The Memo: Five takeaways from Trump’s UN speech

President TrumpDonald TrumpGOP-led Maricopa County board decries election recount a 'sham' Analysis: Arpaio immigration patrol lawsuit to cost Arizona county at least 2 million Conservatives launch 'anti-cancel culture' advocacy organization MORE addressed a full session of the United Nations General Assembly for the first time on Tuesday morning.

His 42-minute speech was combative and sometimes controversial. What were the key takeaways?

Ratcheting up the pressure on ‘Rocket Man’

The biggest soundbite of the speech was obvious from the moment it passed Trump’s lips.

“Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime,” he said, referring to the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un.


The disparaging nickname was way outside the norm for a UN address, but Trump’s love for transgressing such boundaries is well-known. 

The other big headline from the speech also concerned North Korea and its nuclear program. Trump threatened that if America “is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” 

The words ratcheted up a situation between the two nations that is already tense. There was no immediate response from the government in Pyongyang to the threat. 

But, on the domestic front, Trump’s rhetoric drew a strong negative response from some Democrats. Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSenators shed masks after CDC lifts mandate Infrastructure deal imperiled by differences on financing If you want Julie Su at the DOL, don't point to her resume MORE (D-Calif.) described it as “bombastic,” complaining that the U.N. had been founded to promote peace yet Trump had “used it as a stage to threaten war.”

Trump has always stressed that he doesn’t like to tip his hand to foes, and it is unclear how he sees the situation with North Korea unfolding from here.

In addition to his more bellicose words, Trump offered a note of thanks to Russia and China for supporting a recent round of stronger sanctions. 

Yet, at the same time, he said it was an “outrage” that nations would trade or otherwise prop up North Korea financially — a jab clearly aimed at China, by far Pyongyang’s most important trading partner.

Iran in the crosshairs

One of the key foreign policy decisions facing the Trump administration is whether or not to certify that Iran is in compliance with the 2015 agreement over its nuclear program.

The president must render a verdict to Congress on that question every 90 days. Trump certified Iran as in compliance in July, but will have to do so again — or decide not to — next month.

The chances of certification seemed to fall dramatically during the speech, in which he scorched Iran as “a corrupt dictatorship” and complained that the agreement — signed during the tenure of his predecessor, President Obama — was “an embarrassment to the United States.”

Even though Trump’s deeds do not always match his hardline words, it is difficult to see how he can keep upholding an agreement that he described as “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.” 

An ‘America first’ speech

Trump’s “America first” approach was never going to be a cozy fit with the diplomats at the U.N.’s Turtle Bay headquarters.

He made clear that he was suspicious of multilateralism itself, and the threat he sees it posing to the sovereignty of individual nations.

Trump used the word “sovereign” or its variants 19 times in the speech — an average of almost once every two minutes. And he asserted that, for all the U.N.’s noble intentions, “the nation state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition.”

Those views likely reflect the reported involvement of senior policy adviser Stephen Miller in writing the speech. 

Trump’s overall tone was much more aligned with the worldview of nationalists like Miller — or the president’s recently-departed chief strategist Stephen Bannon — than with other aides whom the Bannonite wing derides as “globalists” and “West Wing Democrats.”

Trump’s suspicion of multilateralism even extended to a striking recasting of World War II, which played down the collective effort of the Allies and portrayed them as nations fighting separately for their own survival. 

“Patriotism led the Poles to die to save Poland, the French to fight for a free France, and the Brits to stand strong for Britain,” Trump said.

An abrupt shift in tone

On Monday, during a forum discussion on U.N. reform, Trump struck a largely restrained and respectful tone.

There was little of that on display 24 hours later. Though the president made some perfunctory remarks praising the U.N.’s good deeds, his stance was much more confrontational.

“Too often the focus of this organization has not been on results, but on bureaucracy and process,” he said. “In some cases, states that seek to subvert this institution's noble end[s], have hijacked the very systems that are supposed to advance them.”

He went on to criticize the inclusion of egregious human rights abusers on the UN’s Human Rights Council — a frequent refrain from conservatives and other critics of the global body.

More generally, Trump was back to his normal, emphatic self. 

In addition to his jibe at “Rocket Man,” he noted that some regions of the world “are going to hell.” 

He also complained once again about the disproportionate share of U.N. costs that are borne by the United States.

The audience was not won over

The reaction of Trump’s speech in the room itself was tepid. 

According to pool reports from Peter Baker of the New York Times, “the applause for POTUS when he was introduced was muted at best and most in the room listened attentively but stone faced.”

Baker also noted a “buzz in the room” in response to Trump’s threats to North Korea and that the reaction as the speech ended was “polite applause” but “not rousing or enthusiastic.”

Trump was, of course, playing to a different audience than the one in the room. Many members of his base will have loved the speech. They will also find it reassuring, having been made restive by his recent deals with Democratic leaders.

But the chilly reception in the auditorium was a reminder of the skepticism about Trump that is widespread beyond American shores.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.