UNITED NATIONS — In his first address to the General Assembly, President Donald Trump aimed his rhetorical fire at North Korea, Iran, Venezuela – and even the United Nations – in an address that may be remembered foremost for his assertion that the United States may be forced “to totally destroy North Korea.”
Trump also resurrected his Twitter nickname for North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un — “Rocket Man” – a signal that he will not reshape his blunt style. For good measure, he also uttered three words rarely uttered by President Barack Obama — ”radical Islamic terrorism.”
As he does with many of his domestic talks, the president began his maiden U.N. speech with a reference to how well America has fared since the Nov. 8 election. “The stock market is at an all-time high, a record. Unemployment is at its lowest level in 16 years, and because of our regulatory and other reforms, we have more people working in the United States today than ever before,” he said.
Trump then turned to threats against the United States and other nations. When he turned to Pyongyang, Trump announced, “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”
The United States will do what must be done, Trump said, adding that if “forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ja Song Nam, left the session before Trump began his remarks.
Domestically, reaction to the speech largely broke down along party lines. Onetime Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney tweeted that Trump “gave a strong and needed challenge” to the U.N.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was more critical. “The goals of the United Nations are to foster peace and promote global cooperation. Today the president used it as a stage to threaten war,” she said.
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., released a statement that faulted Trump for failing to address the low-drama steps vital to building an international consensus against Pyongyang.
“These goals are only achievable through sustained diplomacy and engagement with the international community, including China and Russia, not through escalatory rhetoric and bombastic threats,” said Markey.
While Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladamir Putin did not attend the 72nd General Assembly, both nations recently supported tough new U.N. sanctions designed to inflict economic pain on North Korea. Trump thanked both nations, along with other members of the Security Council, for their sanctions vote.
Responding to questions about Trump’s tone, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged that Trump used “strong language” but welcomed the global body’s unity against North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Former Obama Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher said Trump’s name-calling was “below the dignity” of an American president.
“I thought it was a little bit kind of like the same, similar to the inauguration speech – kind of President Donnie Darko,” Tauscher said, referring to Trump’s descriptions of the dangers that lurk across the globe.
During a Monday media call to preview the address, a senior White House official had said the president would explain his “America First” approach with “an appeal to each nation to use sovereignty as a basis for mutual cooperation.”
In his address to the General Assembly, Trump referred to the three pillars behind the Marshall Plan that helped restore Europe after World War II – “sovereignty, security and prosperity.”
“I think he was stressing America reserves the right to make decisions that consider our own interests first,” observed Nevadan Ty Cobb, a former foreign policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan who is with the National Security Forum.” Cobb described Trump’s tone as “measured, careful, presidential.”
Iran nuclear deal derided
On Iran, Trump described the international nuclear pact negotiated with that country as “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into” – and threatened a U.S. withdrawal from the pact. He also called the government a rogue state whose chief export is “violence, bloodshed and chaos.”
French President Emmanuel Macron told CNN it would be a “big mistake” for the United States to act on Trump’s impulse. “If we just stop with the (Iran) nuclear agreement, we will enter into a situation very similar to the North Korean situation,” he said.
Feinstein also took issue with Trump’s tough talk against Tehran. “What nation would negotiate with the United States when the agreements we reach with other countries are so easily undermined?” she asked.
It was a quiet room for a politician used to boisterous crowds and cheering supporters who often energize his delivery. Still, there was applause when Trump turned to Venezuela and strongman Nicolas Maduro.
“The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented,” Trump said, “but that socialism has been faithfully implemented.”
Just as Trump assailed NATO for letting most member nations not pay their fair share on NATO defense, the president again showed himself unafraid to challenge allies on their reliance on U.S. financial aid. He cited the United States’ “unfair cost burden.”
While the United States is one of 193 member nations, the country provides funding for 22 percent of the United Nations budget.
At a reception afterward hosted by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Trump confessed to having been a U.N. critic, but then lauded the body’s “tremendous potential.” In a toast, Trump said, “You are going to do things that will be epic, and I certainly hope you will. But I feel very, very confident.”
Contact Debra J. Saunders at email@example.com or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.