President Donald Trump charged into office on the resonance of his aggressive “America First” agenda, but now, as he returns to the pinnacle of global diplomacy, he can’t escape the growing shadows of domestic political troubles.
Between promoting the wisdom of his rapprochement with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and railing against Iran’s malign influence across the Middle East, Trump is finding himself forced to confront the salacious and embarrassing as he participates in the U.N. General Assembly.
White House aides had cast Trump’s visit to New York in triumphal terms: an opportunity to assert American sovereignty before the multinational body. He was set to be unapologetic about his decisions to engage with the erstwhile pariah North Korea, remove the U.S. from the Iran nuclear accord and object to U.N. aid programs he believes are contrary to American interests.
Trump is to address the General Assembly on Tuesday morning and will chair a meeting Wednesday of the U.N. Security Council on the topic of counterproliferation. The four days of choreographed foreign affairs were to stand in contrast to a presidency largely defined by disorder.
Appearances on the global stage tend to elevate the stature of presidents both abroad and at home. But even before his arrival for the annual bonanza of world leaders and diplomats, the desired image was muddied by confusion in Washington.
The fate of his second Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, was cast into fresh doubt over the weekend amid a second allegation of sexual misconduct.
Drama also swirled Monday around the status of his deputy attorney general. Rod Rosenstein was reported last week to have floated the idea of secretly recording Trump last year and to have raised the idea of using the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office. The man overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe and a frequent target of Trump’s ire offered to resign and fully expected Monday to be fired. He received a stay of punishment at least until Thursday, when he is to meet with Trump at the White House.
With cable news chyrons flashing breathless updates about both Beltway dramas, news of Trump’s foreign policy moves from the U.N. — led by a new trade deal with South Korea — struggled to break through and disappointed White House aides. A similar fate may await Trump when he speaks to the General Assembly.
A year ago, Trump stood at the international rostrum and derided the North Korean leader as “Little Rocket Man” and threatened to “totally destroy North Korea.”
“It was a different world,” Trump said Monday of his one-time moniker for the North Korean leader. “That was a dangerous time. This is one year later, a much different time.”
Trump praised Kim as “very open” and “terrific,” despite the sluggish pace of progress toward denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in delivered a personal message to Trump from Kim after their inter-Korean talks last week in Pyongyang.
“You are the only person who can solve this problem,” Moon said to Trump, relaying Kim’s words.
The president said the location for a second summit with Kim is still to be determined, but officials have said Trump is holding out hope it could take place on American soil. Such a move would present a complex political and logistical challenge for the North Korean leader. Trump has often fondly invoked the Singapore summit, a made-for-TV event that attracted the world’s media attention and largely received positive marks from cable pundits — reviews that were not repeated for his summit with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Helsinki the following month.
Trump and Moon on Monday signed a new version of the U.S.-South Korean trade agreement, marking one of Trump’s first successes in his effort to renegotiate economic deals on more favorable terms for the U.S. Trump labeled it a “very big deal” and said the new agreement makes significant improvements to reduce the trade deficit between the countries and create opportunities to export American products to South Korea.
In both venues, U.S. officials say, Trump is expected both on Tuesday and Wednesday to offer a contrast between the path of negotiation chosen by North Korea and that of Iran. Trump earlier this year bucked allies and removed the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, citing Iran’s malign influence in the region and support for groups like Hezbollah. The next round of tough sanctions on Iran is set to go into effect in November.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is in New York to attend U.N. meetings. U.S. officials said Trump is not seeking a meeting with him but is not opposed to talking if Iran requests a session.