Almost two months since his election, Donald Trump is in the midst of what a political source close to the president called “a public trip-cleanse,” holding just one formal, in-person meeting in the last week.
Trump is no doubt eager to become more visible, particularly as the spate of unpleasant events in his White House have led to growing calls for his resignation or impeachment. But observers are doubtful that the president will find time in his busy schedule to do the bare minimum needed to ensure his formality stays pristine.
The White House announced Monday that Trump will hold a lunch with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Vietnam, and aides are planning to hold at least two additional official dinners with foreign leaders. His first two meetings with his Chinese counterpart in August also took place in Vietnam.
The president has been reluctant to cede the podium on Twitter, and sometimes to his face. But a contingent of staffers on the transition team vowed in May to “manage with the president’s schedule to keep him in the public eye,” according to a Politico article. At the time, the adviser was reportedly hopeful that Trump would find time for one official, in-person meeting between now and December, given that several foreign leaders visiting the United States this year were looking to meet Trump after a turbulent election. “We’re going to try to keep him at it,” the unnamed adviser told Politico.
A public trip-cleanse would put a limit on the number of foreign trips the president plans to take, and could be a first step in resetting Trump’s public profile.
However, experts on China and Asia are skeptical that the president will be able to make time, given his already large number of scheduled foreign travel dates. Because trips to Asia are often scheduled many months in advance, Chinese sources and U.S. officials told the New York Times that Trump has already scheduled China’s two-day visit for early next month. The first sit-down meeting between Trump and Xi is scheduled for November in Beijing. Trump’s meetings with Japan’s prime minister and South Korea’s president also are on tap in November.
“The more time he has to spend in Asia, the more time he has to be absent from social and diplomatic activity here,” said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Asian Studies Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “All of which we think would be bad for Trump.”
World leaders “might not be able to get the attention they would desire from Trump,” Kuchins added.
“He would have to be willing to give up a whole bunch of events with very senior people in preparation for getting out and campaigning,” said Michael Cheng, a former intelligence officer with China’s National Intelligence Council and an adjunct associate professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. “In China, he’s going to get incredible treatment,” he added.
While Trump’s China trip is made easier by the meeting already planned between the two presidents, his next trips to Asia are set to take place when he is on a tighter schedule, Kuchins said. Trump was slated to visit the Vatican in November, but is now expected to meet with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico City.
“I’m not sure if you can say that a visit to the Vatican is a presidential conference,” Kuchins said. “It’s a celebration of the alliance between the two countries.”
During his inaugural week, the president’s aides also had planned a so-called “prayer breakfast” with Pope Francis that was canceled because it conflicted with Trump’s visit to the Pentagon for a meeting with top military officials, along with other official visits.
Still, experts say that something like the White House trip-cleanse might be worth the investment.
“It’s potentially good to lighten up and moderate Trump’s relationship with the public,” the former intelligence officer said.