Following U.N. vote, Trump’s threat to cut off billions in aid faces credibility test

After threatening to cut off nations that rebuked him over Jerusalem, President Donald Trump faces a key question about his global credibility: Will he follow through?

Most of the world defied the United States on Thursday at the U.N., voting for a resolution that declares Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital to be “null and void.” Only a day earlier, Trump had linked the vote to future U.S. foreign assistance, telling reporters: “Let them vote against us. We’ll save a lot. We don’t care.”

Trump’s U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, upped the ante further in a speech just before the vote. Not only was foreign aid in the cross hairs, but U.S. funding for the United Nations, too, she said. Haley said the United States will “remember this day” when it was singled out for exercising its sovereignty.

“We will remember it when we are called upon to once again make the world’s largest contribution to the United Nations,” Haley said in the General Assembly.

Yet the ultimatums from Haley and Trump did not dissuade almost all the top recipients of the billions of dollars Washington gives each year to help with security, development and other needs.

And within hours of the U.N. vote, the Trump administration started gingerly backing away from its funding threats.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said cuts to countries that opposed the U.S. were not a foregone conclusion.

“The president’s foreign policy team has been empowered to explore various options going forward with other nations,” Nauert said. “However, no decisions have been made.”

On U.N. funding, Haley’s office suggested the Jerusalem vote alone will not lead the Trump administration to cut off the global organization. Under Trump, the U.S. has been conducting a broader review of United Nations funding and has already cut money to some specific U.N. agencies over abortion-related concerns.

“We will use U.N. votes as one factor in our foreign relations,” Haley’s office, known as the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, said in a statement. “It’s not going to be the only factor, or even necessarily the No. 1 factor, but it will no longer be ignored.”

It was a rare moment of soft-pedaling by the Trump administration, considering the president’s aversion to backing down from a fight or falling short on a promise. To the contrary, Trump has often credited himself with restoring America’s credibility when it issues threats by following through when U.S. adversaries cross “red lines” that he has set.

In this case, though, there were signs that Trump intended his threat, delivered in a Cabinet meeting Wednesday, more as rhetoric than policy. The warning had appeared to catch the State Department and other agencies off-guard, leading them to seek more details from the White House’s National Security Council on how to proceed.

A senior Trump administration official said there was no plan as of Thursday for moving ahead with eliminating aid to countries that rebuked the president. The official wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

In all, 128 countries voted “yes” to rebuke the United States. Nine voted “no,” 35 abstained, and 21 didn’t vote. Although the U.S. lost handily, the tally was better for the U.S. than many had expected.

Of the top 10 beneficiaries of U.S. assistance this year, only Israel voted “no” — unsurprising, given that Israel’s government is overjoyed by Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem.

All the rest defied Trump by voting “yes,” with the exception of Kenya, which didn’t vote. Afghanistan, for which about $4.3 billion in U.S. money was set aside in 2017, voted “yes” to rebuke Trump.

The “yes” votes included Egypt, which received roughly $1.4 billion in U.S. aid, and Jordan, which received about $1.3 billion. Although both Arab nations are close U.S. security partners that rely on American dollars, both would risk political upheaval at home if they did not voice opposition to the idea of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Which raises the question: Would the United States, hoping to make a point about Israel, really cut off Jordan and Egypt, the only two Arab countries that have peace deals with the Jewish state? It would seem a counterintuitive move given Trump needs those countries’ support to succeed in securing the elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal his aides are pursuing.

“The principle of linking bilateral assistance to U.N. votes is a sound one,” said David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank focused on the Middle East. “But I wouldn’t unveil it here. I don’t know if I would inaugurate this policy on a vote about Jerusalem, given its religious resonance in the Arab and Muslim worlds.”

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