Reporter's notebook: Watching as the world watches Trump

Evan Vucci/AP
President Trump speaks at a news conference at the Lotte New York Palace hotel during the United Nations General Assembly Sept. 26.
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My Afghan journalist friend was perplexed. He was among hundreds of mostly foreign journalists assembled in a large tent for a press conference with President Trump at the NATO summit in Brussels this summer. They were hoping for clues about his plans for the future of the alliance. “I’m a very stable genius,” Mr. Trump declared to the gathering. “What did this ‘stable genius’ thing mean?” my friend asked me. “Why did he say that?” With alliance leaders at the summit, Mr. Trump had threatened and laid down gauntlets. And yielded results, he thought. But with journalists, he let loose and had a good time. I was reminded of that episode this week on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, in a fancy New York ballroom, where for nearly an hour and a half the president of the United States seemed to let off some steam and was more like the spirited reality show host he had once been.

Why We Wrote This

When the Monitor's chief diplomatic correspondent encounters Donald Trump, it's often in the presence of diplomats and foreign press, giving him insight into how the president plays to others.

When President Trump this week regaled a fancy New York hotel ballroom full of journalists with a tale of how China’s leaders respect him for his “very, very large brain,” it rang a bell with me.

Ah yes, I thought, as I observed the ripple of laughter the president’s remark elicited: Mr. Trump’s NATO summit press conference, just a few weeks earlier in Brussels.

In that case, hundreds of mostly foreign journalists had assembled in a large press conference tent to glean any clues as to the US leader’s intentions for the transatlantic alliance. Instead, the president’s takeaway comment was a bit of self-flattery that left the journalists – most of whom were experiencing Donald Trump as president for the first time – scratching their heads.

Why We Wrote This

When the Monitor's chief diplomatic correspondent encounters Donald Trump, it's often in the presence of diplomats and foreign press, giving him insight into how the president plays to others.

“I’m a very stable genius,” Trump declared, to widespread bewilderment. Later a perplexed Afghan journalist friend would ask me, “What did this ‘stable genius’ thing mean? Why did he say that?”

With alliance leaders, Trump had threatened and laid down gauntlets – no more taking advantage of the United States of America and not paying your fair share of defense. And in the president’s own estimation, his tough line had yielded results.

But with journalists, he let loose and had a good time.

Mr. Kurd's moment

And so it was in that New York ballroom. For nearly 1-1/2 hours Wednesday, the president of the United States was more like the spirited reality show host he had once been, at the same time marveling at the sea of raised hands before him and relishing how it was his to command.

Trump sparred with some “fake news” broadcast journalists over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and over his own history of sexual misconduct allegations. He thrilled one Kurdish reporter demanding from the back of the room to be recognized, calling on him as “Mr. Kurd.” The nickname astounded a number of American journalists, who quickly live-tweeted it, but not so the beaming recipient of the presidential quip, who would later insist it had made his day.

Trump even declared his true feelings for what he again called “the failing New York Times,” cooing to the Times’s Mark Landler that despite everything, “I still love the paper.”

If one got a strong sense of Trump letting off steam, perhaps it was because the rest of his week on the world stage, interacting with a much less solicitous crowd at the United Nations, had been much less to his liking.

On Tuesday, delivering his annual address to the UN General Assembly and the hundreds of assembled leaders and diplomats, the president was uncharacteristically subdued. His speech on reasserting national sovereignty and vaunting American unilateralism drew neither “hear-hears” nor applause in the house that post-World War II multilateralism built.

Trump did draw laughter when he opened by using a line that had gone over well at a recent Indiana political rally, claiming he had accomplished more in less than two years than almost any administration before his. He expressed surprise at the amusement, saying it was not the reaction he had expected, but he later insisted his audience was laughing with him, not at him.

Around the table, support for Iran deal

Then on Wednesday morning, at a UN Security Council session on nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction over which he presided, Trump sat stone-faced as country after country in the 15-nation council expressed support for the Iran nuclear deal – the same deal Trump withdrew the US from four months ago.

Indeed, even as Trump once again blasted the nuclear accord negotiated under President Obama as “horrible, horrible” – for in his view it gave Iran everything in exchange for nothing – the rest of the leaders at the circular table lined up in opposition.

The deal is working in that a compliant Iran is much further away from possessing a nuclear weapon than it was when the deal was struck, they said – adding for good measure that the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” concluded with Iran is reflective of the kind of multilateral engagement an interdependent world needs to turn to more, not less.

Leaders and diplomats I ran across at various venues over the course of the premier diplomatic week that is simply referred to as UNGA (for United Nations General Assembly) had varying explanations for a subdued Trump.

Some wondered if a preoccupation with what one diplomat referred to as the “chaos” in Washington – the Russia investigation, the national drama of the Kavanaugh nomination – might explain it.

In another interpretation of the impact of Trump’s domestic challenges, one diplomat insisted instead that a desire to deflect attention from domestic political turbulence was motivating the president to lash out at the international community in ways that pump up his political base.

“It is absolutely offensive and a flagrant violation of international norms that the president of the United States of America would announce unilateral sanctions from the house of multilateralism,” said Venezuela’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, to a small group of journalists moments after Trump used his General Assembly speech to herald a fresh round of sanctions on Venezuelans officials – including the country’s first lady.

“We know why President Trump is doing this and much more, going so far as to insist on sovereignty for the United States even as he blatantly violates the sovereignty of others,” Mr. Arreaza said. “He is trying to hide the many political scandals in Washington.”

An opening to engagement?

Others simply lamented America’s turn inward under Trump – but held out hope that the president can be drawn back to the mantel of American leadership they say the world needs.

“Mr. Trump’s speech was unfortunate, it seems he is isolating America at a time when so much of the world really needs American leadership,” Enele Sopoaga, the prime minister of the Polynesian island nation of Tuvalu, told me.

“One of the main reasons we come here to New York every year is to hear the American president and to hear how America envisions leading the world in addressing the many problems we all face together,” he said. “So yes, it is disappointing to hear President Trump talk about America’s relations with the world in this way.”

But Mr. Sopoaga said he felt Trump was “more moderate” this year than last, a sign he chose to interpret as a potential opening to renewed American engagement in global issues.

As a sign of that hope, the leader of the tiny country halfway between Hawaii and Australia said he plans to personally invite Trump to the annual conference of Pacific island nations that Tuvalu will host next year.

“I don’t think we are big enough to accommodate his giant airplane,” Sopoaga said, referring to Air Force One. “But we would very much welcome the leadership of the American president, however he got there. And this is President Trump,” he added, “so maybe he could arrive on a yacht.”

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