoided major gaffes, but he also came home without a signature achievement. A New York Times piece in Wednesday’s newspaper mocked Trump’s description of the trip as “very epic.” That article got under the president’s skin, producing a series of angry tweets. He also demanded that three UCLA players caught shoplifting in China and released in conjunction with his trip thank him. Then came Trump’s statement, announced with relatively short notice.
The key to giving a speech outlining your big achievements is to have some to offer. Trump did spotlight a few minor successes from the trip: Japan and South Korea both agreed to spend more on defense, taking some burden off of the United States. While in Asia, Trump also announced several projects in the United States, including $250 billion in Chinese investment. He said Japanese companies had invested $8 billion since the start of the year.
But these numbers are small in the scope of the American economy. On the two most pressing matters of his trip, North Korea’s nuclear program and the U.S. trade deficit, the president had less to offer. He boasted that Japan and South Korea had tightened sanctions on some North Korean entities, and added that China’s “President Xi recognizes that North Korea is a great threat to China.” Trump also took a shot at President Obama’s largely unsuccessful approach to the Kim regime, saying, “We have ended the failed strategy of strategic patience including tough new sanctions from the Security Council.”
So far, however, he has nothing to show for these changes: North Korea continues to test missiles, and there’s been no breakthrough. That’s not a knock against Trump, necessarily—the North Korean problem will take time to solve—but it doesn’t make for a dramatic announcement.
Nor was there much to work with on trade.
“The 21 [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] leaders for the first time ever recognized the importance of fair and reciprocal trade,” Trump said. “They recognized the need to address unfair trade practices and acknowledged that the WTO is in strong need of reform.”
Such a bland affirmation is a long way from concrete results such as WTO reform, though. “We will never again turn a blind eye to trading abuses, to cheating, economic aggression, or anything else from countries that profess a belief in open trade but do not follow the rules or live by its principles themselves,” Trump said Wednesday. “No international trading organization can function if members are allowed to exploit the openness of others for unfair economic gain.”
But during his trip, he had sounded considerably more conciliatory, saying he blamed previous U.S. leaders for allowing America to be exploited, rather than the nations he said were performing the exploitation. That’s all well and good, but he hasn’t produced any proof that he’s doing better than his predecessors, even by his own standard.
In the absence of a true breakthrough, Trump instead narrated his trip, stop by stop, from his first touchdown in Hawaii to his final stop in the Philippines. Adding to the weirdness of the spectacle was a moment in which Trump reached for a bottle of water. Not finding it, he said on microphone, “They don’t have water, but that’s okay.” Then someone pointed him to a bottle—Fiji, imported from overseas—and he drank. It was an awkward gesture, reminiscent of Senator Marco Rubio’s infamous sip during the 2013 GOP rebuttal to the State of the Union. Trump, naturally, tweeted making fun of Rubio at the time. Rubio returned the favor Wednesday, tweeting that Trump “needs work on his form. Has to be done in one single motion & eyes should never leave the camera. But not bad for his 1st time.”
Trump is thirsty not just for water but for respect. As I have written, he has repeatedly expressed frustration that the country, the press, and the political establishment do not recognize all that he’s getting done. I have also noted that Trump has gotten more done than is often recognized. On Wednesday, he mentioned America’s progress in defeating ISIS and positive economic news to bolster his case. Nevertheless, the president’s insistence on billing his rather dull summary of his trip as a “major” announcement, as well as his emphasis on the unusual length of his journey, served only to call attention to how little he has to show for his travels.