NSI Experts Weigh In: State of the Union 2019

Yesterday, President Trump delivered his second State of the Union address.  Read our expert analysis of his remarks. 

February  6, 2019

Megan L. Brown – NSI Senior Fellow and Associate Director for Cybersecurity; Partner, Wiley Rein LLP

The State of the Union recognized some of the most serious national security issues facing the county but was much heavier on domestic policy. In many areas the president really did speak in a bipartisan way, particularly on national security, which came across as one of the least controversial area of his agenda.

He spoke directly about nation state adversaries, who we all know are using cyber attacks to disrupt and do harm. Disappointingly, he only indirectly alluded to cyber, citing theft of intellectual property and worries about China.  He said we are ‘making it clear to China that after years of targeting our industries, and stealing our intellectual property, the theft of American jobs and wealth has come to an end.’  You’d have to look to the cyber strategy and intelligence strategy to understand how that’ll happen outside of the trade context.


Overall the SOTU was heavy on domestic policy but hit some key national security highlights. I wish it had more on cyber and his goals for our leadership in the digital future. 

Zach GravesZach Graves – NSI Visiting Fellow; Head of Policy, Lincoln Network

“President Trump calls on Congress to think of our past achievements as a nation — major scientific breakthroughs, defeating fascism, building highway infrastructure. While the theme of ‘choosing greatness’ may sound cheesy, he’s making an important point. Congress has lost its capacity to think big, and tackle the tough problems. But for Congress to function better it needs more than just to be inspired, it needs to build more institutional capacity and policy expertise.”



Matthew R. A. HeimanMatthew R. A. Heiman – NSI Senior Fellow and Associate Director for Global Security; Chairman, Cyber & Privacy Working Group, Regulatory Transparency Project

“National security and international trade made up approximately 20% of President Trump’s State of the Union address.  The small amount of content covered the expected laundry list of topics: the U.S. was being ripped off in trade deals; withdrawing from the INF Treaty was good; the U.S. was right to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear weapons agreement and enact tough sanctions; another meeting is scheduled with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un; the U.S. stands firm with Juan Guaido of Venezuela; and defending the movement of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.  It was disappointing that President Trump did not provide a more detailed rationale for his decisions to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan and was almost silent on the geopolitical competition with China and Russia for global influence.  Today, these are the most pressing issues on the national security agenda.  Regarding the drawdowns in Afghanistan and Syria, Trump said great nations do not fight ‘endless wars.’  Great nations should avoid fighting pointless wars.  In Syria, our troops are acting as an important brake against Russian and Iranian machinations.  In Afghanistan, while it remains far from a perfect democracy, our military presence has prevented Afghanistan-based terrorism from again wreaking havoc around the world while Afghani women and girls are able receive an education after the overthrow of the oppressive Taliban regime.  Regarding China and Russia, it would have been good to hear what the U.S. will do to support our allies and dissuade nations from throwing their lot in with two authoritarian, paranoid, anti-democratic, revisionist regimes.”

Jamil N. Jaffer – NSI Founder; former Chief Counsel and Senior Advisor for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and former Associate Counsel to President George W. Bush

“In his 2019 State of the Union speech, the President rightly called for bipartisanship and unity in working towards the common good; he also appropriately recognized the historic importance of American leadership in the world, honoring the sacrifices made by our men and women in arms in support of that mission, including those currently serving, as well as those soldiers of the Greatest Generation who defended our nation in what began as an ‘endless war’ and culminated in the liberation of Nazi death camps in Europe.  Likewise, the President correctly castigated the Iranian regime for its support of terrorism, the North Korean regime for its pursuit of nuclear weapons capable of reaching our shores, Russia for its blatant violations of the INF Treaty, and China for its continuing efforts to pillage the American economy of the very innovation that is our lifeblood.  He also appropriately attacked the socialist regime in Venezuela for destroying its economy, harming its people, and ruling from a position of lawlessness and her also correctly noted our success in getting our allies to meet their existing commitments to share the burden of defending their nations.

And while the President’s actions have supported many of his statements—like his decision to pull out of the catastrophically bad Iran nuclear deal, his staunch position on the INF Treaty, his support of historic change in Venezuela, and his efforts to push back on unfair and illegal Chinese trade practices—on balance, the President’s national security policies have not yet matched his rhetoric about the history and importance of American leadership in the world.  Indeed, a number of the President’s actions in the national security arena, like short-sighted and abrupt decision to withdraw American troops from Syria, his approach to negotiating from a posture of weakness with the Taliban—the very group that housed and protected Osama bin Laden both before and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001—his squandering of a strong negotiating position with North Korea (to be fair, a negotiating position he was able to obtain), and his attacks on some of our strongest allies across the globe, all the while coddling the leadership of hostile states like Russia, all work to undermine his own words about the historic importance to our nation—and the world—of American leadership. 

Nonetheless, the President now has a unique opportunity to make good on his words.   If the President is prepared to truly defend the role of America in the world, he will leverage his call for change in Venezuela to make it a reality, he will protect our allies in Europe from Russian predation by helping them achieve energy independence through the direct supply of American natural gas, and he will ensure that American troops see the conflicts in the Middle East—whether in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan—through to the complete defeat of the terrorist groups that seek to kill Americans and our allies.  Likewise, if the President truly believes we are strongest when we resolutely support our friends and oppose our enemies, he will back those who seek freedom from regimes—like Iran—that support terrorism and oppress their people, he will negotiate a significantly better agreement with North Korea than the one reached a year ago, he will reject Russian claims in Europe and will penalize Vladimir Putin and his cronies further for their anti-American and anti-Western covert and overt influence activities around the world, he will push for stronger cybersecurity efforts here at home and with our allies in Europe, the Middle East, and in Asia. 

Perhaps most importantly, if the President is truly going to be successful in an effort to lead both domestically and abroad, he will seek to change the tone in Washington, and he will strongly and squarely reject anti-immigrant voices, and those who support racism and anti-Semitism at home and abroad.

If the President is able to execute on these efforts, he stands to achieve historic successes in global and domestic security.  And while his record on that front is admittedly checkered to date, we should all fervently wants him—and our nation—to succeed in this regard.“name=”kanji”>

Omario KanjiOmario Kanji – NSI Visiting Fellow; Assistant Academic Director, Temple University

The SOTU comes momentously during Chinese New Year, when China’s President Xi is no doubt taking stock of both nations and their current relationship. President Trump was correct in saying that our leaders and representatives may be to blame for our current trade predicament. Since its founding, China has been, and will be for quite some time, a most pragmatic power. Such pragmatism lends itself to calculated moves on economic and political fronts. Well-intended gestures since and including China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) have not proven terribly fruitful.

It would seem that the United States and other countries are arriving at a point of reckoning with China on trade practices, cybersecurity, intellectual property, and hostile geographical moves in the South China Sea. President Trump has stood up to a rising power where other countries had failed to; the tide may very well turn from here onward. Canada’s arrest of Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou more than proves this.

Despite all his promises, what the President may not win back from China is American jobs. It is certainly true that the American worker lost her job due to China’s entry and integration into the globalized economy. Wages in China are rising, on par with those of Mexico. However, multinationals still have a few choices for outsourcing, such as India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and others. The jobs might not come back. In addition, since the time that China absorbed those jobs, economic fundamentals and the job market itself have change drastically. The United States’ best hope is to, as the President said, outspend and out-innovate China, as well as the rest of the world.

Andy KeiserAndy Keiser – NSI Fellow; Former Senior Advisor, House Intelligence Committee

National security watchers found some pretty thin gruel when it came to the national security policy laid out in President Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address.

While he touched on his tried and true policies of pushing back on Chinese aggression, rebuilding the military and pursuing burden sharing among NATO allies, he did announce a new date for a summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un, and passingly referred to a plan to seek to wind down the war in Afghanistan, withdraw from the INF treaty with Russia and support new leadership in Venezuela.

In the four newer references to Trump Administration policy, I think the President hit three on the head. With North Korea, even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi credits the President with deescalating the conflict, the Russians had long been violating the INF treaty and Maduro in Venezuela years ago relinquished any modicum of legitimacy. However, on Afghanistan, the United States of America abandoned Afghanistan once before and it led to the Taliban taking power and granting Osama bin Laden the safe-haven he needed to carry out the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Maintaining an effective counter-terrorism capacity in Afghanistan is vital to U.S. national security interests.name=”moss”>

Harold Moss – NSI Visiting Fellow; Senior Director Strategy & Business Development, Web Products, Akamai Technologies

Yesterday’s state of the union highlighted a naïve if not negligent perspective on national security. The president in his address categorized beyond border engagement as foolish wars, highlighting a fundamental lack of understanding with respect to buffering adversaries and pro-active engagement.  By implying our influence begins and ends at our borders, we lose the ability to pre-empt and diminish foreign threats.

In addition the  President further diminished the impact of foreign attempts to influence or interfere with our electoral process by diminishing the investigation of such actions to that of simple partisan politics. While highlighting the political impacts, the President missed an opportunity to leverage these actions to unify our divided political nation against a common enemy in service of protecting our systems of governance.

Lester Munson– NSI Senior Fellow; former Staff Director, Senate Foreign Relations Committee

The State of the Union speech was a civilized version of President Trump’s vision to call America home from its role in the world and focus inward.  No matter how kindly delivered or tilted toward bipartisanship, the president’s vision remains an isolationist and narrow-minded view. It is not in America’s interest to retreat from a leadership role in the world. Rather, our prosperity depends explicitly on the United States playing a vigorous and unapologetic role in promoting democracy, stability and free markets around the world.

Instead of focusing most of his speech on the southern border – where there is not in fact a crisis – the president should have made a case for a bipartisan approach to China’s authoritarian expansionism in the Indo-Pacific. This is where the real long-term threat to our interests and values resides.

While the speech was very well delivered by this president’s standards, the actual content of the speech was wrong-headed and bad for America.

Dr. David Priess – NSI Visiting Fellow; Chief Operating Officer, Lawfare

“During his State of the Union address, the president hit some pleasant chords about the history of US national security, broadly conceived. He praised America’s scientific advances during the past 100-plus years. He also paid homage to veterans of D-Day as we approach its 75 year anniversary. And he acknowledged the heroic national efforts that led to the first manned moon landing just over a half century ago.

The speech, however, failed to resonate as well when it turned from the past to assessments of current and future national security threats — as three disconnects reveal. First, the Director of National Intelligence’s annual threat testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence just last week highlighted top-priority concerns of election security, China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. The president’s address, however, skipped over election security and breezed through the others. Second, the president’s remarks focused more heavily on what he alternatively called the ‘crisis’ and the ‘lawless state’ of the ‘very dangerous’ southern border. Yet migration from Central America seemed to barely make it into the DNI’s threat presentation, and that lacked mention of a crisis along the border itself. Third, the president opined that without his election in 2016, the United States would currently be in a ‘major war with North Korea with potentially millions of people killed.’ He offered no evidence or logic to substantiate the claim.

Additionally, the president missed a bridge-building opportunity by asserting there will be no peace while investigators continue. Cooperating fully with ongoing examinations of foreign interference in the 2016 election, in fact, would do more to bolster national security than just about anything else he could do.”

Bryan SmithBryan Smith – NSI Senior Fellow; Vice President & Technical Advisor, Beacon Global Strategies

It was heartening to hear a speech by President Trump framed in the history of American exceptionalism, and celebrating freedom, liberty, unity, and rights for all.  These themes appeal to an audience well beyond his base and explain the reported 75 percent approval rating for the speech.

The national security portions of the speech contained some strengths but featured a few off-key notes and troubling omissions.  The President is right that ‘great nations do not fight twenty-year wars’, and he is also right to re-focus our involvement in Afghanistan on our original purpose of counter-terrorism.  But why confuse this sound strategic rationale with rhetorical echoes of the Vietnam peace movement?  He hit wave tops of some current national security issues – North Korea, Iran, INF, ISIS, and Venezuela.  His strong support for the revolt against Maduro was no doubt heard loudly in Caracas.  The President was also well-justified for taking credit for removing ISIS as territory-holding power.  The Administration has gotten far too little credit for its major role in this accomplishment, which pundits seem now to think was pre-ordained.   Missing-in-action was explicit treatment of China and Russia as the resurgent great power competitors that now drive our national strategy.

The President did, however, issue a warning to all competitors, in response to Russia’s material violation of the INF Treaty, that ‘we will outspend and out-innovate all others by far’ – a warning that we all would hope the U.S. could deliver on.  The realities of our fiscal situation put this in doubt.  Saddled with a structural $1 billion deficit, driven by mindless entitlement expansions, and a resulting national debt over $20 billion, there are serious constraints to our ability to ‘outspend…all others by far’.  Granted, this gross fiscal imbalance can persist for some time to come, but it is ultimately unsustainable.  At some point, it will spark an economic crisis that could catastrophically undermine our security.

Why do virtually no politicians address this issue?  And why would Democratic challengers to the President on the left seek to make this fiscal situation worse, still?  It could be, that like the over-plump farm turkey in mid-November, our moment of greatest peril comes when we feel most secure.

Megan Stifel – NSI Visiting Fellow; Former Director for International Cyber Policy, National Security Council 

“Portions of the State of the Union speech related to foreign policy recognized heroes of past conflicts, reaffirmed Russia, Iran, and China as threats to national security, but should have gone further to identify policies that will challenge these nations’ malign activities.

Cyber has lead the Worldwide Threat Assessment for the past five or more years. It is unfortunate, therefore, that the President made only passing reference to the matter in last night’s State of the Union address. In referring to the theft of intellectual property by China, without specifically talking about cyber-enabled theft, the President did not send a strong enough signal – to China and other nations – that this type of behavior has been, is, and will remain not an acceptable use of information and communications technologies.
Furthermore, the speech also left out references to technological innovation, which can facilitate economic growth and national security, but will also require thoughtful policy development both in ensuring privacy and civil liberties protections, as well as in securing such technologies and the data upon which they rely.”

Dan Wagner – NSI Visiting Fellow; Legislative Liaison for Policy and Budget

“Trump needs to give his speech writer a raise after tonight.  A good portion of President Trump’s speeches are typically self-centered, and this one was no different, except that he did start and end on a promising note offering points of commonality between the parties.  This State of the Union seemed to have a significant focus on domestic issues with a smattering of national security and foreign policy.

He referred to World War II several times within his speech seemingly drawing a parallel between the greatest generation and greatest time in recent American history to his presidency.  His use of the WWII veterans was symbolic as a living example that no challenge is too great for America.  He went on to stressed that America is once again winning every day.

The President did seem to reach across the aisle and had a few unifying moments when it came to increasing jobs for women and minorities (particularly in Congress), as well as prison reform.  The big moment of the night was when he discussed lowing prescription drug costs and including pre-existing conditions.  These are what the president likely sees as offerings to the Democrats for some of the things that he is asking for in return – like the wall.

On foreign policy and national security specifically, the President briefly touched on most of the major issues, with the noticeable exceptions of Russia and cyber.  He even stated that if he had not been elected President, the US would ‘be in a major war with North Korea’.  It was also interesting when he mentioned China that he stated not to blame China but to blame our leadership.  This is a very slippery slope as if to say not to blame the dog for eating the hamburger that dropped on the ground.  We should most definitely hold China accountable for their actions as well as our leadership for not holding China accountable over the years.

On Syria, the President reinforced his decision stating that ‘Great nations do not fight endless wars.’  These remarks come after the Senate voted today not to allow Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria – a war that the Congress never exercised its Constitutional powers to begin.  There seems to be some confusion within Congress as to what to do about Iran while still in Iraq and Syria.  However, the President seems clear on stopping Iranian nuclear and terrorist efforts around the world.

As much as we would all like to only focus on domestic issues, we are one tragic terrorist or cyber event away from losing focus on all discussed in this speech if we don’t get national security and intelligence right.  The speech, though good, needed more emphasis on the legitimate national security threats that his intelligence professionals are telling him.”

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this analysis are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Security Institute or any agency of the U.S. government. Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of the National Security Institute or any U.S. government entity.