NEW YORK — President Donald Trump often functions in one of two modes. One is the unshackled, quick-to-feel-slighted contrarian who believes in two eyes for an eye and retweets videos that suggest violence against opponents like Hillary Clinton and CNN.
The other is a president who is able to strike a unifying tone, stay on a script and deliver — at least in set pieces — performances that are in line with the way the country has come to expect its leader to behave in high-stakes moments. (See: his generally appropriate remarks to those displaced by massive hurricanes in Texas and Florida, or his first address before a joint session of Congress in February.)
But on Tuesday, in his first address in front of the United Nations General Assembly, Trump was his least bifurcated self. Teleprompter Trump and Twitter Trump seemed to become one in an address that feinted at a foreign policy doctrine but ultimately struggled to materialize into a coherent worldview.
Trump stuck to a script written by his top policy aide, Stephen Miller, and reviewed beforehand by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, among others.
After a rare night spent in his apartment in Trump Tower, he appeared relaxed, reading from two teleprompters in a steady tone. But the script also included distinctly Trumpian flourishes. The hall, filled with world leaders, hummed as he said aloud the nicknames and catchphrases he has used on Twitter — “Rocket Man” for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, “loser terrorists” for people from the Middle East perpetuating violence around the globe.
“Some lines were very Trumpian, but he also had an argument,” said Elliott Abrams, a neoconservative foreign policy expert who served in the George W. Bush administration. That argument, Abrams said, was a globalized version of the “America First” doctrine, one that cast the U.N. not as a world government but as a collection of sovereign states.
But Trump went on to make the case for American intervention in global hot spots like North Korea, Iran and Venezuela.
“They’re grappling with the question of how can you be leader of the free world,” Abrams added. “This was not a Bannon-ite ‘to hell with all of you’ speech. But they still don’t have an answer to that question. They’re groping.”
To Trump’s detractors, the speech was ultimately a reminder that there really is no Trump foreign policy doctrine — whether he is behaving as his freewheeling or his scripted self. “There was no uniting principle that gave our allies something to rally behind and our enemies something to fear,” said Brian Fallon, who served as press secretary of Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “North Korea is evil, but you have to have a unifying worldview. They would say having nuclear ambitions is exercising their sovereign right.”
In his speech, the president went beyond his “fire and fury” remarks aimed at North Korea, vowing that if the United States “is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” He also made his strongest hints yet that he intends to pull America out of the 2015 Iran deal, saying that it is “an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it.”
After touting the importance of each country in the world looking out primarily for itself and not imposing its views on the rest of the world, Trump said that in Venezuela, where people are starving, the “situation is completely unacceptable, and we cannot stand by and watch.”
“It was the international edition of his inaugural speech on American carnage,” said Jake Sullivan, a former senior State Department official who helped lay the groundwork for the Iran deal. “Dark and selfish replaces ‘shining city on a hill.’”
Still, the speech appeared to be in line with how Trump often behaves when addressing an international audience — adopting a more serious and moderated exterior while dropping stealth grenades. In Brussels last spring, during his first address before NATO, Trump failed to reaffirm Article 5 — the one-for-all, all-for-one commitment of mutual defense of members of the alliance, in an otherwise by-the-book speech. (He went on to state his commitment to the doctrine at a speech in Warsaw in July, after the resulting uproar.)
“The rest of his speech was normal,” recalled Ilan Goldenberg, a former State Department official during the Obama administration, “but he did this thing that terrified everyone. He often has this veil of normalized stuff, with these little tidbits that are fundamentally undercutting basic tenets that are part of the global order. This is one of the real windows into what the Trump presidency is.”
Trump gamely followed the standard script throughout the day in New York. At a luncheon hosted by the U.N. secretary general, he toasted “the great, great potential of the United Nations,” even appearing to take a sip of red wine. Trump famously does not drink, and for years he has been a fierce critic of the U.N.
At his table, he chatted with one of his favorite foreign leaders, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, over a lunch of pan-seared wagyu beef tenderloin and chocolate ganache mousse. For his third event of the day, Trump was scheduled to hold a bilateral meeting with the emir of Qatar.
Meanwhile, former aides who have been ousted under the new regime of chief of staff John Kelly were quick to try to take credit for the content of Trump’s morning address — one they claimed was vintage Trump.
“The speech was a great demonstration that the external team is succeeding in countering the non-MAGA voices inside the White House,” former West Wing aide Sebastian Gorka, now chief strategist of the newly created MAGA Coalition, said in a text message.
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