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Shawn Vestal: The Mikes do Southeast Asia, one tweet at a time

WSU Football Coach Mike Leach and State Sen. Mike Baumgartner strike a pose in front of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. (Mike Baumgartner / Twitter)

Call it Mike and Mike’s Excellent Adventure: A Twitter Bromance.

The senator – Michael Baumgartner – and the football coach – Mike Leach – are traveling Southeast Asia, meeting and greeting and tweeting. Here they are meeting with the Cambodian prime minister. There they are visiting the “Meat-Shaped Stone” in a Taiwanese museum. Here they are visiting a Costco in Taipei. There they are talking about beef exports and “dairy production collaboration.”

Here they are at Angkor Wat.

There they are in a boat on the Mekong River.

The Mikes are posting lots of happy thumbs-ups in casual selfies. Lots of stiff, posed photographs in a line of suits, including two other Washington state lawmakers. Lots of interactions with “Friendly People!”

Since the first Southeast Asian tweet landed on May 7, Baumgartner has been hitting social media harder than if Jay Inslee had vetoed a tax cut. Leach, a less frequent but more diverse Tweeter than his pal, has been gobbling up the “likes” for his post about the Meat-shaped Stone, a piece of jasper carved to resemble a hunk of dongpo pork at the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

“The fascinating thing is The Meat Shaped Stone has a respect in Taiwan that reminds me of the Mona Lisa,” Leach wrote. “There was a big crowd around it the whole time. I liked it but I am trying to understand its magnitude.”

Leach, a man who can attract attention for the way he blows on a cup of coffee to cool it down, has gotten a lot of attention for the trip and the Meat-shaped Stone in particular; his Twitter post about it is gathering hundreds of new “likes” by the day, topping 1,200 Thursday.

What, exactly, brings the senator and the coach to Southeast Asia? Who paid and why? Who were they representing?

The state? Costco? Coug Nation?

A lot of people are curious; few seem to know. WSU officials say it’s not a university trip, and that Leach paid his own way. Senate Republican Caucus communications staffers have said they didn’t have any information, but that it wasn’t a state-paid trip. The head of the Washington State Beef Commission said she hadn’t heard of the trip, and a representative of state dairy organizations said the same. Contacted by text this week, Baumgartner, who has announced he’ll leave the Senate to run for county treasurer, said an interview wouldn’t be possible until his return.

A campaign spending report filed by another lawmaker along for the trip, Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale, who recently turned down a Trump administration appointment to the EPA in part because it would have required him to commute regularly to Seattle, indicates he paid nearly $1,400 on airfare for the trip out of surplus campaign funds for a “Trade Mission to Cambodia.”

There’s nothing necessarily untoward or even unusual about lawmakers making such a trip – depending on who paid and why – though the inclusion of Leach seems atypical. One might also wonder about the propriety of buddying up with the Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge leader who has held power for more than 30 years. He’s known for imprisoning political opponents, suppressing journalists and demonizing the United States. International observers say Sen has become increasingly authoritarian, and they express deep suspicions about the fairness of upcoming elections.

A single report from the Cambodian government-run “news site” Fresh News (whose motto is translated into English as “Breaking News on Your Hand”) details remarks made by Ericksen at a news conference, where he was reported to have said “the political situation is Cambodia is very good.”

The piece, in addition to getting Ericksen’s title wrong, is written in the stilted, complaint tones of propaganda: “The U.S. Senator … said he would suggest in the U.S. should not interfere in the Cambodian affairs, and that he supported Prime Minister Hun Sen that Cambodia should not allow foreign countries to interfere in her affairs, since it is the position of Cambodian people.”

Baumgartner described their journey in a post as a “great trip to Cambodia to promote friendship and trade with Washington State.” He said they were looking for ways to boost Washington exports, and Leach came to talk educational partnership between Cambodia and WSU. He referred to “productive meetings over several days” with Cambodian officials.

Along with playing tourist in a cool part of the world.

There was the aforementioned museum trip and photo of the Meat-Shaped Stone. Baumgartner tweeted about Ming vases. Later, he posted a photo of himself and Leach sharing drinks with a couple of prominent Cougs: Adam Chen, the CEO of HSBC Bank Taiwan, and Ben Hsiang, general manager of Swilling Henkel Ltd. Hashtag: “BigTime.”

Not long after came the retweet from WSU President Kirk Schulz: “Cougs are everywhere!”

They are! In one photo, Leach sits in a boat on the Mekong River, dubbed the Pirate of the Mekong by Baumgartner. In another he shares a beer with locals. In another he browses the night market in Taipei.

“Cambodia is fantastically interesting. Friendly people. Great interest in WSU higher ed. Everyone should visit. Pol Pol and Killing Fields sobering. Angkor Wat next,” Leach tweeted May 9.

In the photos that followed from Angkor Wat, the ancient temple complex, Baumgartner called it “going #TombRaider” with Leach.

And the tweets roll on…

Nobody back home seems to know what’s going on. But the Mikes are having an excellent time.

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