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Trump drama mesmerises the UN... sorry Greta, no time for the planet

Focus on impeachment has led to the sidelining of issues at the UN, from saving the planet to talks with Iran, says Carol Morello

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THE CLOSING ACT? US Speaker Nancy Pelosi reacts alongside vice-president Mike Pence as he applauds Donald Trump during his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill last February. Photo: Reuters

THE CLOSING ACT? US Speaker Nancy Pelosi reacts alongside vice-president Mike Pence as he applauds Donald Trump during his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill last February. Photo: Reuters

REUTERS

THE CLOSING ACT? US Speaker Nancy Pelosi reacts alongside vice-president Mike Pence as he applauds Donald Trump during his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill last February. Photo: Reuters

All last week US State Department officials made a concerted effort to portray the annual UN General Assembly as a productive week of high-level meetings which cemented bonds and mitigated conflicts. But the muted TV sets in the hotel rooms where officials briefed reporters highlighted a different story.

Like garish wallpaper amid otherwise understated and sober decor, the TV screens never budged from the burgeoning scandal over a House impeachment inquiry and a whistleblower's concerns over President Donald Trump's call with the Ukrainian president.

Events consuming Washington have overshadowed everything substantive going on in New York during the week known in the vernacular as UNGA.

Officials expressed frustration and irritation that Trump's actions had eclipsed their hard work, though none wanted to speak with their name attached, fearing retribution in a toxic political climate. "Nobody will talk about it," one administration official said curtly.

Diplomats were amazed and worried over the dominance of whistleblower news - but also were reluctant to speak publicly out of their uncertainty how it will culminate and its potential to affect bilateral relations.

"Do you hear anyone talking about global warming any longer?" asked a European official. "It is very interesting to be in New York and witness how much power 'Trump news' has to shift the focus of a worldwide, important discussion.

"A week ago, I would have bet that the Iran and Saudi Arabia topic would draw a lot of the attention during UNGA, but even this topic is no longer making the news."

One acknowledgment the whistleblower scandal was clouding the numerous events surrounding the global forum came during the final Thursday news conference by US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, originally billed as a recap of the week's successes.

The first question came from a reporter who said he had planned to ask about UNGA events but that "everything has been catapulted into another topic down in Washington, so..."

Unable to stop himself, Pompeo interjected: "Only because you've chosen to catapult it there."

Trump himself was clearly peeved, sending out a stream of tweets attacking impeachment and the whistleblower.

After news broke last Tuesday that Nancy Pelosi would announce impeachment proceedings, Trump seemed to rush through his scheduled meetings, and his motorcade left early to take him back home to Trump Tower. His agenda said he was in "executive time" during a period that coincided with Pelosi's televised remarks. Soon after, he tweeted, "PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT!"

During a meeting last Thursday with employees of the US mission to the UN, leaked audio captured Trump likening those who spoke to the whistleblower to "spies," and seemed to lament the end of an era when spies were executed.

Much of his ire was directed at the news media. At a news conference last Wednesday, he tried to prod reporters into asking about the economy and global affairs instead of impeachment.

Even some reporters were taken aback by the news coverage.

Waiting for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to arrive at a news conference last Thursday, one reporter acknowledged there was little interest in what Rouhani might say, even amid growing tension between Washington and Tehran.

"He could declare war and my office wouldn't care," the reporter said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

When Rouhani arrived, the second question he was asked concerned Trump's future. A slight smile crossed his face, but he demurred from opining, saying, "It is an internal matter. It is the purview of the United States, the American people and the American Congress. They must decide. The conclusion, whatever it is, is not of importance to us."

But despite fears the US and Iran may be edging toward war, Rouhani's speech at the United Nations was not broadcast live on cable television, as it was in previous years. While he spoke, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC all remained fixated on events in Washington.

One of the few items on the UN agenda which broke through was the debate over climate change. But that was largely because the high-level speeches were made last Monday, the day before the world's attention took a U-turn.

"The news about Ukraine definitely took the spotlight from some of the world leaders who spoke later in the week," a former US diplomat said, unwilling to be named because of his concerns about partisan backlash.

"The remarks of some of the more bombastic heads of state tend to dominate the public's attention around the world, so this year's dynamic was certainly different because of the news from DC."

But privately, some diplomats expressed concern and uncertainty about what the scandal means for their countries and relations with the US. They already are starting to calibrate how Washington's turn inward will distract from other crises around the world, and even whether they will still be dealing with a Trump administration in a few months' time. Some also said they were worried more transcripts of calls between leaders will be made public.

"There are now speculations around diplomats if at the end, this impeachment case might help Trump," said a diplomat for the Middle East. "The question for us is, if Congress and the White House are now going to be busy with this case, how much might this affect the interest in current increasing security problems we are seeing in the Gulf states?"

"The other problem we see, generally speaking," the diplomat said, "is what can be discussed with American presidents over the phone in the future, if we have to fear that one day the transcripts could be shared with the public?"

But UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric brushed off a question about how the situation in Washington had affected the work of the General Assembly.

"The business of the world continues here," he said. "Very serious issues are being debated, from the Central African Republic to Yemen to Libya to climate change, to sustainable development goals...

"The people who are suffering in the world need us to come up with solutions, and the discussions on those are continuing this week and will continue onwards."

© Washington Post

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