Our take on Donald Trump’s first State of the Union

US President Donald J. Trump delivered his first State of the Union in Washington on January 30, 2018.

Read the address here.

Trump touched on a diverse set of topics. We asked our analysts their thoughts on what the president had to say. Here is their take:


Trump said: “As we rebuild America’s strength and confidence at home, we are also restoring our strength and standing abroad.

“As we strengthen friendships around the world, we are also restoring clarity about our adversaries.”

Jamie Metzl, nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center on Strategy and Security (@JamieMetzl): “Trump’s State of the Union address was a measured success because it was not the failure many observers had expected. But, stringing together two relatively rational speeches—in Davos and Washington—does little to counter the chaos and uncertainty this administration has sown in the United States and around the world.”

Graham Brookie, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@GrahamBrookie): “Last night, President Trump delivered a one-hour-and-twenty-minute speech that included 5,190 words. He mentioned Russia once. One word out of 5,190 was ‘Russia.’ This is strange given sanctions was one of the most bipartisan achievements in Congress during his first year in office, coupled with the ongoing menace of Russia’s consistent meddling—in elections, in conflicts, and in other areas— with the United States and our allies.”

John Watts, senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center on Strategy and Security (@John_T_Watts): “President Trump’s first State of the Union address showed the evolution and maturation that he and his administration have undergone over the past year. Touted as a speech of unity, it had an optimistic tone not often seen to date and contained a few surprising areas of outreach to liberals along with proposals that should gain bipartisan support. But it is unlikely to change any opinions on his presidency and was dominated by conventional conservative values and themes, built around a more refined evolution of his core populist campaign themes.”


Trump said: “Our warriors in Afghanistan also have new rules of engagement.  Along with their heroic Afghan partners, our military is no longer undermined by artificial timelines, and we no longer tell our enemies our plans.”

Our Take:

Bharath Gopalaswamy, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center (@BharathGopalas1): “I believe the message here reflects Trump’s commitment to seeing the war through in Afghanistan. Measuring by conditions on the ground is consistent with the announced strategy in the fall of last year. Also, reading between the lines, this is a reflection of the widening mistrust between the United States and Pakistan.”

Javid Ahmad, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center (@ahmadjavid): “Reaffirming America’s commitment to Afghanistan, Trump’s statement, while deliberately short on details, sent the right message to the Taliban and their patrons, Pakistan. In the months ahead, Pakistani officials will be reminded that business as usual is no longer unacceptable to the United States and if Islamabad doesn’t play ball, America will continue to do what needs to be done by other means. Meanwhile, the United States is likely to do a reassessment of Afghanistan’s defense capabilities, particularly its intelligence capabilities, as it ramps up its combat training role.”


Trump said: “Around the world, we face rogue regimes, terrorist groups, and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy, and our values.  In confronting these dangers, we know that weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unmatched power is the surest means of our defense.

“For this reason, I am asking the Congress to end the dangerous defense sequester and fully fund our great military.”

Our Take:

Barry Pavel, senior vice president, Arnold Kanter chair, and director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council (@BarryPavel): “On defense and national security, President Trump’s remarks hewed closely to his recently released National Security Strategy and the Secretary of Defense’s National Defense Strategy. These core US strategies emphasized themes such as ‘peace through strength’ and the return of great-power competition with Russia and China. We’re now in a new and turbulent era of history, and, unfortunately, the possibility of major conflict can no longer be ruled out.”

Christine Wormuth, director of the Adrienne Arsht Center for Resilience (@cwormuth): “Calling for an end to sequester is the easy part. The hard part is whether the White House can work with Congress and find a path to a budget deal that includes more defense spending. Inside the executive branch, [US] Secretary [of Defense Jim] Mattis has prevailed over deficit hawk Office of Management and Budget Director [Mick] Mulvaney, but it is Congress who has the power of the purse.

“It may be very difficult to find a deal that provides a big increase for defense, wins Democratic votes—which will be required—but also satisfies the deficit hawks, who are mindful that the recently passed tax cuts will substantially increase the deficit and are being pushed to spend big on infrastructure.”


Trump said: “We have ended the war on American Energy—and we have ended the war on beautiful, clean coal. We are now an exporter of energy to the world…For many years, companies and jobs were only leaving us. But now they are coming back.”

Our Take:

Richard L. Morningstar, founding chairman of the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center: “There has never been a ‘war on American energy.’ The American energy revolution continues and oil and gas production will continue to increase if prices allow. On having ended the ‘war on beautiful, clean coal,’ if the Administration is serious, it must double down on research into clean coal technology and balance energy and environmental concerns.”

Ellen Scholl, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center: “While the president continues to blame regulation for declining US coal production, coal’s slide has been driven primarily by market forces—namely the abundance of cheap, domestically produced natural gas and falling renewables costs. Domestic oil and gas production has risen steadily since 2008, reducing import dependence and increasing exports—and suggesting regulation did little to hamper the US energy boom prior to Trump’s taking office. That said, Trump is right to tout our domestic energy successes, as the United States enjoys the benefits of a decade-long upward trend line in oil and gas production and the resiliency of US shale production continues to surprise market players.”

David Livingston, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center (@DLatAC): “No private investor will finance a new coal plant in the United States, in no small part because the suspension of Clean Power Plan implementation has increased, rather than decreased, regulatory uncertainty.

“On the other hand, domestic oil and gas production is indeed booming, with the United States set to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer this year.

“All of these trends were set in motion many years prior, which underscores the imperative to look ahead, rather than backward, when it comes to energy. Investing in innovation—from smarter grids to renewables to the carbon capture technologies that could actually help coal become ‘cleaner’—is the true test of whether the United States will exercise leadership in the fast-growing energy markets of tomorrow, or whether it rests on the laurels of its current abundance.”

Watch the address here:


Trump said: “Today, I am keeping another promise. I just signed an order directing Secretary Mattis to reexamine our military detention policy and to keep open the detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay.”

Our Take:

Frederic C. Hof, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East: “Keeping open the Guantanamo detention facilities reflects the reality that President Barack Obama was unable to obtain congressional approval to close them.  There are accused terrorists still incarcerated in Guantanamo and no one expected President Trump to designate new jurisdictions for the disposition of their cases.

“Perhaps the reexamination of military detention policies by Secretary of Defense Mattis will yield a sober appraisal of the effectiveness of the Guantanamo-related procedures in combating terrorism, protecting Americans, and reflecting American values to the world.

“Regardless of the conclusions Mattis reaches, he will be performing a service that the United States Congress in its current hyper-partisan condition cannot.”

Graham Brookie: “Executive orders can no longer open or close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay (ask former US President Barack Obama). Though President Trump’s new executive order is a direct response to the last administration’s efforts to shutter the facility, it keeps in place process of periodic review for detainees, which is the mechanism by which detainees are transferred out of, rather than in to, the facility. The key question the executive order does not answer is whether new combatants will join the forty-one remaining detainees at Guantanamo, as opposed to using the US legal system to bring terrorists to justice.”


Trump said: “For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities. They have allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans.

“In recent months, my administration has met extensively with both Democrats and Republicans to craft a bipartisan approach to immigration reform. Based on these discussions, we presented the Congress with a detailed proposal that should be supported by both parties as a fair compromise—one where nobody gets everything they want, but where our country gets the critical reforms it needs.

“The first pillar of our framework generously offers a path to citizenship for 1.8 million illegal immigrants who were brought here by their parents at a young age–that covers almost three times more people that the previous administration. Under our plan, those who meet education and work requirements, and show good moral character, will be able to become full citizens of the United States.”

“It is time to reform these outdated immigration rules, and finally bring our immigration system into the 21st century.”

Our take:

Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center: “Immigration is the bedrock of the United States. With an aging population, immigrants are also the ones who will help to fill essential jobs as baby-boomers retire. Countries that have placed severe restrictions on immigrants have ultimately faced the day of reckoning with a shortage of available workers. Children who were brought to the United States by their parents at a young age should not be punished for a decision made by their parents. These are kids who were educated in our schools and who share the same American values as US-born children. They should not be sent home to countries foreign to them—it is not in their interest or in the US interest.”

Juan Felipe Celia, assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center: “President Trump’s remarks on immigration during last night’s State of the Union were contradictory, at best. While on the one hand he pledged to work with heart and soul to help pass bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform, he also exhibited the same type of simplistic rhetoric that paints immigrants as gang members and job-snatchers.

“One can only hope that he follows through on the former rather than the latter. Only then will the administration be able to reconcile its domestic immigration policies with its foreign policy strategy in Central America in a way that benefits US interests at home and abroad.”


Trump said: “As we rebuild our industries, it is also time to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure… Tonight, I am calling on the Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need.”

Christine Wormuth: “America desperately needs to rebuild its infrastructure, which engineers around the country say gets a grade of ‘D’ in terms of a report card.

“A trillion and a half dollars sounds like a lot, but only $200 billion of that is proposed to be direct federal spending. There is a lot of skepticism around whether the public-private partnership approach will be sufficient, and whether the infrastructure plan is going to just rebuild our roads systems, airports, ports, and digital networks or actually make them more resilient against future sources of strain and stress.”


Trump said: “When the people of Iran rose up against the crimes of their corrupt dictatorship, I did not stay silent. America stands with the people of Iran in their courageous struggle for freedom.

“I am asking the Congress to address the fundamental flaws in the terrible Iran nuclear deal.”

Our Take:

Barbara Slavin, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran initiative: “Iran got off relatively easy in the State of the Union address. Trump gave a nod to recent protests there and bragged that he ‘did not stay silent’—an apparent slap at the Obama administration for what some alleged was a more muted response to 2009 demonstrations. ‘America stands with the people of Iran in their courageous struggle for freedom,’ Trump said, without giving any details as to how.

“His remark triggered a flurry of sarcastic tweets by Iranians and Iranian Americans who noted that one of Trump’s first acts as president was to ban Iranians from traveling to the United States.

“Trump’s only other reference to Iran was his call, first made last October, for ‘Congress to address the fundamental flaws in the terrible Iran nuclear deal.’ He did not repeat his threat, last issued on January 12, for Congress and Europe to ‘fix’ the agreement or risk having the United States withdraw unilaterally.”

Matthew Kroenig, nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Security and Strategy: “The Iran nuclear deal has gone from being a contentious partisan issue to one in which there is substantial agreement at the expert level. The limitations of the deal, such as the sun-setting limits on Iran’s nuclear program, need to be addressed, and a president who can credibly threaten to walk away from the deal altogether provides additional leverage that we did not enjoy a few short years ago.

“President Trump’s request that Congress address the deal’s flaws is a possible step toward a better agreement.”


Trump said: “Last year, I also pledged that we would work with our allies to extinguish ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham] from the face of the Earth. One year later, I am proud to report that the coalition to defeat ISIS has liberated almost 100 percent of the territory once held by these killers in Iraq and Syria. But there is much more work to be done. We will continue our fight until ISIS is defeated.”

Our take:

Frederic C. Hof: ” Defeating ISIS—and similar organizations derived from Al Qaeda—will require more than an impressive body count. When governments lack legitimacy, the resulting governance vacuums can be filled by extremists, terrorists, and criminals. In Iraq, defeating ISIS will require a long-term commitment by the United States and its partners to help the government in Baghdad build institutions, neutralize corruption, implant empowered local governance throughout the country, and harness the consent of the governed. In Syria, beating ISIS means nothing less than political transition away from corrupt, brutal family rule—the kind of kleptocratic state terror that inspires and enables extreme reactions.

“Killing ISIS operatives on the battlefield is essential, and there is nothing untoward about President Trump claiming some credit. Yet keeping ISIS dead will require a sustained heavy diplomatic (and at times military) lift by the United States. Without proper resources—personnel and otherwise—US willingness to do the required lifting would reflect Churchill’s evaluation of Mussolini: ‘Big appetite, bad teeth.'”


Trump said: “My administration has also imposed tough sanctions on the communist and socialist dictatorships in Cuba and Venezuela.”

Our Take:

Jason Marczak: “The situation in Venezuela continues to reach new depths that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. [Venezuelan] President [Nicolás] Maduro is running a regime that is corrupt, abuses its powers, and is causing horrific suffering to the Venezuelan people. The upcoming presidential elections will be unfair and undemocratic. The implications of what is transpiring in Venezuela reach far beyond its borders with global geostrategic consequences. The Trump administration has rightly made Venezuela one of its top foreign policy priorities and has consistently and systematically levied more pressure on the regime. Importantly, the administration is also playing a pivotal role in helping to move forward collective action among the major economies of the Americas and the European Union. With no light at the end of the tunnel in Venezuela, the US role will continue to be fundamental.

“The president’s Cuba policy has reversed some of the Obama-era openings including pulling back in some of the openings in travel and tourism. But despite the tough stance toward Cuba, the actions taken over the fall were, yes, a step away from normalization, but not a giant leap away. Still, with the sonic attacks still unresolved, and with cuts to US and Cuban embassy personnel, this administration has clearly marked a change in direction toward Cuba. The Cubans, however, still need new channels of investment and are increasingly findings suitors with the Russians and Chinese.” 

Andrea Saldarriaga Jiménez, associate director in the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center (@andreasaldaj): “If there is something the Trump administration has done right this year when it comes to Latin America that is the renewed attention it has brought to the Venezuelan crisis. The number of individual and collective sanctions it has imposed have further pressured the Venezuelan government. However, President Trump cannot forget that sanctions are only a tool, and will therefore not bring a policy solution to the crisis in and of itself. The international community is now more involved than it ever has, and the United States has played a leading role in this phenomenon. President Trump’s mention of Venezuela during the State of the Union indicates the United States has no intention to withdraw attention from this staggering economic and humanitarian crisis in the coming year.”


Trump said: “But no regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea.

“North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland.

“We are waging a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent that from happening.

“Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation.  I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position.”

Our Take:

Robert A. Manning, senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center on Strategy and Security (@Rmanning4): “Trump’s speech focused heavily on his achievements and domestic agenda, and was thin on foreign policy. Yet his remarks on North Korea, its brutal regime, and looming threat were a reminder that dealing with the Asian nation is a priority for the president.

“There is growing concern that the White House is moving toward military action in North Korea, as the recent withdrawal of the top choice for the post of ambassador to South Korea, Victor Cha, suggests.

“One word that was missing from Trump’s address was ‘diplomacy.’ Expect tensions on the Korean Peninsula to return after the Winter Olympics.”


Trump said: “As part of our defense, we must modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal, hopefully never having to use it, but making it so strong and powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression.”

Barry Pavel: “We’ll see very soon (in days) when the Nuclear Posture Review is released the details of the administration’s new nuclear policies and posture. Most observers expect an assertive new set of approaches that responds to the need to shore up deterrence against Russia and China, North Korea, and possibly other actors as well.”

Matthew Kroenig: “There has always been a tension in US nuclear policy between aiming for global nuclear disarmament on one hand and ensuring that the United States retains a robust nuclear posture as long as nuclear weapons exist to deter attacks on America and the more than thirty allies and partners that rely on the US nuclear umbrella. President Trump’s statement clearly articulated that tension and echoed the sentiments of many past presidents.”


Trump said: “The era of economic surrender is over. From now on, we expect trading relationships to be fair and to be reciprocal.

“We will work to fix bad trade deals and negotiate new ones.

“And we will protect American workers and American intellectual property, through strong enforcement of our trade rules.”

Our take:

Jason Marczak: “Without a specific mention of NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement], the president’s comments on trade underscored his original premise for renegotiating the nearly twenty-five-year-old agreement—that trade is a zero-sum agreement. NAFTA negotiations have taken the bulk of the administration’s attention, but talks also began in January to renegotiate with the South Koreans. NAFTA talks are unlikely to quickly wrap up. The United States, Canada, and Mexico just finished the sixth round of negotiations in Montreal, and for the first time, real progress was seen in trying to find compromise.

“Still, the three sides are far from agreement on key issues like auto rules of origin, investor-state dispute settlement, and a sunset clause. Canada and Mexico are not sitting idly by. Both countries will be in Chile in March for the signing of the TPP11 [Trans-Pacific Partnership 11], and both our NAFTA partners are ratcheting up their commercial relationships with the European Union as well. NAFTA is the fabric of North America and has helped to open the door for broader cooperation on a range of strategic issues. As the president says, we need to ‘fix’ agreements like NAFTA but that fix should come in the form of updating them and avoiding any actions that may ultimately serve to weaken them.”

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Related Experts: Andrea Saldarriaga Jiménez, Barbara Slavin, Bharath Gopalaswamy, Christine Wormuth, Ellen Scholl, Frederic C. Hof, Jason Marczak, Javid Ahmad, Matthew Kroenig, Richard L. Morningstar, and Robert A. Manning

Image: US President Donald J. Trump delivered his first State of the Union address in Washington on January 30. (Reuters/Win McNamee)