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Trump’s week anchored by speech to U.N. General Assembly

UPDATED: Mon., Sept. 18, 2017

President Donald Trump, right, speaks while United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres listens at a meeting during the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters, Monday, Sept. 18, 2017. (Seth Wenig / Associated Press)
President Donald Trump, right, speaks while United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres listens at a meeting during the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters, Monday, Sept. 18, 2017. (Seth Wenig / Associated Press)
By Darlene Superville and Jonathan Lemire Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS – President Donald Trump made his United Nations debut on Monday, using his first moments to urge the 193-nation organization to cut bureaucracy and costs and define its mission around the world more clearly.

But while Trump chastised the U.N. – an organization he had sharply criticized as a candidate – he said the United States would “pledge to be partners in your work,” in order to make the world body “a more effective force” for peace.

“In recent years, the United Nations has not reached its full potential due to bureaucracy and mismanagement,” said Trump, rebuking the U.N. for a ballooning budget. “We are not seeing the results in line with this investment.”

The president pushed the U.N. to focus “more on people and less on bureaucracy” and to change “business as usual and not be beholden to ways of the past which were not working.” Trump also suggested that the United States was paying more than its fair share to keep the New York-based organization operational.

But he also complimented steps the United Nations had taken in the early stages of reform and made no threats to withdraw American support. His measured tone was a stark contrast to his last maiden appearance before an international body, when he stood at NATO’s new Brussels headquarters in May and scolded the member nations for not paying enough, while not explicitly backing its mutual defense pact.

During the presidential campaign, Trump had labeled the U.N. as weak and incompetent, and not a friend of either the United States or Israel. But he has softened his tone since taking office, telling ambassadors from U.N. Security Council member countries at a White House meeting this year that the organization has “tremendous potential.”

Trump more recently has praised a pair of unanimous council votes to tighten sanctions on North Korea over its continued nuclear weapon and ballistic missile tests.

Trump’s big moment comes Tuesday, when he delivers his first address to a session of the U.N. General Assembly. The annual gathering of world leaders will open amid serious concerns about Trump’s priorities, including his “America First” policy, his support for the U.N. and a series of global crises. It will be the first time world leaders will be in the same room and able to take stock of Trump.

The president on Monday praised U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who also spoke at the reform meeting and said he shared Trump’s vision for a less wasteful U.N. to “live up to its full potential.” The U.S. has asked member nations to sign a declaration on U.N. reforms, and more than 120 have done so. The president also kicked off his maiden speech by making a reference to the Trump-branded apartment tower across First Ave. from the U.N.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said Trump’s criticisms were accurate at the time, but that it is now a “new day” at the U.N. An organization that “talked a lot but didn’t have a lot of action” has given way to a “United Nations that’s action-oriented,” she said, noting the Security Council votes on North Korea this month.

Guterres has proposed a massive package of changes, and Haley said the U.N. is “totally moving toward reform.”

Trump also planned to hold separate talks Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and French President Emmanuel Macron. U.S. national security adviser H.R. McMaster said the conversations would be wide-ranging, but that “Iran’s destabilizing behavior” would be a major focus.

Breakthroughs on a Middle East peace agreement are not expected. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser on the issue, recently returned from a trip to the Middle East.

The United States is the largest contributor to the U.N. budget, reflecting its position as the world’s biggest economy. It pays 25 percent of the U.N.’s regular operating budget and over 28 percent of the separate peacekeeping budget – a level of spending that Trump has complained is unfair.

Because of the U.S. fiscal year, it never pays its U.N. dues until the fall – and some in the world body are worried that Trump could still decide to cut payments. Next year the U.N. will review its scale of assessments, which is the percentage of the U.N. regular budget and the peacekeeping budget that the 193 member states pay.

The Trump administration is conducting a review of the U.N.’s 16 far-flung peacekeeping operations, which cost nearly $8 billion a year. Cutting their costs and making them more effective is a top priority for Haley.

The international meetings come at a time of uncertainty for the State Department, which has faced staffing shortages while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been in and out of favor with Trump. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Monday that its delegation to the U.N. this year, while down slightly from a year ago, was “within historic norms.”

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