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.
“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."