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Feuds and flattery: Trump’s quirky history with the UN

© Doug Kanter, AFP | United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan (L) meets with New York real estate tycoon Donald Trump on January 9, 2001, at UN headquarters in New York.

Text by Tracy MCNICOLL

Latest update : 2017-09-19

US President Donald Trump steps up to the podium and into the history books on Tuesday, addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York for the first time, but his own history with the UN is a long, chequered and quirky one.

Trump’s public pronouncements on the international organisation – as Republican presidential candidate, president-elect and finally as a world leader whose nation enjoys veto power on the UN Security Council -- have famously run from scathing to fawning, often in the same breath.

Trump’s early remarks at this year’s annual General Assembly powwow suggest those offbeat early episodes still resonate with him today as he angles for UN reform.

Looking back over Trump’s years of apparently offhand commentating on UN matters, patterns emerge. With the notable exception of the UN’s treatment of Israel -- against which he pulls no punches -- there is generally a carrot with Trump’s stick for the UN, or at least a backhanded compliment.

As president, Trump has griped about the expense of the UN, even as he has sought to cast himself as an eminent proponent of the body.

“The United States, just one of the 193 countries in the UN, pays for 22 percent of the budget and almost 30 percent of the United Nations peacekeeping, which is unfair,” he told Security Council ambassadors when he hosted a luncheon for them at the White House in April, adding: “I also want to say to you that I have long felt the United Nations is an underperformer but has tremendous potential. There are those people that think it’s an underperformer and will never perform.”

Before his inauguration, President-elect Trump blasted the body, all the while flattering it, tweeting last December, “The United Nations has such great potential but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!”

NYC real-estate tycoon takes on the UN

But Trump’s public opining about the UN dates back to well before Tuesday’s speech-to-the-world seemed even the remotest of possibilities. Indeed, Trump was already feuding with, and flattering, the UN as a New York real-estate tycoon, when he was little more than the UN headquarters’ billionaire businessman neighbour.

Tension between Trump and the UN dates back at least to the end of the 1990s when the New York tycoon was planning construction of his Trump World Tower at 845 United Nations Plaza in New York. To the diplomats’ dismay, Trump’s glassy residential skyscraper, billed as a 90-storey tower – although it actually has only 72 floors – would ultimately rise to dwarf the organisation’s iconic 39-storey headquarters across the street. An unimpressed then-Secretary General Kofi Annan even broached the project with New York’s mayor at the time, Rudy Giuliani, during a night at the opera, CNN reported in 1998.

Undaunted, Trump later offered to renovate the UN's headquarters for $500 million, well below an estimate the UN had obtained for the work, and even met with Annan to discuss the prospect. But the future American president was turned down – and seemingly had trouble letting go of the matter years on. To wit, the brazen real-estate developer’s July 2005 testimony before a US Senate subcommittee exploring US financial involvement in the renovation of the headquarters. (During his testimony, Trump hinted at one of the reasons he might be a cheaper option than the UN was looking for: he thought it was “absolutely ridiculous” to move staffers to expensive temporary rental space during asbestos removal in a building under renovation: “One of the things that I had mentioned to Kofi Annan and the whole group, when I was at the meeting, was that there was no reason to move anybody out,” he told the senators.)

“When at that time, Senator, they were talking about $1.5 billion to renovate the UN and this was around December 2000,” Trump testified. “I said, well, there are only two reasons, either gross incompetence or something far worse than that, and you know what that something is, and that is corruption, because there is absolutely no way that building could have cost $1.5 billion to build.”

And yet, Trump was keen even then to praise the UN, the then-reality television star even seeming flattered about sharing the limelight with the storied organisation. “I have to start by saying I am a big fan, a very big fan of the United Nations and all it stands for,” he began his testimony. “Such a fan, in fact, that at great expense I built a building across the street,” Trump added. “It is the tallest apartment house in the world. It has been a tremendously successful building, sold out, so I am very proud of it. And if the United Nations were not there, perhaps I would not have built it in that location, so it means quite a bit to me.”

‘I thought I could save this world… a lot of money just by sitting down…’

Trump told the senators he had felt “like a head of state” walking into the room sitting down with Annan. “When I went to see the Administration, and when I went to see Kofi Annan, I was actually quite excited because I thought that I could save this country, this world, everybody including myself, a lot of money just by sitting down and having a meeting,” he said. “Unfortunately… there was just no response. They did not really care.”

He detailed his discussions with the UN staffers charged with organising the renovation project, scoffing at their lack of experience with New York construction and landlords. “You know, I am listening to these people that are very naïve, and I respect them, but they are very naïve in this world,” he told the committee. “Now, I may be naïve in their world, but in this world, they are naïve…” he added, 12 years before his head-of-state star turn Tuesday at the UNGA podium.

That early-2000s missed renovation opportunity seemed to still rankle Trump years later, in October 2012. “The cheap 12 inch sq. marble tiles behind speaker at UN always bothered me. I will replace with beautiful large marble slabs if they ask me,” he tweeted then – as ever with the suggestion of potential unmet, but hardly the scorn of a neoconservative leader who would sooner scrap the multilateral institution altogether.

On Monday, as Trump made his first appearance at the UN as president of the United States headlining a discussion on UN reform, Nikki Haley, the nation’s ambassador to the UN, introduced him as a man with “a businessman’s eye for seeing potential. And he sees great potential, not just in this reform movement, but in the United Nations itself.”

Taking centre stage at the UN, Trump couldn’t resist a mention – in his very first remarks -- of his once-controversial tower on United Nations Plaza. “I actually saw great potential right across the street, to be honest with you, and it was only for the reason that the United Nations was here that that turned out to be such a successful project,” he said.

“In recent years, the United Nations has not reached its full potential because of bureaucracy and mismanagement,” Trump would go on to argue -- a judgment that might well have been coloured, for the real-estate magnate and New York construction connoisseur he was, by those hard-hat spats more than a decade ago.

Date created : 2017-09-19

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