Greta Thunberg spent 15 days on a boat to get to the United Nations headquarters in New York. The teenage climate activist seized headlines with an impassioned speech Monday scolding the world’s adults for their failure to address climate change. Then Donald Trump stepped into the frame.
By the time the U.S. president arrived at the UN on Tuesday, the impeachment drama was gathering steam in D.C., building on an intelligence official’s whistle-blower complaint suggesting Trump had improperly solicited a foreign leader’s help investigating a political rival. Trump extolled sovereignty and vowed to hold Iran accountable at the General Assembly on Tuesday, the same day House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed a formal impeachment inquiry in response to the complaint. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani excoriated the U.S. on Wednesday, right around when the White House released a reconstructed transcript of a phone conversation between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump asked him to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat challenging him for the presidency. Trump addressed members of the U.S. mission to the UN on Thursday, the day the whistle-blower complaint itself became public, musing about what used to happen to “spies” in the old days.
Throughout, the UN delegates met, the heads of state spoke, the protesters demonstrated; Trump himself told the press he was working hard with his counterparts in New York, with a schedule full of events and meetings, and noted his signing of a U.S.-Japan trade deal. Yet the whistle-blower story was unavoidable at the UN, not least because Trump kept bringing it up in public appearances with other world leaders. The General Assembly went on, but Trump’s mind was clearly elsewhere.
He devoted much of a 40-minute press conference on Wednesday to condemning an investigation he characterized as another witch hunt, even as he ticked off the number of meetings he’d held (with leaders of New Zealand, Pakistan, Poland, Singapore, the U.K., and many others). Standing alongside the President of El Salvador discussing border security, he called the Ukraine-call controversy “a hoax” and said Pelosi had been taken over “by the radical left.” Announcing the U.S.-Japan trade deal, he joked that maybe Pelosi wouldn’t have time to sign the deal: “She’s wasting her time on a—you know, let’s use a word they say a lot: a ‘manufactured crisis.’” Speaking with members of the U.S. mission to the UN, he mused that whoever provided information to the whistle-blower was “almost a spy.”
Then he went home. The General Assembly carried on.
Non-U.S. delegates I spoke with were following news of the impeachment saga, but were busy with their own meetings and trying not to comment on U.S. politics. The U.S. mission to the UN did not respond to a query about what effect, if any, the impeachment story was having on their own goals for the General Assembly. But as one UN official told me: “The biggest crisis is where you’re sitting. If you’re in Aden, it’s Yemen. If you’re in the Central African Republic,” it’s the ongoing violence in the country despite a February peace deal. (The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to give a candid assessment.) CNN played on a television in the background, with a triple-split screen of reporters discussing the impeachment and the whistle-blower.
For many countries, the official said, the General Assembly is “their country’s, their crises’ moment in the sun.”
To some degree, the General Assembly and the confabs around it are structured to absorb the outsize attention any U.S. president naturally attracts there, as the leader of the world’s most powerful country, which also happens to host the UN’s headquarters. For the past several years, the secretary-general has spent days ahead of the annual gathering pushing his priority issues before the U.S. president even shows up—this year it was climate, and Thunberg’s much-covered carbon-neutral boat commute, capped off by her rebuke to the world (“How dare you!” and “You are failing us”), ensured it stayed on the news agenda in the lead-up to the meetings.
And there was plenty of actual policy drama to go around. French President Emmanuel Macron implored Rouhani to meet with Trump—he did not succeed—and the U.K.’s Boris Johnson contended with his own hybrid domestic-international political struggles as his government falters and his country hurtles toward leaving the European Union.
But Trump is even more a media magnet than the average American president.
Nor has he gotten a break from D.C. scandal in previous appearances at the United Nations. Last year, it was the accusations of sexual assault facing his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, which at the time he called a “big, fat con job.” This scandal is different, insofar as it has an international component—in fact, the public got to hear about it from Zelensky himself, whom Trump also met this week, and who in a joint press appearance said that he had not been pressured to investigate anyone.
Things were winding down yesterday morning, with some of the speech programming devoted to small island states threatened by climate change. With no U.S. presidential motorcade to contend with, New York’s annual UNGA traffic had eased, though it remained New York traffic. NYPD officers I spoke with were about ready for the end of the gathering, grateful that the weather had been mostly good this week. President Paramasivum Pillay Vyapoory of Mauritius called for Britain to respect a UN court’s decision to give up control of the Chagos Islands. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan yelled at the General Assembly Hall that India must lift the curfew in Kashmir.* Protesters gathered on Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza, shouting slogans across First Avenue.
And Trump World Tower loomed over the press tent, several stories higher than the UN Secretariat Building.
*This article originally mischaracterized Imran Khan’s role. He is Pakistan’s prime minister, not president.