The countdown to Donald Trump’s first speech at the United Nations as United States president has begun. What is known: on Sept. 19 in the General Assembly Hall, Trump will step at the lectern in front of the green marble wall he has disparaged in the past and deliver a speech roughly 15 minutes long. What is not known: which Trump will speak — a subdued Trump who sticks to the teleprompter or the undisciplined, bombastic, freewheeling, occasionally dog-whistle-blowing Trump.
Presidents have depended on teleprompters at the UN for almost as long as US presidents have been speaking at the world body. Harry Truman was the first president to speak before the UN, in San Francisco when its Charter was signed in 1945. Truman eschewed teleprompters, but according to The New York Times, his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, grudgingly used one, starting a dependency that continues, most of the time, to this day.
Should Trump depart from the teleprompter, he would not be the first American president to do so, willingly or not. George W. Bush ran into trouble, in 2002, when a teleprompter failure forced him to ad lib on a vital sentence about military force in Iraq. The ad lib pluralized the word “resolutions,” leading to the possible necessity of multiple Security Council resolutions to justify the second Iraq war.
Teleprompter text or not, Trump will most likely cause a commotion with his rhetoric and language and possibly his behavior. Internationally, Trump faces looming crises over North Korea nuclear missile launchings and the potential of his not certifying Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal. (It looks like he might kick that can to Congress.)
Domestically, he faces two extreme natural disasters punishing states where his base lives and another Trump-manufactured immigration crisis, the Dreamers’ program. Digitally, he’s routinely involved in social media feuds with national and international politicians, such as with former Mexican president Vicente Fox and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is regularly threatening and attacking US lawmakers, most recently Mitch McConnell.
As Heidi J.S. Tworek, an assistant professor of international history at the University of British Columbia and director of the UN History Project, noted, Trump has voiced a dissenting opinion on the very existence of the UN. He has called the UN a club for people to have a good time; an “underperformer” with “huge potential”; and threatened lots of changes once he got into the White House.
Trump has also approved drastic budget cuts to parts of the UN. Moderating that, Trump — through his representative, Nikki Haley — has made extensive calls for reform at the world body.
“One thing we do know, that it’s the sort of place that he’s been skeptical of before,” Tworek said, “and the place where he doesn’t have experience.”
A Trump out of his comfort zone is a Trump that acts unpredictably, creating circumstances that often fascinate the media beyond the topic at hand. Consider how he positioned himself in the front row of a NATO photo-op this spring, after declining to reinforce Article 5, on common defense. Trump pushed his way to the front of the group, shoving aside Dusko Markovic, the prime minister of Montenegro.
Tworek said that Trump’s rhetoric and behavior could be influenced even by the fact that he is speaking second at the UN General Assembly opening session, after the president of Brazil, Michel Temer, per tradition.
Trump’s erratic foreign policy makes it impossible to decipher how he will use his role at the UN. An avowed isolationist, Trump could easily reverse decades of internationalism and support of a liberal “new world order,” as described by George H. W. Bush and that other presidents, from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, have affirmed at the UN.
One European ambassador put the bar for Trump low — or high, depending on your perspective — saying that at the very least, he hoped Trump would signal full endorsement of international multilateralism; that is, using the UN to maintain global stability.
The ambassador, whose country is an elected member on the Security Council, prophesied that the congenial welcome that Trump gave to the Council during its visit to the White House in April would be repeated at the UN in New York. The US mission to the UN, for one, seems to be working hard to frame Trump as a team player, with a US-led meeting on Sept. 18 on UN reform presented as a multilateral affair.
“I don’t think anyone really knows what he’s going to do,” said Richard Gowan of the European Council for Foreign Relations. “His own track record for improvising in public means even his own staff won’t be totally sure until he says it.”
Is the media looking for policy consistency that this administration may not be capable of delivering?, Tworek wondered. There is, she said, “a massive fixation on his word, his rhetoric and the potential danger of what he could do.” Trump’s inconsistencies have not only flustered the media but also world leaders who are trying to understand his policy and his cabinet.
As we have reported on Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN fluctuates between agreeing with the president and establishing her own presence in the Security Council as well as being a darling of certain news shows. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had no trouble finding his way amid the administration’s schizophrenia, recently telling Fox News: “The President speaks for himself.”
Gowan suggested looking for deeper “tells” hidden in the rhetoric Trump uses. Amid comments on how UN is unfair to Israel (a view parroted by Haley) or wording that separates the US from the Iran nuclear deal may signal aspects of his administration’s foreign policy.
Will Trump again coyly hint that it is not absolutely absolute that the US will pull out of the Paris Accord, as he has tweeted and mentioned in the past? Gowan also noted that Obama’s last UN General Assembly speeches — those occurring after Russia invaded Crimea — rebuked Russia for violating the international rule of law. If Trump does not mention Russia, will that send a message of leniency for its illegal move in Ukraine?
Given that Trump will be back in his hometown, he may try to work the room, although some of the most influential leaders on the global stage will not be there to shake his hand. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will not be there, since she is busy campaigning for re-election, on Sept. 24, and either her minister of foreign affairs or a vice chancellor has usually spoken in her stead.
Other leaders reportedly not attending include the recently deposed Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif; his Indian counterpart Narenda Modi; Vladimir Putin (who recently felt the need to clarify that Trump is not his bride); Chinese President Xi Jinping; Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto; and Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro.
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines did not attend the General Assembly debate in 2016, the first year he took office, so it’s doubtful he will attend this year, since he loathes the UN (plus he reportedly has cancer). The leaders of Syria, North Korea and Cuba will avoid the trip to Turtle Bay as well.
A UN official said that he heard that US Vice President Mike Pence is attending; it’s unusual for a US president and vice president to both show up at the General Assembly. When a State Department official was asked to confirm Pence’s presence, the official said that the White House should comment, adding that it was normal for the secretary of state to attend.
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, will also be making his debut at the UN. Scheduled to speak on Sept. 19, along with Brazil and the US as well as Israel, Mexico, Nigeria and dozens of other leaders, Macron has the opportunity to once again present himself as a rational alternative to Trump for world leadership, should Trump’s rhetoric become overbearing.
And then there is this: knowing how much Ivanka and Jared Kushner love and miss New York, will they show up? If Ivanka is there, will Trump call her up on stage?
Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.