President Trump is planning to host foreign leaders at his New Jersey golf club when he attends the annual U.N. General Assembly session next month, breaking decades of precedent for U.S. presidents, said people familiar with preparations for the gathering.
The State Department is getting ready for an unspecified number of foreign meetings at the Bedminster, N.J., golf club over several days during the week of Sept. 18. The White House has not announced plans for Trump’s first visit to the gathering, which usually draws roughly 150 heads of state.
U.S. presidents usually attend the gathering for about two days, while the secretary of state stays for a week or more. Both typically hold meetings with foreign dignitaries at hotels or the U.N. headquarters, taking advantage of a unique gathering of leaders and diplomats. State Department staffers jokingly call the back-to-back sessions diplomatic speed dating.
The plans for Bedminster mark the latest example of the president’s holding official events at his Trump-branded properties, including his Florida summit meeting in April with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago.
Trump is expected to make his first presidential address to the General Assembly on Tuesday, Sept. 19. He is also likely to meet U.N. Secretary General António Guterres at the U.N. headquarters.
Most other meetings would probably be held 40 miles west, at the Trump National Golf Club, according to tentative plans. People familiar with the initial planning spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the evolving strategy on the record.
Still, the idea of an American president receiving dignitaries at a private business far from U.N. headquarters is unsettling, said Bill Richardson, a former U.N. ambassador and former governor of New Mexico.
“It’s better to do it in the city. Do it at the U.N.,” Richardson said. “Symbolism is important. This is the U.N. There should be an acknowledgment of the importance of the U.N., not snubbing them.”
Foreign diplomats are eyeing Trump’s appearance with a mix of anticipation and anxiety. Some expect an airing of Trump’s “America First” credo and a replay of threats to yank U.S. funding if the vast international body does not cut waste and make reforms.
Or, Trump could use the theatrical platform that the U.N. gathering offers to project a friendlier tone, as he did in remarks to U.N. diplomats he invited for an unusual White House lunch in April.
“I have long felt the United Nations is an underperformer but has tremendous potential,” Trump said then.
He also joked that high-profile U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley “can easily be replaced.” Haley is widely presumed to be a future Republican presidential candidate and, perhaps, a successor to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson much sooner than that. The contrast between Haley and Tillerson, who avoids the limelight, will be on view at the General Assembly.
Other nations are paying special attention to U.S. signals on climate change, including whether the United States sends representatives to General Assembly side events on the topic, and to what Trump may say about the continuation of costly U.N. peacekeeping operations.
“I believe the upcoming U.N. General Assembly is an important opportunity for the U.S. to send the unambiguous message that it stays committed to world affairs and to the U.N.,” said France’s U.N. ambassador, François Delattre. “This is more important than ever, as the world is confronted with an unprecedented accumulation of crises.”
The advent of a U.S. president who is also a New Yorker, with homes in Manhattan and New Jersey, sets up the prospect of a different kind of General Assembly, not to mention even worse traffic than usual in Midtown.
U.N. headquarters, where traffic snarls are legendary during the peak week of the General Assembly, is on the East Side. Road access toward Bedminster is on the West Side, though some leaders might also decide to reach the golf club via helicopter.
Trump will potentially meet with French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, diplomats said. There has been no word of a potential sit-down with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Spokesmen for the White House and State Department did not respond to requests for information about the upcoming session.
Trump’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump and her husband, presidential adviser Jared Kushner, are also both expected to play roles during the gathering known as UNGA.
Vera Jelinek, director of the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, said she expects Trump to highlight his administration’s view that the United Nations is biased against Israel, but also to cast himself as a global statesman.
“I think he enjoys a big stage,” Jelinek said. “I don’t think he’s going to come out as ‘America First’ and isolationist. I think he’s going to make an attempt to emphasize those things where there might be some unity.”
Tillerson is likely to spend several days in New York and will meet with numerous foreign ministers as well as attend some of Trump’s sessions with heads of state or government, people familiar with initial plans for the visit said.
The Trump administration plans to focus on counterterrorism, Syria, the nuclear threat from North Korea, U.N. reform and a few other broad themes during the General Assembly gathering.
So far, the State Department has not announced any separate sessions among foreign ministers devoted to any pet cause. Such U.S.-driven sessions have been a common component for recent secretaries of state.
Former secretary of state John F. Kerry, for instance, convened a special side session on energy and climate at last year’s UNGA.
Tillerson has directed the State Department to slash the number of staff sent to New York for the UNGA gathering to a third of the totals sent in recent years, people who have seen the directive said.
The event is a popular destination for State Department employees, and recent secretaries of state have arrived with delegations of a few hundred diplomats and support staff.
Even some State Department staff have rolled their eyes at the traveling circus, and it was no surprise that Tillerson would want to cut back. Tillerson is in the midst of a reorganization and downsizing of the entire State Department, and his leadership style has left many department employees feeling disenfranchised.
Nancy McEldowney, a former career Foreign Service Officer and ambassador who now directs Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service program, said she understands Tillerson’s desire for a more streamlined approach. But she warned that the administration will miss a big opportunity if it greatly lowers the U.S. profile at the U.N. gathering.
“It’s a very large, very complicated organization, and we always have a busy agenda that we have to work across all the member states. You need a large, experienced cohort of diplomats and experienced foreign policy experts to work the agenda,” McEldowney said.
“This is an opportunity for us to positively reinforce our message and make progress with countries across the board.”
Richardson added advice for Trump and Tillerson, both new to government and the United Nations.
Leaders of other nations, including adversaries such as Iran and Cuba and trouble spots such as North Korea and Venezuela, will use the forum to rub elbows and project national power, Richardson said. Trump should work the room, Richardson said.
“The General Assembly is the perfect place to deal with a lot of issues,” and conduct business with nations that don’t otherwise get a lot of face time with the United States, Richardson said.
“Everybody is together. This is bigger than the G-20, bigger than anything,” he said, referring to the Group of 20 gathering of large and emerging economies, which Trump addressed last month in Germany.
“And, New York is his town.”