Two metaphorical clouds will hang ominously over President Donald Trump’s second nuclear summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Vietnam — one of the mushroom variety and one a thick brume of political scandal back home.
Among the most-pressing issues when the two leaders meet in Hanoi on Wednesday and Thursday will be Trump trying to arrive at a “shared understanding of what denuclearization is,” a senior administration official said last week. Back home, Democratic and Republican lawmakers will be haggling over the definitions of a national emergency and collusion with Russians in a series of high-profile votes and hearings that could prove politically damaging to Trump while he is on foreign soil.
The juxtaposition of the scenes in Hanoi and Washington will be merely the latest chapter in Trump’s presidency, and could provide more upending of longstanding norms and traditions.
“Presidents have traveled abroad when they have been in trouble at home, but it’s unprecedented for a chief executive to be on the other side of the world when the fate of his presidency hangs in the balance in Washington,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist. “Travel or not, Trump will take a big hit next week because a meeting with Kim won’t divert Americans’ attention from the scandals facing the president.”
Also watch: Trump announces national emergency on border, despite likely legal challenge
When he’s away …
The House could vote as soon as Tuesday on a joint resolution of disapproval regarding the border security national emergency that Trump signed this month to access Pentagon and Treasury Department funds for his proposed U.S.-Mexico boundary barrier, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced late last week.
Texas Democrat Joaquin Castro, who filed the resolution, said it has 226 or 227 co-sponsors, including one Republican, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan. That’s enough to pass the measure, a rebuke of Trump’s executive action that comes as the declaration faces court challenges.
On Wednesday, Trump is set to begin a two-day summit with Kim over the latter’s nuclear weapons program. In Washington the same day, Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, is set to testify in public before the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
As if that was not enough political volatility, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III could deliver his probe of 2016 Russian election meddling to Attorney General William P. Barr. (Though a senior Justice Department official said Friday that was not expected.)
All indications are that Mueller’s team also investigated possible coordination between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russians, as well as whether the president and close associates obstructed justice.
Doing their job
Trump’s top aides are shrugging off what could be a damaging political week for the president at home while he is trying to strike a deal to denuclearize North Korea.
“I think we’re always prepared for a number of things that come at us,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee told reporters Friday, acknowledging just days before the president will depart for Hanoi that “right now, our focus is not on the Mueller report — but it’s [also] on doing our job. It’s on focusing on the things that Americans care about.”
Still, even as Trump and his senior West Wing aides attempt to focus on the Kim meetings, there will be instant pressure back home for Barr to not only deliver Mueller’s report to Congress but also make as much public as he can.
“We’ve got to get all of this together, all of the data. … Get the report from Mueller, get it out there, get it out to the public. And then you got the whole pile in front of you,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, said in a TV interview last week. “Make a report to the American people. … We need all of it out there.”
Should the special counsel’s report become public — or merely land in the hands of chatty lawmakers — this week, a political firestorm will ignite about Mueller’s probe with the chief executive abroad.
“We need to start talking about all the abuse that took place at the highest levels of the Justice Department. We had that conversation, and frankly, there have been a group of us that have been focused on the raw deal that the president got,” Ohio Republican Jim Jordan, a Trump ally and House Freedom Caucus co-founder, told The Lima News in his home district last week.
By the time Trump returns to U.S. soil, even if he brings back measurable progress with Kim, he could be facing a paradigm shift when it comes to his political strength and re-election prospects — especially if his former fixer delivers damaging testimony Wednesday.
“Americans are much more concerned about domestic problems in general than international affairs,” said Bannon, the Democratic strategist. “Public concern about the North Korean nuclear threat has cooled while the excrement is about to hit the oscillating cooling device on the Russian probe. There will be a lot more eyeballs on the cable news screens when Cohen is on camera than there will be when Kim’s image appears, and the media execs know this.”