President Trump began a pivotal five-nation Asia tour in Japan early Sunday, speaking to troops upon landing at a U.S. air base outside Tokyo that would be a critical supply hub for any conflict in a region roiled by tension over nuclear-armed North Korea.
Donning a leather bomber jacket, and flanked by fighter jets inside a cavernous hangar, Trump described the troops as the “last bulwarks” against threats from “tyrants and dictators who prey on the innocent.”
No dictator should underestimate “our resolve,” Trump said without naming North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. He affirmed his administration’s commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” — a term defining an expansive sphere of influence that includes India and the Indian Ocean as a counter to a rising China.
“No one — no power, no regime — should underestimate the United States,” the president said.
Nuclear brinkmanship with North Korea hangs over Trump’s trip through the region and no doubt will dominate both his visit with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — even as they play golf and dine at an upscale teppanyaki grill on Sunday night — and his next stops in South Korea and China.
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One en route to Tokyo, Trump extended something of an olive branch to the North Korean people if not to their leader, Kim, though he has previously threatened to “totally destroy” the nation. He called North Koreans “great people” and “industrious” and said they are “warm, much warmer than the world really knows or understands.”
The president disclosed that he expects to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin when he attends an economic conference in Vietnam, his fourth stop, and will press him for help in pressuring North Korea to stop its nuclear program. Such a meeting would come at a sensitive time, just after a special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election secured its first indictments against three Trump associates.
Trump also told the reporters accompanying him that he “very much” looks forward to seeing Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at his last stop on the trip, reflecting a warmth toward Duterte that riles human rights advocates given Duterte’s support for death squads that have killed thousands in his nation.
The president declined to engage when asked about a forthcoming book, “The Last Republicans,” in which both Presidents Bush, father and son, criticize Trump. Among other criticisms, George H.W. Bush is quoted as calling Trump a “blowhard,” and his son said Trump “doesn’t know what it means to be president.”
While Trump was reticent, his spokeswoman hit back hard. In an extraordinary broadside against a Republican dynastic family, Sarah Huckabee Sanders lambasted the Bushes for “decades of costly mistakes.”
Extolling Trump, Sanders said in her statement, “The American people voted to elect an outsider who is capable of implementing real, positive, and needed change — instead of a lifelong politician beholden to special interests.”
Also on the flight from Hawaii, Trump said he spoke to King Salman of Saudi Arabia to encourage him to take the Aramco oil company public on the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq. Trump did not address recent news of the arrests of 11 Saudi princes that appear to reflect a stunning attempt at consolidating power by the king and his son and heir.
Ahead of Trump’s arrival in Tokyo, American troops at Yokota expressed eagerness to hear firsthand from him, given the heightened tensions over North Korea.
Sgt. Dylan Steele, 23, who is helping train Japanese infantry, said he was eager for a hint from Trump about “anything that could be coming down.” Air Force Capt. Jared Abramowicz, 27, said, “It will be interesting to hear his perspective on Japan and protecting the region.”
In Hawaii on Saturday, Trump visited the memorial at Pearl Harbor and received briefings on U.S. operations from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, from a Pacific Command that has been shaken by fatal collisions of ships at sea.
While in Japan, Trump was to speak Monday to U.S. and Japanese business leaders and hold a joint news conference with Abe. He also was to meet Emperor Akihito, a ceremonial figure who is a son of Hirohito, the all-powerful emperor who led Japan’s brutal effort to colonize Asia before its defeat in World War II.