Deconstructing Trump’s 2019 State of the Union Address

State of the Union

Speech of a president whose power is draining

Once a year, Donald Trump gives an uncharacteristically bipartisan speech to Congress. It is customarily sandwiched — often within hours — by venomous expressions of partisanship. Mr Trump’s 2019 State of the Union was no exception. His first address to Congress, which took place shortly after his infamous “American Carnage” inaugural address in 2017, won rapturous reviews. Otherwise implacable critics said he had finally taken on a presidential mantle. Such praise was quick to curdle. Two years later, no one believes Mr Trump is about to pivot to the political centre. In spite of obligatory references to American greatness, moon landings, Normandy Beach invasions, and Cold War valour, Mr Trump’s only real goal was the highly divisive — and familiar — one of building a wall with Mexico. He, however, offered no plan on how to do it. 

resident Trump delivered his second State of the Union (SOTU) address to Congress on February 5, 2019. his 82-minute-long speech, the president highlighted his administration’s recent accomplishments and outlined its policy priorities for the year ahead. From border security to celebrating women, President Donald Trump covered a number of topics and touched on a range of domestic and foreign policy issues during his SOTU address. Here is the rundown of what he said on foreign policy issues:

North Korea

Trump announced that his long-awaited second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un will be on February 27 and 28 in Vietnam as he pushes forward nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang. “As part of a bold new diplomacy, we continue our historic push for peace on the Korean Peninsula. Our hostages have come home, nuclear testing has stopped, and there has not been a missile launch in 15 months. If I had not been elected President of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea with potentially millions of people killed. Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong-Un is a good one,” he said.

The US-Mexico Border

Trump devoted more time in his address to border security than almost any other topic. Saying, “We have just heard that Mexican cities, in order to remove the illegal immigrants from their communities, are getting trucks and buses to bring them up to our country in areas where there is little border protection. I have ordered another 3,750 troops to our southern border to prepare for the tremendous onslaught,” Mr trump urged Congress to pass a bill that addresses border security and funds his long-promised wall on the US-Mexico border. He said, “Walls save lives,” and vowed that he will “build it.” Political impasse over the wall sparked the longest government shutdown in US history and stoked diplomatic tensions with Mexico. Alleging that Mexico is a threat to the safety, security and financial wellbeing of all Americans, Trump said, “We have a moral duty to create an immigration system that protects the lives and jobs of our citizens. Tonight, I am asking you to defend our very dangerous southern border out of love and devotion to our fellow citizens and to our country.”


For over two years, Trump has hounded US allies in NATO to spend more on defence, saying they are taking unfair advantage of the United States and even privately questioning whether the United States would stay in the alliance. In the SOTU, he took a more positive tone, saying the United States has secured over $100 billion in defence spending from allies. He said, “For years, the United States was being treated very unfairly by NATO – but now we have secured a $100 billion increase in defence spending from NATO allies.” Perhaps much to the relief of nervous European allies, his mention of NATO started and ended there.


The president reiterated his decision to withdraw from the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia. Trump alluded to negotiating a new agreement, which would include China. The treaty withdrawal sparked fears of a new arms race. The president did little to ameliorate the concerns, vowing to “outspend” and “out-innovate” other nations. “While we followed the agreement to the letter, Russia repeatedly violated its terms. That is why I announced that the United States is officially withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF Treaty. Perhaps we can negotiate a different agreement, adding China and others, or perhaps we can’t – in which case, we will outspend and out-innovate all others by far,” he said.


Trump reiterated the US opposition to embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Last month, Trump recognized opposition figure Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela amid the country’s economic turmoil and political strife that has sparked a massive refugee crisis. Many other countries in the region and European allies have done the same. Thus far, Maduro has dug his heels in, refusing to cede power, and it remains unclear whether Trump’s diplomatic gamble will pay off. Trump followed his remarks on Venezuela by vowing that the United States will never become a socialist country. He said, “We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom – and we condemn the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose socialist policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair.”

The Islamic State

Trump celebrated the defeat of the Islamic State, adding it was time to bring US troops home from conflict zones in the Middle East. He said, “When I took office, ISIS controlled more than 20,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria. Today, we have liberated virtually all of that territory from the grip of these bloodthirsty killers. Now, as we work with our allies to destroy the remnants of ISIS, it is time to give our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome home,” adding that “Great nations do not fight endless wars.”


Continuing the theme of withdrawal, Trump thanked US troops for their service in Afghanistan and said that the time had now come for a political solution to the problem. “In Afghanistan, my administration is holding constructive talks with a number of Afghan groups, including the Taliban. As we make progress in these negotiations, we will be able to reduce our troops’ presence and focus on counter-terrorism; and we will indeed focus on counter-terrorism. We do not know whether we will achieve an agreement but we do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace. The other side would like to do the same thing. It’s time,” he said.

It needs to be remembered here that following the president’s announcement in December 2018 of plans to withdraw US troops, the United States met with representatives of the Taliban for peace talks. The Taliban now control more territory than at any time since the US invasion of 2001 and are estimated to have some 60,000 fighters.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, the president reserved his harshest words for Iran. In a short section in which he reaffirmed his decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, he described the country as a “radical regime” and “the world’s leading sponsor of state terror,” adding: “We will not avert our eyes from a regime that chants death to America and threatens genocide against the Jewish people. We must never ignore the vile poison of anti-Semitism, or those who spread its venomous creed. With one voice, we must confront this hatred anywhere and everywhere it occurs.”

What Trump did not mention?

Here are some of the major foreign-policy issues Trump did not mention:

Climate Change

Trump is a noted climate change doubter who withdrew the United States from the 2015 Paris Climate Accords, and so it’s no surprise that he was silent on the issue. But the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change continues to pile up, and with it predictions of disastrous consequences around the globe. A US government report released in November 2018 – one the Trump administration ignored – warned that the US economy could lose thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century from the impacts of climate change, including extreme weather.

Middle East Peace Plan

From the start of his presidency, Trump vowed to secure what he calls the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians, where generations of US leaders and diplomats have failed. But more than two years into his presidency, Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner – the point man on negotiations – have remained tight-lipped about what their plan entails. The rollout of the plan has reportedly been delayed again until after Israeli elections in April.

Global Democracy and Governance

While Trump touted certain countries’ aspirations for freedom in his address, notably Venezuela’s, he made no reference to the troubling backslide of democracy worldwide. The nonprofit group Freedom House concluded recently that there has been a steady decline in political freedom and civil liberties worldwide for over a decade.


Trump spoke of China and North Korea, on Mexico and Venezuela, of Europeans and Russia, and the Middle East and Afghanistan. But he made no mention, at all, of Africa, the home of some of the world’s fastest-growing countries and economies; nearly one-sixth of the world’s population; several of the world’s worst humanitarian crises; and a growing number of US military showdowns against militant groups.


On foreign policy, the SOTU was classic Donald Trump. There were the usual expansive promises which could actually move American foreign policy in a better direction. The president promised to withdraw troops from Syria, open negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and praised the growth in spending by NATO allies. He even criticized America’s excessive military intervention in the Middle East.

And as always, his speech had an underlying theme: blame my predecessor, not me. As he describes, his photo opportunity summits with North Korea are a good step towards diplomacy. But we can’t forget that it was his aggressive approach to the problem that brought USA so close to conflict in the first place. It’s likewise difficult to take his criticism of America’s wars seriously given his administration’s choice to increase troop levels in the Middle East by over 33 percent.

As with every Trump foreign policy speech, there were also some worrying trends. He specified no time-line for troop withdrawals from Syria or Afghanistan, leaving open the possibility that advisors can stall or prevent the decision from ever being implemented. He praised America’s withdrawal from arms control agreements, but offered no alternative, suggesting instead that the United States will just “outspend” all its competitors.

The president also talked tough on both Venezuela and Iran, continuing his hard-line approach to those crises. In both cases, the administration has refused to rule out military intervention, and has repeatedly raised the stakes with draconian sanctions, and open saber-rattling. It remains a mystery why Donald Trump, whose instincts appear to be generally correct on Afghanistan and Syria, is so willing to entertain military intervention in Iran or Venezuela.

In short, the SOTU offered no real surprises in foreign policy. If Trump administration does follow through on withdrawing troops from Syria, and ultimately from Afghanistan, it will constitute a major – and positive – shift in US foreign policy. But you shouldn’t hold your breath. The odds are good that Trump may again backpedal on these promises, while maintaining his more bellicose line towards other conflicts.

Trade War

President Trump also discussed his administration’s sweeping changes in trade policy, including the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the new tariffs imposed on foreign aluminum and steel, and the growing trade war with China.

“We are now 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. Therefore, we recently imposed tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese goods – and now our Treasury is receiving billions of dollars a month from a country that never gave us a dime. … we are now working on a new trade deal with China. But it must include real, structural change to end unfair trade practices, reduce our chronic trade deficit, and protect American jobs.”

He added:

“Another historic trade blunder was the catastrophe known as NAFTA. …Our new US-Mexico-Canada Agreement – or USMCA – will replace NAFTA and deliver for American workers: bringing back our manufacturing jobs, expanding American agriculture, protecting intellectual property, and ensuring that more cars are proudly stamped with four beautiful words: Made in the USA.”

What is the State of the Union Address?

The State of the Union address is a speech delivered annually by the President of the United States to a joint session of the United States Congress. The State of the Union address is not, however, delivered during the first year of a new president’s first term in office. In the address, the president typically reports on the general condition of the nation in the areas of domestic and foreign policy issues and outlines his or her legislative platform and national priorities.

It is a requirement of the US constitution that the president “shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union, and recommend to his consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

George Washington was the first to give an annual speech to a joint session of Congress, beginning in 1790.

In 1801, Thomas Jefferson put a stop to the practice which he said was too “monarchical.”

For more than a hundred years, presidents delivered a written report that was read out by a clerk.

In 1913, Woodrow Wilson re-established the practice of a speech in Congress, and since then every president except Herbert Hoover has given at least one address.

Warren Harding’s address in 1922 was the first to be broadcast on radio and Harry Truman’s was the first to be televised in 1947.

The name “State of the Union” first emerged in 1934 when Franklin Roosevelt used the phrase, and it later became the generally accepted term. Before then it was called “the President’s Annual Message to Congress”.

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