WASHINGTON — One simple rule for decoding foreign policy is that presidential trips often drive the agenda. So the fact that President Trump is planning to visit Beijing and other Asian capitals in just over a month may tell us more about what’s ahead in that region than all the tweets, rumors and palace intrigue.
War with North Korea? It’s a scary possibility, for sure. But a president who is preparing for a grand meeting in November with Chinese President Xi Jinping won’t want to fly there through a cloud of nuclear fallout. Will Xi deliver on his promise to pressure Pyongyang beforehand? The trip plans make that more likely than some analysts think, given that Xi and Trump want a Mar-a-Lago 2.0 that celebrates joint efforts on regional issues.
And what about U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the gray man of Trump’s foreign policy team and the subject of ceaseless rumors that he will be fired? Well, he spent part of the weekend in Beijing to prepare the way for the Trump visit. It’s unlikely that the Sherpa will be thrown off the mountain before the president reaches the summit.
The hardest challenge in following this chaotic White House is separating actual policy from the “House of Cards” backbiting that surrounds the president. Trump seems to operate with what might be called an “iron whim,” becoming enraged about perceived slights and oversights, fulminating one moment and threatening retribution — but then turning to something entirely different.
These presidential cycles of favor and disfavor seem to change almost daily: Trump publicly insults Attorney General Jeff Sessions but continues to work with him. He rages at U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and flirts with his Democratic rival, Sen. Chuck Schumer, and then a few weeks later discards bipartisanship and panders to his GOP base. Most recently, he was all in for Luther Strange in Alabama’s Republican Senate primary, until he wasn’t.
At the center of this perpetual White House hurricane have been Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who in the administration’s first weeks lashed themselves to each other, and to the mast of policy. That alliance seems as steady as ever, even as the rumors fly that the president is about to throw Tillerson overboard in favor of U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. That Cabinet shuffle may happen eventually, but it’s unlikely now, when Tillerson is stewarding the China trip and diplomatic strategy for…