UNITED NATIONS (CN) – In the same hall where he threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea last year, President Donald Trump opened to unexpected comic relief Tuesday in his second big speech at the General Assembly.
“Today, I stand before the United Nations General Assembly to share the extraordinary progress we’ve made,” Trump began, before paying himself a compliment. “In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”
The boast tickled the hall of diplomats, which erupted into raucous laughter.
Taken aback, Trump ad libbed: “Didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s OK.”
Last year, when he took the same marble dais, Trump had strongly hinted at pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal but he had not yet done so. This year, Trump said the Islamic Republic could expect tougher sanctions come November. “And more will follow,” he warned.
“Iran’s leaders sow chaos, death and destruction,” Trump said. “They do not respect their neighbors or borders, or the sovereign rights of nations. Instead, Iran’s leaders plunder the nation’s resources to enrich themselves and to spread mayhem across the Middle East and far beyond.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani traded back fire later in the day.
“We have assembled here today as the world is suffering from recklessness and disregard of some states for international values and institutions,” Rouhani said.
“It is unfortunate that we are witnessing rulers in the world who think that they can secure their interests better or at least in the short-term ride public sentiments and gain popular support through the fomenting of extremists, nationalism and racism, and through xenophobic tendencies resembling a Nazi disposition as well as through the trampling of global rules and undermining international institutions,” the Iranian president added later.
Eliminating any doubt he had been insulting Trump, Rouhani added that such leaders act “even through preposterous and abnormal acts such as convening a high-level meeting of the Security Council.”
Trump will chair a session of the U.N. Security Council on the proliferation of the weapons of mass destruction on Wednesday.
If his anti-Iran rhetoric remained a constant, Trump dramatically changed his tone on North Korea, the U.N. member state he previously threatened with annihilation and whose ruling dictator he used to call “Little Rocket Man.”
“I’d like to thank Chairman Kim for his courage and the steps he has taken,” Trump said. “So much work remains to be done.”
Conspicuously absent from Trump’s U.N. speech for a second year in a row was any reference to Russia, whose leader, Vladimir Putin, he lavishly praised in July, immediately after U.S. prosecutors formally charged Kremlin intelligence officers with hacking operations designed to tilt the election in Trump’s favor.
Trump’s words toward Venezuela remained as harsh today as last year, though the Latin American country’s geopolitical situation has changed.
Before Trump delivered his speech, Brazilian and Ecuadorean presidents spoke of the more than 1 million Venezuelan migrants seeking refuge within their borders. The New York Times recently reported that Trump administration officials met with plotters of a coup in Venezuela, whose socialist politics Trump ridiculed again.
“Venezuela was one of the richest countries on Earth,” he said. “Today, socialism has bankrupted the oil-rich nation and driven its people into abject poverty.”
Despite geopolitical changes, Trump’s combative tone remained the same. He spoke suspiciously of “plunder” from other countries on trade.
“We will no longer tolerate it and we will not allow our workers to be victimized, our companies to be cheated and our wealth to be plundered and transferred,” he said.
Following the lead of his national security adviser John Bolton, Trump tore into the International Criminal Court, which authorized a preliminary investigation late last year into allegations of torture by the U.S. military and the CIA in Afghanistan.
“As far as America is concerned, the ICC has no jurisdiction, no legitimacy, and no authority,” Trump said, savaging the only international criminal body able to prosecute war criminals. “The ICC claims near-universal jurisdiction over the citizens of every country, violating all principles of justice, fairness and due process. We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy.”
Secretary General Antonio Guterres set the stage for general debate with a speech this morning that diagnosed global politics with the same type of “trust-deficit disorder” that propelled Trump to power.
The first four presidents speaking today – Brazil’s Michel Temer, Trump, Ecuador’s Lenin Moreno and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan – have been touched by criminal investigations. Temer stands charged with graft. A growing number of Trump’s allies have been convicted in connection with a probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Moreno opened an arrest warrant on his predecessor Rafael Correa, and Erdogan has been dogged by a nearly 5-year-old corruption scandal.
“Within countries, people are losing faith in the political establishment,” Guterres noted. Describing a global order where “populism is on the march,” Guterres continued: “Multilateralism is under fire precisely when we need it most.”
Although the secretary general did not mention Trump by name, the values that Guterres expressed stood in a sharp contrast to that of the U.S. president’s outspoken agenda. The Trump administration has continued to spurn and undermine various U.N. initiatives, including the Paris accord and the global compact on migration.
Routinely depicting multilateral initiatives as suspicious power grabs, Trump said: “Migration should not be governed by an international body unaccountable to our own citizens.”
Where the speakers that proceeded and followed him emphasized the need to combat climate change, Trump touted the U.S. ability to export an “affordable supply of oil, clean coal and natural gas.”
Trump went it alone in his talks with North Korea’s Kim. With U.N. assistance neither sought or received, those negotiations ended in an agreement that lacks mechanisms for verification and enforcement.
“We had highly productive conversations and meetings, and we agreed that it was in both countries’ interest to pursue the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Trump said.
The Washington Post reported that Trump’s arch-nationalist adviser Stephen Miller wrote this year’s speech, which, like last year’s, remains heavy on themes on national sovereignty.
“As president of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first,” Trump said in 2017.
Doubling down on the same nationalist rhetoric, Trump told the international body: “Inside everyone in this great chamber today, and everyone listening all around the globe, there is the heart of a patriot that feels the same powerful love for your nation, the same intense loyalty to your homeland, the passion that burns in the hearts of patriots and the souls of nations has inspired reform and revolution, sacrifice, and selflessness.”
Trump said that he would encourage other nations to “make their countries great again.”
After Trump wrapped up, Erdogan delivered remarks showing how the U.S.-Turkish relationship has strayed. Often compared to Trump in his combative speaking style and staunch antagonism to the press, Erdogan lashed out against countries that he said had been protecting “FETO,” the Turkish government’s acronym for what it labels the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization.
This refers to followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric now living in Pennsylvania whom Erdogan blames for perpetrating a July 2016 coup attempt against him.
Erdogan has pushed for the extradition of Gulen and his followers, even embarking on a global purge that has included whisking suspected Gulenists from other countries. He warned that countries that do not cooperate with this effort will pay a “quite hefty” price.
The Turkish government has been vocal about hoping to fundamentally reshape the U.N. Security Council, currently dominated by the “permanent five” nations, which have veto power over any resolution.
Repeating his government’s rallying cry “the world is greater than five,” Erdogan blamed the Security Council structure with blocking resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
French President Emmanuel Macron also called to break the impasse in the Middle Eastern dispute.
“What can resolve the crisis between Israel and Palestine?” Macron asked. “Not unilateral initiatives, nor trampling on the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to legitimate peace.”
“Even if the entire world turns its back,” Erdogan said, Turkey will support the side of the “oppressed Palestinians.”
Due to Trump’s late arrival at the U.N. today, Erdogan spoke right after him. Their combative speeches stood in stark contrast to Ecuador’s Moreno, who was bumped to the second-place spot by the scheduling shake-up. The Ecuadorean leader’s speech was as florid and poetic as Trump’s was pugilistic.
“Everything in life is cause and effect, and every effect implies a cause,” Moreno philosophized in an opening line of an uncommon U.N. speech, one devoted less to a diplomatic agenda than first-person reflections. He emphasized the importance of cultivating passions for science, imagination and creativity in the young.
“Someone asked me once what gave rise to this thinking, and I responded with various ‘Perhaps,’” Moreno said. “Perhaps because I was born and grew up in the Amazon region in the lungs of the planet – in the most biodiverse tropical rainforest on the planet.”
Before his speech, U.N. personnel set up a ramp for Moreno to the podium.
“As you can see, I get around in a wheelchair,” said Moreno, who turned even his disability into an opportunity for self-reflection.
“Is that bad? I don’t know,” Moreno remarked, adding later: “From this wheelchair, I see from the eyes of the heart.”
Moreno’s personal story inspired a U.N. priority this year via his former diplomat Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces, who made protecting the rights for the disabled one of her priorities this year as president of the General Assembly.
Cuba, whom Moreno called an “almost defenseless country” suffering under a U.S. “blockade,” will have its new president Miguel Diaz-Canel deliver his first U.N. speech on Wednesday.
The White House announced that Trump will hold a press conference late that afternoon, presumably after the Security Council meeting.