Russia probe casts pall over Trump's Asia trip

Investigation may threaten his standing with foreign leaders, impede progress of tax Bill

WASHINGTON • The first criminal charges stemming from the Russia investigation landed this week at a perilous point in Mr Donald Trump's presidency, threatening both his standing with foreign leaders ahead of an important trip to Asia starting tomorrow and his effectiveness in selling the Republican tax plan.

Republicans in the US House of Representatives have delayed unveiling the tax overhaul by one day, until today, signalling potential trouble ahead as the congressional leadership struggles to lock in support for the historic but controversial effort.

But House Ways and Means Committee chairman Kevin Brady, also chief author of the tax plan, has sought to allay those concerns: "We are pleased with the progress we are making and we remain on schedule to take action and approve a Bill at our committee beginning next week," he said in a statement late on Tuesday.

Aides insisted thatthe twin challenges at home and abroad would not be undermined by the indictments, but the frustration of the President - whose job approval ratings hit a new low this week in Gallup polling - was evident on Tuesday. He started the day with a spate of tweets in which he lashed out at the media and "Crooked Dems" and urged a focus instead on the "Massive Tax Cuts" he has promised to deliver by Christmas.

In a bid to show he remains focused on the tasks at hand, Mr Trump later in the day allowed reporters to witness the start of a White House meeting with business leaders at which he boasted that the December signing of the yet-to-be-unveiled GOP tax Bill would be "the biggest tax event in the history of our country".

But the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller loomed large. Mr Trump ignored shouted questions from reporters related to the indictments of three campaign officials unveiled on Monday, including those of his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and a foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, whom Mr Trump had derided on Twitter as a "young, low-level volunteer" and "a liar".

Foreign policy analysts expressed concern that Mr Trump's political crisis could distract from or complicate his message on a high-stakes, 12-day trip to five Asian nations aimed at building regional support for his bid to pressure North Korea over its nuclear arms and ballistic missile programmes.

ITS OWN ENEMY

This distraction makes it harder to see any successes they have... It highlights a problem this administration had since the beginning: staying out of its own way.

MR DOUG HEYE, a GOP political consultant, noting that the Mueller indictment has cast a shadow on the positive stories about Mr Trump this week.

It is not just that Mr Trump might tweet about his domestic problems, analysts said, but that the issue could dominate the US press corps' coverage of the trip, with reporters asking him about the Mueller investigation on foreign soil.

Mr Trump plans to visit Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines, engaging in bilateral meetings with a host of foreign leaders and aides have been heavily briefing him.

The trip comes as Chinese President Xi Jinping has consolidated power on the heels of the Communist Party Congress, creating another problematic narrative for Mr Trump.

"Trump is by far the weakest leader in modern US history and Xi is by far the strongest leader," said Mr Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a global risk assessment firm. "That's going to make the meeting uncomfortable."

Unlike past US leaders who have tried to stay on message in Asia while dealing with distractions at home, Mr Trump "always wants to create a distraction", Mr Bremmer said.

Other observers suggested the pervasiveness of the Russia probe - which continued to dominate cable television news much of Tuesday - will have a more significant impact on Capitol Hill, particularly if more indictments are handed down in coming weeks.

Mr Doug Heye, a GOP political consultant, said the Mueller indictments have largely overshadowed what could have been a string of positive stories about Mr Trump's week: his push for tax cuts, the expected announcement of a new Federal Reserve chairman today and a major trip abroad.

"This distraction makes it harder to see any successes they have," Mr Heye said. "It highlights a problem this administration had since the beginning: staying out of its own way."

WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2017, with the headline 'Russia probe casts pall over Trump's Asia trip'. Print Edition | Subscribe