Donald Trump stood onstage at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington, D.C., on Monday evening, and bashed the United Nations for its views on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
He promised that if he were elected president, the U.S. would veto any Security Council resolution that set guidelines for a resolution, as Hillary Clinton told the conference earlier in the day. And he blasted the "utter incompetence and weakness of the United Nations," to cheers from the crowd. "The United Nations is not a friend of democracy, it's not a friend of freedom. It's not even a friend to the United States of America where, as you know, it has its home. And it is surely not a friend to Israel."
But over the years, Trump has held up the U.N. as "one of the world’s most valuable institutions." In more Trump-ian language, he has even called himself "a big fan."
Donald Trump has quite literally had his eyes on the U.N. for years.
The global body’s New York headquarters stand directly across the street from one of his most prominent properties — the Trump World Tower, which for a brief period in the early 2000s was the tallest residential building in the world, at 72 floors. When Trump was planning the massive building back in 1998, many U.N. diplomats — whose iconic office building is in comparison only 39 stories — were firmly opposed to the billionaire's construction plans. At least one senior U.N. official said legal action against Trump was considered.
After ground on the building was broken, Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a scathing assessment. "I don't know how he ever got a permit for it ... I think it's going to throw a colossal number of people into the deep shadows," Annan said at a New York University conference in 1998. "It's going to cast a long, long shadow over everybody who lives in that neighborhood.”
Trump was uncharacteristically diplomatic in response. "I have tremendous respect for the Secretary-General and the U.N., or I wouldn't be building this building," he told the New York Daily News. "It will fit in magnificently with the U.N., and I think he'll love the end product when he sees it."
Given what the world has seen from Trump in the year he’s pursued the Republican presidential nomination, it’s hard to describe his previous respect and at times admiration for the U.N. — or really any international institution — as anything but weird.
His protectionist economic policies and stated goal of what amounts to a trade war with China put him at odds with the World Trade Organization and other multilateral economic bodies. His desire to have U.S. allies pull their own weight are in complete opposition to the multilateralism and global security apparatus the U.N. Charter enshrines. And his advocacy for interrogation “worse than waterboarding” and a proposed temporary ban on Muslims from entering the U.S. basically spit in the face recognized international law. Thomas Wright, director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution, has described Trump’s stated foreign policy ideals over the years as being more at home in the 19th century than the post-World War II order.
Two years after his run-in with Annan over Trump World Tower, the real estate mogul still had some nice things to say about the U.N. during his flirtation with a run for president on the Reform Party ticket. At a Los Angeles gathering of Reform Party members in 2000, "Trump mocked the Reform Party platform, praised the United Nations and came out against campaign finance reform," USA Today reported at the time.
In his 2004 book Think Like A Billionaire, Trump went so far as to call the U.N. "one of the world’s most valuable institutions."
But it was also there, and in public comments given around the time the book was being written, that he had some of his harshest words for the international organization until Monday. Or rather, the organization got caught in the crossfire of his ego-driven feud with Annan. He dedicated a full section of the book to what he deemed the mess at the U.N. that he says Annan facilitated.
By the early 2000s, the U.N.'s main headquarters — finished in 1952 on property donated to the world body by the Rockefeller family — was finally due for a much needed remodeling. "I could do it for $500 million, what they're going to spend $1.6 billion for. The only difference is my job would be better," Trump boasted to ABC News at the time.
Annan didn't take Trump up on the offer, leaving Trump to express his disdain in Think Like A Billionaire. "It does not take a genius to recognize the enormous difference in these proposals—several years and $1.5 billion, or $1.1 billion more than I would spend for a job that would not be as good as mine. It makes me wonder: Who is in charge at the United Nations? Could they be as incompetent in world affairs as they are at simple numbers?"
"While the fundamental premise of the United Nations is wonderful, perhaps we need to reevaluate its current function," Trump wrote, hedging his praise in an attack on Annan. "It started out so well. What has happened? With these enormous oversights in the area of finance, perhaps we need to start worrying."
Trump was still sore about the snub when he testified before the Senate Committee for Homeland Security and Government Affairs in 2005 to slam Annan's leadership at a hearing titled "U.S. Involvement in Renovation of U.N. Headquarters." (Trump spoke on the invitation of Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, who has a long history with the billionaire and is serving as the chair of Trump's foreign policy advisory board.)
But even in the process of mocking Annan, Trump couldn't help turn down the opportunity to speak admiringly about the U.N. itself. "I have to start by saying I am a big fan, a very big fan of the United Nations and all it stands for," Trump said. "I cannot speak as to what has been happening over the last number of years because it certainly has not been good, but the concept of the United Nations and the fact that the United Nations is in New York is very important to me and very important to the world as far as I am concerned. So I am a big fan, such a fan in fact that at great expense I built a building across the street."
"I offered my services free. I wanted to save close to a billion dollars, actually $1.1 billion at the time. I wanted to save a billion dollars for the United Nations, for the world, in a sense. I wanted to do it," he continued. "I liked doing the Wollman Skating Rink. I mean this is a bigger version of the Wollman Skating Rink, that is all it is to me."
It’s worth mentioning that though by last year the U.N.’s Capital Master Plan to renovate headquarters was $379 million over the initial $1.88 billion budget approved in 2008, Trump’s history with numbers is more than a little fraught. The net worth he claims literally fluctuates depending on his mood. And the Wollman Skating Rink's renovation, located in Central Park, was not actually done for free — he took the full contract amount and was later sued by contractors for cutting corners to come in under budget. So who knows if he would have been able to make good on his promises of a cheaper renovation of the U.N.
Trump was still making clear he wished that he could be the one to redo the U.N. as late as 2012:
The General Assembly Hall was finally redone in 2013 with the first session in the updated hall held the next year. It’s not clear how Trump felt about the changes.
Despite his critiques, Trump has been more conciliatory towards the need for the U.N. than the average Republican voter. A 2015 Gallup poll found that 70% of Republicans think the U.N. is doing a poor job, compared to 39% of Democrats.
His past statements have also been less extreme than his main rival Sen. Ted Cruz. Cruz has cited his work as Texas' Solicitor-General in an ad declaring that he'd "fought the U.N. and won," denounced the U.N.-drafted Arms Trade Treaty as a ploy by the Obama administration to circumvent the Second Amendment, and at one point believed that a development plan known as Agenda 21 was a mortal threat to Texas' golf courses.
A small sampling of the tweets his supporters have sent to him show that they hope that a President Trump would lean towards the views of Cruz and Tea Party members' goals of defunding the U.N.:
But historian Stephen Schlesinger sees another possibility. Rather than scorn the U.N., “I think on the contrary, he'd want to dominate the U.N. as another institution he’d like to take over," Schlesinger, author of a book on the U.N.'s creation, said in an phone interview with BuzzFeed News. “I can see him getting up there on the podium and doing his thing, making all sorts of bravado pronouncements, rather than trying to avoid the podium.”
“Can you imagine Donald Trump missing the opportunity to be on the world podium?” Schlesinger continued. "That's not the way he is.”
Since beginning his run for the presidency, Trump had been more or less mum about the U.N. until Monday. The Trump campaign didn’t respond when BuzzFeed News previously reached out to get an updated position for him on how he views the U.N.. None of the questions directed at him in twelve presidential debates have at all touched on the subject. When revealing his foreign policy advisory team on Monday, he gave an opinion on the US’s NATO involvement — but not the U.N. (One of his five named advisers, did attend a Model United Nations conference in 2012 though, so there’s that.)
The closest Trump had come to talking about the world body was citing former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton in August of last year as one of his go-to people on foreign policy — an interesting choice, as Bolton once famously said, "There are 38 floors to the U.N. building in New York. If you lost 10 of them, it wouldn't make a bit of difference." (Bolton declined through a publicist to be interviewed for this article.)
But for all the kind words Trump has had over the years, the U.N. wants nothing to do with him. And though U.N. officials traditionally stay out of the U.S.’ politics, for Trump they seem willing to make an exception. The loudest rebuke came in response to his proposed temporary ban on Muslims entering the country, when both U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein and Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon condemned his policies.
“The United States is a republic founded on the dignity of the individual, the rights of the individual,” Prince Zeid said. “The danger of classification and categorization … dehumanizes, it can lead to victimization of the innocent.”
While that may seem mild, in the diplomatic world, it’s basically the equivalent to a lengthy-string of four-letter words that would seem right at home at a Trump rally.