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Key issues for Trump as he travels to NYC to address the United Nations

President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference

President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in the East Room of the White House on Friday in Washington. Credit: AP/Patrick Semansky

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump will use his address before the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday to “affirm America’s leadership role,” while pressing for a “collective response” to challenges on the world stage, said a senior administration official, offering a broad preview of the president’s remarks.

Trump will return to New York on Sunday night, and kick off three days of diplomatic events starting Monday, when he is scheduled to headline a forum on religious freedom, according to the White House.

On Tuesday, the president is slated to address the annual summit of world leaders, where he is also expected to hold a series of one-on-one discussions on Tuesday and Wednesday with his counterparts from Egypt, India, Pakistan, South Korea, Poland, New Zealand, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.

The gathering comes as Trump continues to navigate a number of foreign policy challenges, including escalating tensions with Iran, failed peace talks with the Taliban, and stalled denuclearization discussions with North Korea.

Asked what message he planned to deliver at the upcoming summit, Trump told reporters on Friday: “We have a big message for UNGA. We have a big message.”

Some issues that foreign policy experts say are likely to generate the most attention include the following:

Discussions on Iran

In the wake of an airstrike on Saudi oil fields that the United States has blamed on Iran, Trump administration officials and top-ranking U.N. officials alike have said the General Assembly gathering could provide the venue to cool down tensions in the Persian Gulf.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, speaking to reporters at the UN's midtown Manhattan headquarters last Wednesday, said he was “absolutely sure” the Security Council, comprised of 15 member nations, would take up the issue of the attacks and the overall escalating tensions in the region.

“I don’t think there is a more serious threat to peace and security in the world today than what’s happening in the Gulf. This clearly is an area where I am absolutely sure the Security Council has a key role to play,” Guterres said.

Iran has denied playing a role in the attacks, pointing to Yemen’s Houthi rebel group, which has claimed responsibility for the strike. But Saudi officials and Trump administration officials contend the group, which is backed by Iran, could not execute such a high-level attack without assistance from Iran.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who met with Saudi leaders in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, days after the airstrike, told reporters he was “confident” that both the United States and Saudi Arabia would raise the issue of the strikes to the Security Council.

“We’d like a peaceful resolution, indeed, I think we’ve demonstrated that,” Pompeo said.

Trump himself had floated the prospect of meeting one-on-one with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani in New York, but in the days leading up to the General Assembly, both sides backed away from the idea. 

Officials in Tehran stated Iran would only engage in talks with nations that still belong to the Obama-era Iran Nuclear Deal, from which Trump withdrew last year, while Trump told reporters on Tuesday he would “prefer not” to meet with Rouhani on the sidelines of the UN summit.

Trump, who on Friday announced another wave of economic sanctions on Iran, told reporters he supported the idea of building a coalition with other allied nations to address Iran’s latest provocations, before going on to tout the United States' nuclear capabilities. 

“Well, I always like a coalition,” Trump said. “So, we'll see what happens. Look, the United States is in a class by itself. We have the most powerful military in the world, by far. There's nobody close. As you know, we've spent tremendous and hopefully … we pray to God we never have to use it, but we've totally renovated and bought new nuclear.”

A senior administration official, speaking to reporters on Friday, emphasized the administration’s push for a “collective response.”

“We welcome this opportunity to consult with a broad range of partners and allies on our collective response,” the official said. “It’s important to remember the attack on the Saudi infrastructure is really an attack on everyone who consumes their energy.”

Trump’s ‘bilat’ with Ukraine

White House officials on Friday said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will be among the handful of world leaders with whom Trump will hold bilateral talks while at the UN.

Trump’s one-on-one talk with Zelensky comes as the president’s discussions with the recently elected Ukrainian leader have come under scrutiny, amid news reports that the discussions were the source of a whistleblower complaint filed by a U.S. intelligence official last month who was reportedly concerned by the nature of the discussions.

The official who filed the complaint was alarmed by a “promise” Trump allegedly made to a foreign leader, according to a recent Washington Post report, citing officials familiar with the complaint. The Post and the New York Times have reported that the complaint involved Ukraine, but little else is known about the complaint, which the acting Director of National Intelligence has refused to release to Congress as required by law.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that the complaint involved an alleged request by Trump for Ukraine to investigate the business dealings of former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, with a Ukrainian gas company. The former vice president is the frontrunner among Democrats looking to challenge Trump in next year’s election.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) has threatened to sue to force the release of the documents, and has argued the Trump administration’s decision not to release the complaint to lawmakers is “unprecedented.”

Asked about Trump’s agenda for the meeting with Zelensky, a senior administration official said Friday that the president “is going to focus on again congratulating President Zelensky on his election victory and the incredible energy and success that Zelensky has put forward in implementing reform and anti-corruption efforts.”

Trump’s new hires

Trump’s arrival at the UN summit comes days after his newly appointed UN Ambassador Kelly Knight Craft officially assumed her role, and days after Trump named former hostage negotiator Robert C. O’Brien his new national security adviser.

Craft, who previously served as Trump’s ambassador to Canada, was tapped to replace former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who stepped down last fall. Foreign policy experts note that Craft will likely not enjoy the same level of influence on U.S. foreign policy as Haley, who held the ambassador’s post as a Cabinet-level position. Trump has since restructured the position so it no longer belongs to his Cabinet.

Senate Democrats previously raised concerns about Craft’s lack of diplomatic experience during her Senate confirmation hearings, but the former Kentucky businesswoman and deep-pocketed Republican campaign donor repeatedly defended her credentials, saying her business acumen would prove an asset in the position. 

Speaking to reporters at the UN on Wednesday, Craft said: “In a world marked by humanitarian crises and geopolitical challenges, strong American leadership is absolutely critical, and I intend to provide it.”

Mary Ellen O'Connell, an international law professor at the University of Notre Dame, said O’Brien, a seasoned diplomat who once was tapped to be a part of the U.S. delegation to the General Assembly in 2005, would bring a level of experience that could help Trump hold “a more constructive attitude toward the UN.”

Since taking office, the president has pulled the United States out of the UN’s human rights council and withdrew the United States from the UN’s arms treaty.

“There are so many significant issues on the UN agenda this year … predicting what the Trump administration will do, however, is impossible given the president's leadership style and a new ambassador with little experience,” O’Connell said.

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