Trump goes dark on Russia and the real threat to our State of the Union

Trump goes dark on Russia and the real threat to our State of the Union
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There were no sharp turns in security policy in last night’s State of the Union, but there were still some interesting moments in President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Bob Woodward book will include details of 25 personal letters between Trump and Kim Jong Un On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' MORE’s address. First of all, as in most States of the Union, foreign and security matters were subordinated in time and place in the remarks. Domestic issues formed the center of gravity here, with some important bridging questions like immigration enjoying special emphasis.

When he got around to defense, the president began with a near ritualistic condemnation of the defense sequester that truly hamstrings Pentagon planning and budgeting, but didn’t suggest how to end it in the face of revenues made even more limited by his recent tax cuts. 

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The president took a deserved victory lap for his contribution to the physical defeat of ISIS, although he could have been a little more generous to his predecessor whose efforts he continued and reinforced. He wisely noted that there is much more work to be done, but did not go into detail, leaving unanswered how much he would be committed to “the stabilization phase,” the part after major combat where you hang around to try to set things right — “nation-building” in its more extreme form.

He had similar words for Afghanistan, where he once again sustained his predecessor’s policy, albeit with “new rules of engagement” and without “artificial timelines,” steps welcomed by anyone who has to fight there.

The president committed to keeping Guantanamo open to hold captured enemy combatants, a real break with his predecessor, but the product of inescapable logic if you believe (as I do) that we are still a nation at war. He directed Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisTrump eyes replacing Esper after election: reports Overnight Defense: Most VA workers find racism 'moderate to serious problem' at facilities l Trump advisers were wary of talking military options over fears he'd accidentally start war Trump advisers were wary of talking military options over fears he'd accidentally start war: report MORE to update procedures on detaining and interrogating prisoners and seemed to suggest he would send prisoners to Guantanamo, something he has not done in his first year despite all the tough talk.

On Iran, the president made no news, boldly proclaiming that we stand with the people there after last month’s disturbances (although, if we have contributed anything beyond rhetoric, I haven’t seen it) and demanding that Congress fix the flaws in the Iran nuclear deal (which, after all, was an executive agreement).

The president had a lot of time last night for North Korea, accurately describing the brutality of the regime and even introducing the audience to one of its victims. He condemned Pyongyang’s “reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles” and promised to continue his “campaign of maximum pressure,” but discarded the “total annihilation” language he had used at the United Nations while still condemning the complacency and concessions of his predecessor’s words (probably unfairly, but we’ll see how his round turns out).

But the president did not really talk about a way forward. I have no better idea from the speech what we might do after the pause imposed on us by the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and the mini detente between Seoul and Pyongyang for the games.

There are only two off-ramps here: negotiations or combat. Recent presidential rhetoric has seemed more open to talks, but the president didn’t turn any cards face up last night. There were other, indirect references the president made that had significant security implications. He roundly condemned, for example, the 128 nations at the United Nations that voted to oppose America’s “sovereign” decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Then the president called for legislation “to help ensure American foreign-assistance dollars always serve American interests, and only go to America's friends.” It frankly sounded thuggish, displayed ignorance of the dynamics of international diplomacy (the “no” voters on the Jerusalem move included France, Germany and the United Kingdom) and largely mischaracterized why we offer assistance in the first place. It was, by my count, the only mention of the all-important development budget in the entire speech.

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Finally, there was the dog that didn’t bark (or, perhaps, it was the “собакаthat was strangely silent). Russia was mentioned only once in the near 90-minute oration, in a single wave of the hand about how “rivals like China and Russia…challenge our interests, our economy, and our values.”

Nothing more. No election interference. No botnets. No trolls. No threat to democracy. No mention of what his CIA director had said the day before about the Russians coming after the 2018 midterms. That was a disappointment.

And it made me more troubled over what would have been an obscure remark elsewhere in the speech, where the president asked Congress “to empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers, and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.”

Most years I would have chalked that up to a call for badly needed civil service reform. But, with the president going dark on the Russians and a House Republican memo shopping the latest conspiracy theory about political corruption in American law enforcement, I could not help but think this was about the likes of Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE and his investigation. That may say more about the State of the Union today than anything in the president’s speech.

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency, and a visiting professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. His forthcoming book, “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies,” is due out later this year.