WASHINGTON – U.S. presidents traveling abroad were driven for decades by an axiom rooted in the Cold War: "Politics," the saying goes, "must stop at the water's edge."
President Donald Trump once again upended convention during a formal state visit to Japan over the weekend, repeatedly blasting Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden throughout the trip. The president latched onto an insult hurled at Biden by North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and told an international audience he agreed with the dictator.
"Kim Jong Un made a statement that Joe Biden is a low-IQ individual. He probably is, based on his record,” Trump told a news conference in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday.
Trump's remarks echoed a tweet in which he questioned the former vice president's intelligence while misspelling his last name. Trump's comments put U.S. political divisions front and center on the world stage.
Trump left for Japan on Friday amid a high-profile spat with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., over Democratic investigations into his presidency and the possibility of launching impeachment proceedings. That blowup remained on the president’s mind, even as he was feted by Abe and the Japanese emperor, played a round of golf and took in a sumo wrestling match.
Trump in Japan: Sumo match, hibachi dinner, playing down North Korea's missiles
Impeach for what, having created perhaps the greatest Economy in our Country’s history, rebuilding our Military, taking care of our Vets (Choice), Judges, Best Jobs Numbers Ever, and much more? Dems are Obstructionists! https://t.co/NrTIxU9ZnA— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 27, 2019
“Impeach for what?” Trump demanded Monday on Twitter. “Dems are Obstructionists!”
During his news conference with Abe, Trump again slammed special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 presidential campaign, labeling Mueller and his investigators "extremely angry Democrats."
Mueller is a Republican.
“The Democrats cannot understand what happened,” Trump said of the Mueller inquiry, which found his campaign did not collude with Russia but left open the question of whether he obstructed justice in an effort to block the investigation. “They really thought they had some people on their side.”
The back-and-forth between Trump and Biden began more than a week ago, when the former vice president blasted Trump's foreign policy during a rally in Philadelphia. Biden, who leads the Democratic presidential field in polling, accused Trump of edging closer to “tyrants” such as Kim. Days later, North Korean state media described Biden as a “fool of low IQ” and an “imbecile bereft of elementary quality as a human being.”
Saturday night, Trump tweeted about the comments, saying he smiled when Kim “called Swampman Joe Bidan a low IQ individual, & worse. Perhaps that’s sending me a signal?” The president corrected the spelling of Biden’s name in a followup tweet.
It was Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, R-Mich., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who coined the "water's edge" phrase in the early years of the Cold War. Vandenberg unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination to challenge President Harry Truman, but he supported Truman's foreign policy.
Trump's predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, generally tried to avoid politics while traveling abroad. However, Obama drew fire in 2016 for criticizing then-candidate Trump during a trip to Japan where he said world leaders were "rattled" by Trump, "and for good reason."
Before that, Republican House Speaker John Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint meeting of Congress in 2016 without notifying the Obama White House beforehand. Boehner defended the unusual move by saying he wanted to ensure "that there was no interference" from the president.
Abe is hosting Trump on a state visit designed to highlight the U.S.-Japanese alliance and showcase the relations between the leaders as both countries try to broker a trade deal. Monday, Trump said he backed Abe’s interest in leveraging his country’s good relations with Iran to help broker a possible dialogue between the United States and its nemesis in the Middle East. Abe said he is willing to do whatever he can to help reduce escalating tensions.
Trump said he was not “personally” bothered by North Korean missile tests this month. That assessment ran counter to alarms raised by Abe about the tests and contradicted the views of Trump's advisers, who said the tests violated United Nations Security Council resolutions.
“My people think it could have been a violation, as you know,” Trump said. “I view it differently. I view it as a man – perhaps he wants to get attention, and perhaps not. Who knows?”
John Bolton, Trump's national security adviser, said there was "no doubt" that North Korea's missile tests violated U.N. resolutions. North Korea responded by calling Bolton a "war monger."
Trump frequently praises Kim, whom he has met twice in an effort to lower tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The president held up a suspension in the country’s missile and nuclear testing that followed those meetings as an indication his engagement worked. He dismissed the latest missile tests, describing them as “small weapons.”
Monday, the president praised Kim as “a very smart man."
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Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump's Japan trip: President blasts Biden, Democrats, Mueller while bringing politics to world stage