In optimistic State of the Union, Trump pitches deals to Dems

President Donald Trump on Tuesday delivered his first State of the Union address, using the occasion to make a sober appeal to unity and challenged his Democratic antagonists to cooperate in overhauling the nation’s immigration system and rebuilding its dated infrastructure.

The hour and twenty-minute-long speech pointedly lacked the partisan barbs that have become to define Mr. Trump’s presidency. Instead, Trump-the-optimistic-deal-maker was on display Tuesday, inviting bipartisan cooperation on his new year’s agenda of rebuilding the nation both economically and culturally.

“Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek common ground and to summon the unity we need to delivery for the people,” he said.

Beyond the pomp and showmanship, here’s what the speech means:

  • The president wants an immigration deal, with caveats. Trump has said both publically and privately he wants to protect undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, popularly known as Dreamers, but he appropriated the movement’s language for his own purposes in last night’s speech. “My duty,” he said, “and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans–to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream. Because Americans are dreamers, too.” He offered what he called a compromise: trading a pathway to citizenship for some 1.8 million Dreamers in exchange for border wall funding along the US-Mexico border, new caps on family-based migration, and a shuttering of the diversity visa lottery program. While he extended “an open hand to work with members of both parties,” glimmers of the old Trump was still on display. Seated in First Lady Melania Trump’s viewing box, Trump pointed to four parents grieving the loss of children who were murdered by members of the MS-13 gang.
  • The president wants to build things again, but doesn’t know what, where, or how. “America is a nation of builders. We built the Empire State Building in just 1 year,” Trump said. “Isn’t it a disgrace that it can now take 10 years just to get a minor permit approved for the building of a simple road?” The president talked up his plan for infrastructure reform in broad terms, saying he would marry federal, state, and local government revenue to cobble together a $1.5 trillion package but didn’t say how the money would be spent or where.
  • The president wants to police reciprocal trade and IP. Mr. Trump, who often rails against the North American Free Trade Agreement and the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership as markers of bad trade negotiations, said he would work in the new year to “fix bad trade deals and negotiation new ones.” Enforcement actions will remain a chief concern of the administration in the new year, and the president directly pledged to protect American intellectual property–widely regarded as a shot across the bow of China, who the president regularly chides for trade and IP abuses.
  • Gitmo is staying open. The White House released during the president’s speech a new executive order keep open the controversial military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. The order, which reverses parts of a 2009 directive signed by President Barack Obama, allows for the possibility of new enemy combatants being sent to the prison “when lawful and necessary.”
  • The president has his eye on “Little Rocket Man.” President Trump was more measured when he discussed North Korea, avoiding the Twitter taunts and big button braggadocio, and instead spoke about the brutality of the “depraved” regime who’s “reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland.” Ever the showman, Mr. Trump invited a North Korean defector to attend, receiving a standing ovation as he held over his head the crutches he needed to walk after enduring brutal torture. He also singled out the case of Otto Warmbier, a student at the University of Virginia who was traveling in North Korea while arrested and charged with crimes against the state. Brutally injured while detained, he was released recently to the United States and died shortly thereafter.

 

As Congress returns: foreign policy looms large

On July 14, 2017, the House passed, with strong bipartisan support, its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY18 by a vote of 344–81. The Senate did not consider its version of the annual, must-pass defense policy bill before departing for August recess, and is set to dispense with the legislation this week. Thereafter, a conference committee will be formed to resolve the differences between the House-and Senate-passed versions. With top-line defense spending levels in each bill that exceed the $549 billion cap on base DOD spending for FY18 imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011, lawmakers must raise the defense spending cap for FY18, which will inevitably require Congressional Republicans to make concessions to their Democratic colleagues on a domestic spending cap increase. A deal to increase the FY18 defense and domestic spending caps will likely be struck within the broader framework of the required short-term CR. Congress has sent the NDAA to the president every year for the past 55 consecutive years, and that streak will continue this year.

North Korea

Amidst escalating rhetoric and shows of force between North Korea and the US and its East Asian allies over North Korea’s unwavering pursuit of advancements in its nuclear capabilities and corresponding missile tests, the UN Security Council unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea on August 5, 2017, including a prohibition on key mineral and other exports from the totalitarian state. Undaunted, the Kim Jong Un regime fired a ballistic missile over the northern tip of Japan on August 29—one of the Hermit Kingdom’s most provocative acts in the past 20 years.

State-run media described the launch as “a meaningful prelude to containing Guam,” a US territory in the Western Pacific that serves as a strategic hub for US military power projection throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford, while continuing to emphasize that the US has a range of military options that are immediately deployable, insist that diplomatic engagement with the mercurial Kim regime remains the preferred option for mitigating tensions arising from North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

Afghanistan

President Trump campaigned on a promise to withdraw from military conflicts abroad, including Afghanistan. However, on August 20, 2017, he announced a new US plan for Afghanistan based on his administration’s policy review. Trump’s plan is to deploy more troops there, with primarily a training purpose for the Afghan National Army and the Afghan police. He also suggested the US will place even more pressure on Pakistan, which supports militants inside Afghanistan, to stop providing sanctuary, support and a platform to the Taliban. Under the Trump plan, the US will also continue its counter­terrorism mission with US Special Forces in Afghanistan.

Trump declined to indicate the amount of the troop increase, the benchmarks for success or how long US troops will stay. His plan is not altogether different from the last administration and can be viewed as a victory for Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, both of whom advocated for continued US commitment in Afghanistan to prevent the ascendancy of the Taliban and ISIS that would surely occur in the wake of a withdrawal.

The plan also calls for greater emphasis on diplomacy and economic development in Afghanistan, but these goals will be difficult to achieve with the proposed cuts to State Department and AID funding.

 

A must-pass Fall for Congress

To say Congress has a full plate as it returned to work this week doesn’t do the plate justice.

The August recess was, at best, tempestuous, as divisions between President Donald Trump, his party and, in particular, his party’s leaders were laid bare in his Twitter feed.

Hurricane Harvey’s historic devastation, and cost to clean up and rebuild, is just now coming into focus. And as members of Congress were packing their bags to return to Washington, the president gave them six months to address another highly emotional issue: his planned phase-out of DACA, which protects immigrants who were brought into the United States as children.

And while the GOP’s Affordable Care Act repeal-and-replace efforts were stymied in June, the Senate HELP Committee picks up the ball and will begin hearings on stabilizing the Obamacare markets—while the president threatens to withhold market stabilization payments.

On the foreign policy front, North Korea’s nuclear missile program has prompted a powerful response from Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who in blunt language warned Kim Jong-un of total annihilation. Meanwhile, Venezuela teeters on the brink; ISIS, though facing setbacks, continues to fight; and, breaking with his campaign rhetoric, the president has decided to send more troops into Afghanistan.

Congress faces a list of must-pass bills. Here, Dentons’ Public Policy and Regulation Practice dives deep into the marquee issues awaiting the attention of Congress and the administration: