Trump Aides Defend Rocket Man Tag in UN Speech on North Korea
President Donald Trump’s warning to North Korea of annihilation if it menaces the U.S. or its allies — and his reference to its leader as “Rocket Man” in his United Nations speech — were defended by aides as making an honest yet provocative argument to world leaders about collective threats.
“What you saw yesterday from the president was he was being honest,” U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said on ABC on Wednesday. “I know the people and countries don’t want to hear it, but here’s a man who continues to test ballistic missiles, he continues to test, now, hydrogen bombs.”
In his first speech to the UN General Assembly, Trump at times cast aside conventions of political and diplomatic dialogue in favor of the aggressive dialect of social media. He vowed to crush “the loser terrorists” in the Mideast and pinned the belittling nickname on North Korean regime leader Kim Jong Un.
“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” Trump said Tuesday. “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”
Haley dismissed criticisms of the president’s use of the nickname, saying that “it worked.”
“I was talking to a president of an African country yesterday and he actually cited ‘Rocket Man’ back to me,” she said. “This is a way of getting people to talk about him.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said of the “Rocket Man” label on Fox News, “That’s a President Trump original. As you know, he’s a master in branding.”
The U.S. strategy against North Korea is “still a diplomatically led effort,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Wednesday at a defense conference outside Washington. But he said the “somber reality” is that “military options must be available.”
The other main targets of Trump’s rhetorical fire were Iran and Venezuela.
He said the trappings of democracy in the Islamic Republic mask a “corrupt dictatorship” that supports terrorism. The international deal designed to curb Iran’s nuclear program is “an embarrassment to the United States” that should be revisited, he said. While he applauded other leaders for pressuring the regime in Venezuela, Trump said the U.S. is “prepared to take further action” to halt the imposition of authoritarian rule there.
Trump’s 42-minute speech amounted to a challenge to the UN, founded almost 72 years ago to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights.” The address offered a window on how the themes and ideas of his “America first” political campaign will shape U.S. engagement in the world. In Trump’s view, the sovereignty of individual nations is paramount, and the nation-state — not cooperative organizations like the UN — is “the best vehicle for elevating the human condition.”
“As president of the United States, I will always put America first,” Trump said, “just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first.”
The approach may appeal to Trump’s political base in the U.S. But the response at UN headquarters in New York mixed some surprise and disappointment. The most enthusiastic reaction came from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has closely aligned himself with Trump.
“In over 30 years in my experience with the UN, I never heard a bolder or more courageous speech,” Netanyahu, who has harshly criticized the Iran accord, said on Twitter afterward.
Speaking at a reception on Tuesday after Trump’s speech, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said, “We don’t talk never never of destroying countries but about trying to bring peace in the world.”
French President Emmanuel Macron who has forged a close relationship with Trump, contradicted the American president without mentioning him in his own address to the General Assembly. In remarks that aides said he tweaked at the last moment after hearing Trump, Macron said it’s “false” to think nations are stronger acting alone. He called the Iran nuclear accord “robust” and said “to put it into question without proposing anything to replace it is a grave error.”
North Korea has been the most urgent issue before the UN since the Kim regime’s Sept. 3 test of what it claimed was a hydrogen bomb and the launching of two missiles over Japan in the past month. Trump thanked both Russia and China for their support for the latest round of sanctions on North Korea but indirectly criticized China for continuing to trade with the isolated nation. He also cited “threats to sovereignty, from the Ukraine to the South China Sea,” unambiguous references to actions by Russia and China.
Trump followed that by condemning Iran as “an economically depleted rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed and chaos.” The president repeated his complaints about the Iran nuclear accord, calling it “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”
“Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it, believe me,” he said. Trump faces an Oct. 15 deadline to inform Congress whether the U.S. will continue to certify Iran’s compliance with the international accord — a requirement from the president every 90 days.
North Korea’s delegation, which was seated directly in front of the podium, left the hall before Trump began speaking. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif dismissed Trump’s remarks as “foolish,” telling the state-run Iranian Students News Agency they were “so slogan-like they don’t deserve a reply.”
Carla Anne Robbins, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it wasn’t clear that Trump was laying out a new doctrine to guide U.S. foreign policy.
“Really the impact of all of this was to crank Pyongyang up and not offer a huge amount of assurance to the allies and certainly no way forward,” Robbins said on a conference call.
While stressing the primacy of national sovereignty — he mentioned it 21 times — Trump said that he hopes disputes would be resolved through the UN.
“Major portions of the world are in conflict, and some, in fact, are going to hell,” Trump said. “But the powerful people in this room, under the guidance and auspices of the United Nations, can solve many of these vicious and complex problems.”
But he was also critical of the institution, saying that it had too often concerned itself with “bureaucracy and process” and complaining that the U.S. bears an unfair portion of its cost.
Trump regarded the speech as a moment of enormous opportunity to rally the world to rein in North Korea and Iran, according to his aides.
After delivering it, he told reporters: “I think it went really well. I said what I had to say,” according to Fox News.
One key U.S. ally who missed the speech was U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May. May, who began the year by reaching out to Trump — she was the first foreign leader to visit the White House after his inauguration — was away from the UN hall at a round-table meeting for businesses that are investing in the U.K.
Several world leaders skipped the UN gathering entirely. German Chancellor Angela Merkel stayed at home as she fights for reelection in Sunday’s national elections. President Xi Jinping is in China preparing for next month’s crucial Communist Party congress. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who has been at odds with Trump over trade and border security, was absent as well.