NEW YORK — President Trump sought Monday to shape the 73rd U.N. General Assembly around his agenda, announcing he will soon hold another summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and sending a pointed warning to Iranian leaders.
But even as Trump laid the groundwork to deliver a much anticipated speech Tuesday about his world view to leaders of 192 other nations, he was beset by forces of disruption much closer to home — and of his own making.
Just minutes after Trump wrapped up brief remarks at an opening session aimed at fighting the spread of addictive opioids, news broke in Washington that deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein was threatening to resign — or, perhaps, was on the precipice of being fired by the president.
The immediate political firestorm quickly engulfed — then eclipsed — the president’s first day on the global stage. The question shifted from whether Trump could tame rival leaders abroad to whether he would be able to tamp down yet another day of internal White House chaos.
By midafternoon, when he sat down for a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, whose diplomatic outreach to Kim last week helped put nuclear talks back on track, Trump was looking ahead to Thursday, when he’ll meet Rosenstein at the White House. Moon was relegated to a sideshow.
“We’re going to have a meeting on Thursday when we get back” to Washington, Trump said, responding to questions from reporters about Rosenstein, who is overseeing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. “Right now, today, we’re meeting with a lot of great people, including President Moon.”
Trump is both on home ground and enemy territory this week, back in his beloved Trump Tower in New York — the city that made him — and surrounded by diplomats wary or sometimes hostile to his “America First” nationalism.
His return to the U.N. gathering, after a maiden speech last year, has offered Trump a chance to demonstrate progress in his top priorities, including his efforts to reset U.S. trade relations with allies and rivals, the North Korea gambit and his new pressure campaign on Iran’s leaders.
Trump said he will meet with Kim in the “not too distant future,” adding that “the location is being worked on. The timing is being worked on.” A second meeting would mark a major shift since last year, when Trump said in his U.N. address that Kim was on a “suicide march” over his nuclear weapons program.
Trump also put Iran on notice last year that he would not tolerate that nation’s support for terrorist organizations in the Middle East. Since then, the president made good on a campaign promise to withdraw the United States from the multination Iran nuclear deal.
With Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attending the U.N. conference, Trump’s aides reiterated his resolve to confront Tehran.
“We’ve imposed very stringent sanctions on Iran. More are coming,” national security adviser John Bolton said. “What we expect from Iran is massive changes in their behavior. And until that happens, we will continue to exert what the president has called ‘maximum pressure.’ ”
White House aides also carefully arranged several bilateral meetings on Trump’s first day, including with the Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and French President Emmanuel Macron. Yet if aides were hoping the president would stay focused, the crises back in Washington created an awkward split screen almost as soon as the president arrived in the city Sunday evening.
During Trump’s dinner with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Trump Tower, the New Yorker reported the Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh was facing another accusation of sexual misconduct from a classmate at Yale University. As Abe pressed the president on trade and North Korea over a private dinner, Trump aides were blasting out statements and an official White House “fact sheet” denouncing the new allegations as a “coordinated smear campaign” from Democrats.
Trump was unexpectedly quiet on Twitter as Monday dawned, but as he entered the U.N. headquarters in Midtown, the president could not resist responding to shouted question about Kavanaugh from reporters. He called the nominee “an outstanding person” and said he was “with him all the way.”
The charges against him, which have delayed a Senate confirmation vote, are “one of the single most unfair, unjust things to happen for a candidate for anything,” Trump said, and the women who have made the allegations are “coming out of the woodwork” and “in my opinion totally political.”
Some foreign affairs analysts said Trump’s preoccupation with his domestic crises are the byproduct of a president who is unable to compartmentalize the duties of office. Trump is so consumed by his focus on maintaining support from his conservative political base that he views virtually everything through that lens, said P.J. Crowley, a former assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration.
Past presidents “could deal with foreign policy challenges and domestic policy challenges at some time,” Crowley said. “What’s different is that in the case of Trump, there really is no difference between the domestic and the foreign.”
At a briefing for reporters at the Hilton hotel in Midtown, Trump’s top foreign policy aides — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Bolton — foreshadowed the president’s speech at the United Nations for Tuesday.
Trump, they said, will lay out his view that “the United States is determined to obviously be involved in multilateral organizations where we see it,” Haley said, “but not in the way that they’re mandated on what the United States does or that infringes on the American people.”
Bolton, who was critical of the United Nations while serving as the top U.S. diplomat at the organization in the George W. Bush administration, said Trump’s speech would be focused on the theme of “American sovereignty.”
Joking in a deadpan voice that he was “delighted” to be back at the United Nations, Bolton waved a well-thumbed pocket copy of the U.N. charter and described Trump’s speech as a version of American exceptionalism.
The Constitution “is the highest authority that we recognize,” Bolton said, making the implicit point that no international compact or U.N. agreement should intrude.
Yet the three senior aides were quickly fending off questions from reporters about Rosenstein and whether they had ever been part of secret plans to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office. A New York Times report that Rosenstein had discussed just such a possibility last year had set off another firestorm late last week — prompting Rosenstein to issue a public denial.
“I am not aware of any Cabinet members that are even talking about that,” Haley replied. “It is completely and totally absurd.”
Pompeo called the idea “ludicrous.”
As the three departed, just a few hours into an already topsy-turvy first day, an exasperated Pompeo offered the assembled press corps a parting message.
“Have a nice week,” he said sardonically, eliciting a chuckle from Bolton as they headed through the door.