Trump’s boasts at the U.N. prompt laughter — and then a long silence

President Donald Trump addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
President Donald Trump addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

UNITED NATIONS — President Donald Trump had barely begun his address to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday when he claimed his tenure had “accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country,” the kind of over-the-top boast he usually reserves for his campaign rallies.

Around the cavernous hall, diplomats and world leaders broke into what even the official White House transcript described as laughter.

“Didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s OK,” Trump said, momentarily startled. That prompted more guffaws and applause.

A year after Trump delivered a fiery speech here that left diplomats slack-jawed, many appeared to view him Tuesday as more theater than threat. They sat silent as he cited what he claimed as major achievements, including the U.S. pullout from the Iran nuclear accord, his refusal to sign the Global Compact on migration, the withdrawal from the U.N. Human Rights Council, and his decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

As expected, Trump aimed his sharpest ire at Iran, blaming the Islamic Republic for sowing “havoc and slaughter” in Syria and Yemen, and spreading “mayhem across the Middle East” and beyond.

“Iran’s leaders sow chaos, death and destruction,” Trump said. “They do not respect their neighbors, their borders or the sovereign rights of nations.”

He urged other countries to join an economic pressure campaign against Iran, a direct challenge to other members of the Security Council that remain committed to the Iran nuclear deal that Trump abandoned.

“We ask all nations to isolate Iran’s regime as long as its aggression continues,” Trump said.

But Trump devoted much of a somber, and often isolationist, 35-minute address to promoting his America First agenda, and its emphasis on sovereignty in trade, security and international affairs. “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism,” he said.

He also outlined the argument for his disruptive approach to foreign affairs, from the Middle East to North Korea, where he has upended traditional diplomacy by discarding former U.S. policies.

“America’s policy of principled realism means we will not be held hostage to old dogmas, discredited ideologies, and so-called experts who have been proven wrong over the years, time and time again,” he said.

Citing the dangers of illegal immigration and “uncontrolled migration,” Trump argued that each country should set its own policies in accordance with its national interest. The U.N. estimated about 65 million people, mostly from impoverished nations, have been dislocated due to war, persecution, environmental disasters and economic needs.

“Migration should not be governed by an international body unaccountable to our own citizens,” Trump said. “Ultimately, the only long-term solution to the migration crisis is to help people build more hopeful futures in their home countries. Make their countries great again.”

Trump bore down on his persistent pledge to curb and re-prioritize America’s foreign aid budget, complaining that helping poverty-stricken countries offered little benefit to U.S. interests.

“The United States is the world’s largest giver in the world, by far, of foreign aid. But few give anything to us,” he told the world body.

Trump said Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo would take a “hard look” at the State Department budget and ensure that countries receiving aid or military protection “also have our interests at heart.”

“Moving forward, we’re only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends,” he said.

His suggestion to make foreign aid more transactional challenges, at least in part, the traditional U.S. role of trying to use so-called soft power to promote human rights and democracy, especially in fragile societies or those where U.S. interests are prominent. The countries that receive the most U.S. economic aid are Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Egypt.

Despite his emphasis on sovereignty, Trump did not criticize, or even mention, Russia. The U.N. has criticized Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine, and its seizure of Crimea, as well as its actions in Georgia and the Balkans, and the U.S. intelligence community and a Virginia grand jury have documented the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Trump attacked the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, known as OPEC, for what he described as “ripping off the rest of the world,” but then praised Saudi Arabia’s leadership for what he called bold reforms. Saudi Arabia is one of the main powers in OPEC and is partly responsible for higher oil prices as U.S. sanctions bite into Iran’s oil production.

Trump praised his decision last December to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a hotly disputed action favored by few in the audience, calling it “very historic change.” Trump’s critics believe he has openly sided with Israel and jeopardized any chance to revive the long-stalled Mideast peace process.

“The tone of this speech won’t be effective outside Trump’s base at home — boastful, bitter and resentful of countries that ‘take advantage of us,’” Nicholas Burns, a former senior diplomat in Republican and Democratic administrations, said via Twitter. “He is not leading the world, but campaigning against it.”

In a departure from his usual style, Trump offered “special thanks” to the leaders of South Korea, Japan and China for their role in bringing North Korea to nuclear talks; commended Jordan for taking in refugees, and celebrated India and Poland, among others.

Trump’s worldview did not go unchallenged. French President Emmanuel Macron, without naming the U.S. president, delivered an implicit rebuke minutes later on subjects such as immigration and women’s rights.

“It’s not acceptable any more that an individual would have less opportunity simply due to where they were born, or their gender,” he told the world body in a lengthy address that was greeted with loud, sustained applause.

On what may be his signature issue — climate change — Macron said that the Paris agreement had “stayed intact” despite Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the landmark accord.

“This is power,” he said. “Should someone be against, we will nonetheless press ahead.”

And only a short time after Trump embraced “the doctrine of patriotism” in his own address, Macron said he too valued national self-determination, but insisted that it must be tempered by international cooperation.

“In the 21st century, we will only triumph through bolstered multilateralism,” the French president said, decrying those who “brandish sovereignty as a way of attacking others.”

Despite Trump’s claims of “encouraging progress” with North Korea, the nuclear negotiations with that nation appear to have stalled, and U.N. nuclear monitors and U.S. intelligence agencies have found no evidence that North Korea has dismantled or given up its nuclear program or weapons arsenal.

Trump was scheduled to speak at 10:15 a.m., but he started 24 minutes late after he stopped to talk to reporters. Reiterating a claim he had earlier tweeted, Trump said that the Iranians “want to meet,” but vowed that he would not.

“I’m not meeting with them until they change,” he said.

Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, who is scheduled to speak later Tuesday, has said he has no interest in meeting with Trump given the current hostility.

“Neither last year nor this year” did Iran request a meeting with Trump, Rouhani told CNN in an interview that aired Tuesday. “Such a meeting must take place when it can be beneficial to both countries. … But under current circumstances … I don’t see it as beneficial or appropriate,” Rouhani said.

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Times staff writers Laura King and Noah Bierman contributed from Washington.

 

 

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