If you think it’s only Americans who are watching the news of a criminal indictment and a guilty plea of Trump campaign officials in the Russia probe, think again. Not only is the entire world following the dramatic developments, but world leaders, in particular, are keeping a close eye on a case that weakens President Donald Trump domestically — and has the potential to bring an early end to his presidency.
There’s never a good time for a president to see former aides indicted, but Monday’s events — the indictment and arrest of two campaign officials, including the former Trump presidential campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and a guilty plea by foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, who admitted to communicating with people he believed to be linked to the Kremlin to get “dirt” on Hillary Clinton and arrange a meeting between Putin and Trump — came just a few days before Trump is scheduled to leave on a major trip to Asia. The timing could hardly be worse.
The stunning events made front page news from Chile to the Czech Republic. And there is no question that China’s President Xi Jinping, now more powerful than ever, is being closely briefed on the case. So is North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, as well as Iran’s supreme leader and others.
How will this investigation, which experts agree is only in its early stages, affect Trump’s ability to conduct business on behalf of the United States and the American people? It erodes his standing and his perceived power — and hence America’s, and it makes him less able to persuade others to align with Washington. In addition, it has the potential to cast doubts on his motives as he tackles international crises.
When global figures see an embattled President, they will see a wounded President. Trump has deliberately tried to make himself unpredictable, even frightening, to America’s adversaries. That fear element will now be magnified. Global (and domestic) audiences will wonder how his decision-making may be affected by his political troubles.
Trump’s international standing is further eroded by his plunging poll numbers. His approval rating at home, according to the latest Gallup poll, has just reached a new low and his disapproval has broken to a new high. Those numbers don’t receive as much attention abroad, but when they start scraping new depths, world leaders take notice that they are facing a weakened President, who may have trouble mustering domestic support for international agreements.
Around the world people are wondering aloud what the future holds for Trump, which highlights his weakness. The Jakarta Post wrote, “Never since the Watergate scandal has a sitting US president been in a more perilous position,” noting that Trump’s low approval ratings and lack of achievements only make matters worse. “The worst is yet to come for Trump,” said the editorial, “and the world is anxiously watching.”
In Britain’s The Guardian, an editorial painted a picture of a feeble and tumultuous White House. “Mr Trump’s presidency staggers on, unique and chaotic, defying many rules of politics. But not the rule of law.”
So, Trump leaves on Friday with his presidency under pressure. His claim that the Russia investigation is nothing but a “hoax” concocted by Democrats upset about their electoral victory has now lost whatever credibility it ever had.
It would be impossible for Trump not to be distracted by the crisis as he meets with world leaders in one of the world’s most tense regions.
The trip will take the President to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. It will be a long, exhausting itinerary. The White House has already cut the trip short, canceling plans for him to attend the East Asia Summit, which US presidents normally attend, even though he will be a few miles away from the venue.
Officials were reportedly concerned that at the end of such a long trip, Trump would “get cranky, leading to unpredictable or undiplomatic behavior,” according to the Washington Post. And that was before Manafort was put under arrest. It was before we found out Papadopoulos is cooperating with independent counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, possibly wearing a wire in the process.
In China, Trump will meet a Chinese President who has just declared it’s time for China to flex its muscle and become a “mighty force” on the global scene, foreshadowing a dramatic challenge to American power.
The region is fraught with anxiety over North Korea’s fast-advancing nuclear weapons program, and over Trump’s threats to unleash “fire and fury” to combat it. It escapes no one’s attention that we are speaking about the possibility of nuclear war more seriously than at any time since the end of the Cold War, during a time when the President of the United States is under extreme psychological and political pressure.
If some people at home and abroad were concerned about how Trump might handle North Korea before this week’s events, the worries have only grown.
If Trump decides the situation warrants war, he is sure to face questions about whether it is a “wag the dog” scenario, a war calculated for political reasons to stoke patriotic support for the government. The questions were asked about Clinton when he launched military strikes in the midst of his own political crisis, and you can be sure the same would happen again. That might explain why US and UN North Korea monitors went on “60 Minutes” last weekend to show just how real the threat is, with the American commander in charge of watching Pyongyang’s missile launches declaring that North Korean missiles are now capable of reaching “California and beyond.” Perhaps they wanted to remind everyone that the threat is real, no matter how they feel about Trump.
Trump’s domestic troubles will make it harder for him to muster international support on many fronts. World leaders, including US allies, will feel less inclined to take political risks to align themselves with Washington. If, for example, Trump wants to reopen the nuclear deal with Iran, an agreement that was made by Iran with six countries, the so-called P5+1, he will find the leaders of those countries are much harder to persuade than they would be if he were enjoying strong approval ratings and no legal troubles.
The majority of Americans who disapprove of the President may find it comforting to see Trump cutting a diminished figure on the global stage, but having a weak president is not good for the country. And when that president is as unpredictable and volatile as Donald Trump, the situation is particularly risky.