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    Ground Game

    Trump went to other side of the planet, and his problems at home followed him

    Andrew Harnik/Associated Press
    President Trump arrives at the Philippine International Convention Center on Monday in Manila.

    President Trump had four goals for his nearly two-week trip to Asia that wrapped up this weekend. There were the three he talked about: ending the North Korean nuclear stand-off, creating bilateral trade deals, and increasing cooperation on defeating the Islamic State.

    And then there was the goal you never heard him talk about: diverting the news from all of his political problems in Washington.

    He didn’t accomplish much of any of this, particularly not the last one.


    Instead, Americans saw the Mueller-Russia investigation dripping news almost daily, along with an epicly bad election day for Republicans and the slow progress toward passing a tax reform bill. And then there is the mess in Alabama, with Roy Moore, Trump’s chosen Senate candidate, accused by multiple women of sexual assault.

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    This is not to suggest that Trump didn’t make headlines from overseas. In a savvy move, Trump’s team scheduled a major speech in South Korea to take place during prime time on election night last Tuesday.

    It served as a reprieve from nonstop talk about how Trump’s low job-approval ratings were giving Democrats a boost in competitive contests around the country. But that reprieve was short-lived. The next day the political chatter wasn’t on Trump’s speech, but on what the election results could mean for next year’s midterm elections.

    Even when it came to Trump’s meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin, the news wasn’t so much about any further cooperation to defeat the Islamic State group in Syria, but about Trump’s statement that Putin really (really) believes the Russian government didn’t meddle with the 2016 presidential election.

    Meanwhile, back home, every Republican US senator was being asked on the record about that statement, more than they were being asked to explain their position on upcoming tax reform legislation. And Trump was asked to further weigh in, which he did a few times.


    And down in Alabama, the firestorm surrounding the Roy Moore accusations grew so intense, Trump felt compelled to respond no less than three times from across the world.

    The president might as well stayed home for headlines like these.

    If anything, the trip showed that typical political tricks like a foreign excursion don’t automatically drive a news cycle, nor will they definitively lift a presidential approval rating. If Trump’s poll numbers jump now, it will likely because of good economic numbers that have nothing to do with the trip.

    It didn’t have to be this way. Typically, presidents traveling abroad do so with a ready-made storylines — a deal that only needs a handshake, or a photo that caps off months of negotiations. But Trump made this trip to Asia without any firm commitments from any country he visited. It wasn’t like other countries weren’t up for agreements. A major trade deal between 11 countries was inked during the trip, but the US is not part of it.

    Instead, Trump had little news to announce. And that meant it was hard to ignore the political dynamics at home.

    James Pindell can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: