WASHINGTON – When President Donald Trump enters the ornate chamber of the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday, he will find a sturdy wooden gavel at his place around the horseshoe-shaped table.
With three raps, the president – who campaigned against globalism and has derided the U.N. as “just a club” – will open a session of its most exclusive body: the 15-member Security Council.
“I’m sure that’s going to be the most watched Security Council meeting ever,” Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the U.N., predicted last week in outlining to reporters the administration’s agenda for this week’s high-level meetings in New York City.
That’s because no one is quite sure what Trump will say or do in what is typically a highly scripted setting, full of diplomatic niceties and well-defined protocol.
As Trump arrived in New York on Monday, his opening remarks on the world’s drug problem were eclipsed by domestic politics. Trump addressed the latest allegation of sexual misconduct against his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, in between U.N. meetings. And his top diplomats fielded questions at a foreign affairs briefing about the fate of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, after reports emerged that he talked about wearing a wire while meeting with Trump and possibly invoking the 25th Amendment to remove him from office.
Wednesday’s scheduled session before the Security Council already carries an air of uncertainty, with the White House sending conflicting signals about whether Trump will focus specifically on Iran’s violations of international law or more generally on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. If Trump puts the spotlight solely on Tehran’s malignant activities, that could trigger a U.N.rule allowing Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, to respond.
“Normally these sessions are very, very scripted,” said Stewart Patrick, an expert on global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based foreign policy think tank. “But if Ambassador Haley is unable to keep the president on script, it could quite easily go off the rails.”
Even if Trump stays on message, it’s likely to be a tension-filled session, said Patrick, because some of Trump’s policies have alienated key allies, including France and England, two permanent members of the Security Council who would normally rally around the U.S. at such a meeting. And Rouhani will be able to attend the session, under the Security Council’s rules, even if he is not allowed to speak.
Others agreed it could make for must-watch TV.
“What should happen is Trump should call the meeting to order and then give his statement,” said Richard Gowan, a senior fellow at the United Nations University, a research institution. “And then in theory, he should basically go around the table inviting other members of the council to (speak).”
Gowan said there’s been some speculation that Trump will deliver his opening remarks, listen to one or two other world leaders speak, and then hand off the gavel to Vice President Mike Pence, who would offer “a safe pair of hands.”
But, Gowan added, “Trump could also enjoy the reality show dimension and there’s a possibility that he could make it quite fun by putting on his game show host tendencies and calling on the various leaders.”
That’s not too far-fetched given Trump’s experience in a previous life as star of the successful long-running NBC show, “The Apprentice,” which featured his catchphrase, “You’re fired!”
A spokesman for Haley referred questions about Trump’s planned remarks, and how he might handle any potential interaction with Rouhani, to the National Security Council. A spokesman for the NSC did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Trump’s turn running Wednesday’s council session will mark only the third time in history that an American president has chaired a session of the Security Council, which is charged with maintaining international peace and security. The council’s presidency rotates monthly among the member countries, in alphabetic order. It just happens that the United States holds the Security Council presidency this month, as world leaders arrive in New York for the 73rd session of the U.N. General Assembly.
Former President Barack Obama presided over the other two U.S.-led Security Council sessions, in 2009 and 2014. Obama’s staff prepared for months in advance for those meetings, said Ned Price, who served as a National Security Council adviser to President Obama. Before the first meeting, Price said, they worked with other foreign diplomats to get unanimous agreement on a nonproliferation decree; for the second, the U.S. won passage of a resolution aimed at stopping foreign fighters from flowing into Iraq and Syria.
Price said it’s unclear if the Trump administration has done similar advance legwork for Wednesday’s session.
“What the administration would like to do is galvanize energy around Iran and the nuclear challenge,” Price said. But, he noted, the four other permanent members of the Security Council “all have quite a different perspective on Iran than President Trump.”
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