President Trump’s first visit to Asia since taking office gets underway Friday, representing what will be the most challenging foreign trip yet of his presidency.
The five-nation, 13-day tour will force Trump to grapple with two of the biggest problems on his agenda: the nuclear crisis with North Korea and what experts say is the United States’s waning influence in the region.
It is the longest foreign trip any president has taken since George H.W. Bush’s 12-day visit to Asia in 1991, which was capped off by the former president fainting after vomiting in the Japanese prime minister’s lap.
Trump’s busy schedule will test his endurance. It includes three international summits, which will put him face-to-face with dozens of world leaders over several grueling days. He will also meet one-one-one with five leaders, including a round of golf with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Here are five things to watch during Trump’s visit:
North Korean nukes
The nuclear threat from Pyongyang will loom over most of Trump’s engagements in East Asia.
Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters Thursday that the U.S. is “running out of time” to halt North Korea’s bid for nuclear missiles capable of reaching America’s mainland.
The president has promised to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea if it continues to threaten the U.S. And he has repeatedly mocked North Korean’s young leader Kim Jong Un on Twitter as “Little Rocket Man.”
Trump will almost certainly pressure Beijing to do more to rein in its reclusive neighbor, though other steps the president might make to engage with other nations in the region to address the threat remains an open question.
China accounts for about 90 percent of North Korea’s documented trade — including oil and grain — and Trump in the past has suggested that he would unwind access to U.S. markets for Beijing if it did not do more to isolate Pyongyang.
“China is definitely doing more,” McMaster said Thursday. “But obviously it is not enough.”
The Trump administration is also weighing relisting North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, McMaster said.
North Korea was removed from the list in 2008 as part of an effort by the George W. Bush administration to salvage a failed agreement with Pyongyang to curb its nuclear weapons development. North Korea previously had the designation since 1988.
The Trump administration has been under pressure to reimpose the designation after the death of Otto Warmbier, an American college student held in North Korea for 17 months who died shortly after being returned to the U.S. in a coma.
What to do about China?
One of the central questions hovering over the trip is how the “America First” president will wield U.S. influence in the region in the face of China’s growing assertiveness.
As a candidate, Trump spent months questioning the United States’s historical involvement in Asia, with repeated sabre rattling directed at Beijing. But as president, he has discovered the relationship to be more complicated.
Trump has depended heavily on Chinese President Xi Jinping to isolate North Korea over its nuclear ambitions, while at the same time threatening a major clash over a trade deficit that Trump has called “horrible” and “embarrassing.”
While Trump administration officials have hailed the two-pronged approach, the president will be playing a weaker hand than Xi in their upcoming talks.
The Chinese Communist Party recently gave Xi a second five-year term, making him the most powerful leader the country has seen in decades.
That strength appears to have informed the White House’s conciliatory approach toward the Chinese leader.
Asked by Fox News’s Laura Ingraham about Xi’s strongman stature this week, White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE said that it is “not [for] us to pass judgement on” China’s government.
“I think working with people, no matter who they are, is better than not talking to them,” the top aide said.
Possible Putin meeting
Trump told Fox News in an interview late Thursday that he could meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Danang, Vietnam.
“We may have a meeting with Putin,” he said. “And, again — Putin is very important because they can help us with North Korea. They can help us with Syria. We have to talk about Ukraine.”
The White House has been coy about whether the meeting will take place, but the Kremlin said Friday that talks are underway.
Trump and Putin first met at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, in July, where they discussed allegations of Russian meddling in the U.S. election. But relations have deteriorated further since then.
Trump reluctantly signed off on new sanctions against Russia in August, prompting Putin to cut U.S. embassy and consular staff in Moscow by more than half in retaliation.
Heightening the tension, Trump left for Asia just days after special counsel Robert Mueller escalated his investigation into Russia’s election interference by announcing charges against three former Trump campaign officials.
Domestic troubles follow Trump
The president’s political troubles at home are following him across the Pacific Ocean.
All presidents struggle to put domestic issues on the back burner while overseas, but those problems could be especially acute for Trump.
He is heading to Asia after Mueller filed his first charges in the Russia probe, indicting two Trump campaign officials and securing a guilty plea from a third.
If Mueller takes further actions against Trump associates while the president is away, it could overshadow his agenda overseas and make him look weakened and scandal-plagued to his foreign counterparts.
Trump’s low approval ratings have been dragged down even further as Republicans look to secure their first major legislative victory. Trump left for Asia on Friday just a day after House Republicans rolled out their sweeping tax plan, meaning GOP leaders are beginning their push to sell it to the public without the president’s bully pulpit at home.
The president is also dealing with the aftermath of this week’s terror attack in New York City that left eight people dead and nearly a dozen more injured, the deadliest attack in the city since Sept. 11, 2001.
Will Trump stay on script?
Trump began his first foreign trip as president this spring much like he did his latest one, shadowed by controversies and hounded by doubts about his ability to show restraint.
The president defied predictions by mostly sticking to script throughout his travels to the Middle East and Europe, though he did ruffle feathers by chiding NATO allies during a summit meeting with its leaders.
Trump tweeted less and stuck to topics related to his trip — not the firestorm at home sparked by his decision to fire James Comey as FBI director. He was helped by his staff, who scheduled back-to-back meetings to limit his down time and curbed his interactions with the news media.
Trump’s Asia trip is expected to have a similarly frantic schedule, with meetings planned with the leaders of China, Japan, Asia, South Korea and the Philippines, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit, the U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting and the East Asia Summit.
But there’s no telling what the notoriously unpredictable president might say while overseas. His aides, however, are brushing aside worries over Trump’s rhetoric.
“The president will use whatever language he wants to use,” McMaster told reporters this week.