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Thursday, September 17, 2020

Trump keeps the world guessing on U.N. speech

The United Nations General Assembly typically draws world leaders and philanthropists from all around the globe, packing New York City with their entourages. At the 75th edition of the annual event, however, there may only be one — President Donald Trump — attending live, or, more likely, none at all.

The “Will he? Won’t he?” intrigue surrounding Trump’s appearance at the U.N., an institution he has frequently antagonized, is injecting drama or distraction — depending on your perspective — into this year’s muted gathering.

Trump has been signaling interest in delivering his annual General Assembly speech in person as far back as July. “This is the 75th anniversary (of the U.N.), so it makes it even more special,” Kelly Craft, America’s U.N. ambassador, said on July 30, suggesting the fanfare fed the president’s desire to appear live. Yet less than five days before his scheduled Sept. 22 remarks, the White House still won't say if Trump will actually turn up.

The U.N. isn’t counting on an appearance. U.N. Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said that the organization is not expecting any head of state or government to visit New York, but stressed that the final decision remains with the White House.

A State Department email seen by POLITICO, labeled a “final update” regarding UNGA, states that neither President Trump nor Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to New York. “Dignitary Protection does not have any planned protection details planned for UNGA 75,” the email said, further noting the Department of Homeland Security has canceled this year’s designation of UNGA as a National Special Security Event.

“In the event that we have a detail pop up it will be managed as we normally do for visits to NYC throughout the year,” the email said. The White House declined to comment.

The White House — unlike many other administrations — has not yet submitted a pre-recorded speech for the Assembly, indicating that an in-person appearance by Trump is still possible. The U.N. has asked that countries submit those videos by Friday.

All other world leaders have opted to stay home and participate in the U.N. General Assembly virtually this year, rather than comply with New York’s 14-day self-isolation period for visitors from most parts of the country and world. “It made it impossible for any leader to come,” said U.N. General Assembly President Volkan Bozkır.

While Washington, D.C., is not on New York’s quarantine list, Wisconsin — where Trump traveled Thursday night for a campaign rally — is. So is North Carolina, where the president is campaigning Saturday.

While Trump is tested regularly for coronavirus, the state’s rules hinge not on recent test results but on self-isolation for anyone spending more than 24 hours in a territory designated as a Covid-19 hotspot.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo granted himself an exemption from the standard 14-day self isolation rule after visiting Georgia recently, classifying himself as an essential worker. But he has also publicly warned that President Trump is so unpopular in his hometown that he "better have an army" if he wants to walk through New York streets.

If Trump does speak from the U.N. General Assembly hall, he will be directly facing Iran’s delegate, who will be seated in front of the speaking podium, per a seating plan released by Brenden Varma, a spokesperson for the Assembly. Instead of its normal six-person delegation, each country will be allowed one of its New York-based representatives in the hall in 2020.

That arrangement will take on a new level of drama if the White House follows through with a demand that the U.N. reinstate sanctions on Iran that were in place prior to the 2015 nuclear deal reached during the Obama administration. The administration has threatened to try and trigger what’s known as a “snapback” provision within that nuclear deal, despite having withdrawn the U.S. from it in 2018.

“It’s going to be a nasty weekend,” said one European ambassador, who requested anonymity.

Richard Gowan, U.N. Director at the International Crisis Group, told POLITICO that it will make a difference whether Trump’s speech is live or delivered via pre-recorded video, especially if Trump threatens to cut funds to the U.N. the same way he pulled the U.S. out of the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.N.’s health arm, earlier this year.

“If it's live, people may treat it as an off-the-cuff thing, and not take it that seriously. If he says it on video from a script, it's a lot harder to walk back or ignore,” Gowan said.

European Union diplomats also said they’ll be watching to see if the speech reflects a typical text that has been worked on by multiple government agencies, or if it amounts to an extension of the president's Twitter threads.

Diplomats are even more reticent than usual when asked about their expectations for Trump next week — a sign of how nervous they are that the U.S. president will ruin what’s left of a long-planned U.N. 75th anniversary commemoration.

The centerpiece of those commemorations is a declaration negotiated over several months, “to be adopted, hopefully consensually, on Monday,” said Olof Skoog, the EU’s ambassador to the U.N.

Some foreign diplomats fear the U.S. may prevent consensus adoption of the resolution, after already objecting in June to earlier draft language around the Paris climate deal and a “shared vision for common future.”

The celebrations are already clouded by the Trump administration’s broadsides on U.N. bodies such as the WHO and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); the patchy global response to the coronavirus pandemic; and an ongoing failure of U.N. member countries to stay on track with the body’s Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Climate Agreement.

On Monday, world leaders will deliver speeches marking the U.N.’s successes and failures. The U.S., as host, is set to deliver the first speech. That’s a move European diplomats consider to be an own goal: letting the United Nations’ most powerful critic set the tone for a landmark anniversary. “The U.N. is great for inflicting upon itself these unwritten rules that make no sense under the current circumstances,” said one European ambassador.

Gowan said that Trump’s real audience is not other governments, but domestic and social media. “He is good at firing off well-prepared zingers like ‘little rocket man’ in 2017, that seem out-of-place at the U.N. but are made for TV and Twitter. So the big question is not how this looks in New York but how it will look on Fox,” he said.

Nahal Toosi and Meridith McGraw contributed reporting

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