President Trump spent his first day in Asia Sunday by golfing with the Japanese prime minister, disclosing he would soon meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and warning nuclear-armed North Korea against challenging the United States.
"No one — no dictator, no regime, and no nation — should underestimate, ever, American resolve," Trump told military service members at Yokota Air Base in Japan, the first stop in a week-long journey that will take him to South Korea and China for talks on what to do about North Korea.
The first-year president is also scheduled to attend Asian economic summits in Vietnam and the Philippines, where his criticism of U.S. trade agreements will take center stage.
Trump will try to persuade China and other nations to cut economic ties to North Korea, thereby pressuring leader Kim Jong Un to give up nuclear weapons. Those other nations include Russia, as Trump announced he would likely meet with Putin on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang, Vietnam.
"We want Putin’s help on North Korea, and we’ll be meeting with a lot of different leaders," Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Japan.
A second Trump-Putin conference — they also spoke at July's G-20 summit in Germany —- will be scrutinized beyond diplomatic policy.
Special counsel Robert Mueller and congressional committees are investigating alleged ties between Trump's campaign team and Russians who sought to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Trump left for Asia less than a week after the indictment of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
During his first day in Japan, Trump shared lunch, dinner, and a round of golf with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and talked up the long-term U.S.-Japan alliance.
The two leaders are scheduled to hold a news conference on Monday.
"We’re in the midst of having very major discussions on many subjects, including North Korea and trade, and we’re doing very well," Trump said before dinner with Abe and their wives at Ginza Ukatei.
Abe, who has made a personal relationship with Trump a top priority, put in special plans for the president's visit.
The golf match featured a high-profile guest, professional star Hideki Matsuyama. Abe allowed journalists to see him driving a golf cart with Trump in the passenger seat. They played at Kasumigaseki Country Club, site of the golf competition when Japan hosts the 2020 Olympics.
Before the round, Abe produced customized white ball caps, emblazoned with gold lettering that referenced Trump's 2016 campaign slogan: "Donald and Shinzo Make Alliance Even Greater”
While Abe wants to get close to Trump, analysts said Japanese leaders are wary of the unpredictable Trump, especially on trade.
The president's decision to kill off the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership undercut Japan, which would have been a key member of the Pacific Rim trading bloc. The Japanese are also watching Trump's attempts to deal with their primary Asian rival, China.
"They don't like the unpredictability that comes with Trump's approach," said Richard McGregor, author of Asia's Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century.
McGregor also said that, in the back of their collective mind, Japanese leaders also fear that Trump "could do deals with China behind their backs.
With the Russia investigation and other domestic matters still unresolved, Trump visits Asia with political problems back home.
According to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll, only 37% of respondents approve of the job Trump is doing as president. That's lower than any previous president at this point in his first term in more than seven decades of polling.
In his remarks to the troops stationed in Japan, Trump repeated his long-standing claim that too many trade deals are unfair to the United States. The president said he would discuss these issues with leaders at this week's Asia trip, and "we will seek free, fair, and reciprocal trade."
Trump did not specifically refer to North Korea in his remarks to the troops, but it was clear he was referring to Kim in saying that no dictator should test American resolve.
"Every once in a while, in the past, they underestimated us," Trump told the cheering troops. "It was not pleasant for them, was it?"
In his comments to reporters earlier aboard Air Force One, Trump said North Korea would be "a big subject" this week, calling it "a big problem for our country and for the world, and we want to get it solved."
During that brief question-and-answer session, Trump also:
— Declined to react to criticism from Republican predecessors George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. "I’ll comment after we come back. I don’t need headlines."
— Disputed suggestions that Chinese President Xi Jinping is coming into his meetings with Trump this week in an especially strong political position. "Excuse me, so am I," he said, citing the "highest stock market in history, lowest unemployment in 17 years, a military that’s rapidly rebuilding, ISIS is virtually defeated in the Middle East."
— Noted that he will be in China on Nov. 8 — the one-year anniversary of his election to the presidency.
"Can you believe it is almost exactly one year?" Trump told reporters. "We’ll have to celebrate together."