WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump defended his decision to withdraw from a key arms control treaty with Russia, and criticized Iran as a “radical regime,” in a major speech to Congress that largely focused on domestic issues.
Trump’s State of the Union address on February 5 came as his administration braced for new political battles with congressional Democrats who took control of the House of Representatives in the November midterm elections.
The growing tensions between the White House and the Democrats had already resulted in a 35-day partial shutdown of the U.S. government, as Democrats refused to fund Trump’s signature policy priority: a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.
The two sides face a February 15 deadline to reach a new deal to fund the government, otherwise another shutdown could ensue.
Many political observers had expected Trump would threaten to declare a national emergency to push construction of the wall forward.
Trump did not do that during the 82-minute speech. However, he hammered on his assertions that illegal immigration was dangerous for the United States.
“Simply put, walls work and walls save lives,” he said.
With a litany of criminal investigations looming over his administration and various associates, Trump sought to link the country’s strong economic growth of late with what he said was the danger of “ridiculous partisan investigations.”
The economy is one of the brighter spots of Trump’s two years in office, fueled partly by a $1.5 trillion tax cut that has helped drive the unemployment rate down to 4 percent.
“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States -- and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations,” he said.
“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn't work that way,” he said.
Trump’s comments were in part a signal to congressional Democrats who intend to conduct a host of investigations into the Trump White House.
That’s separate from the investigation that has dogged Trump since his inauguration in 2017: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, and interactions between Trump associates and Russian officials.
Russia itself garnered scant mention during the speech, with Trump only referring to it in the context of his decision to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).
My administration has acted decisively to confront the world's leading state sponsor of terror: the radical regime in Iran."
“While we followed the agreement to the letter, Russia repeatedly violated its terms. It’s been going on for many years,” he said.
“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.
The White House’s announcement on February 1 that it was withdrawing was met the following day by a similar announcement by Moscow.
The tit-for-tat moves have led to fears of a new arms race between the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals.
On Iran, Trump offered harsh rhetoric for Tehran, calling it a “radical regime" and vowing that Iran would never acquire nuclear weapons.
"They do bad, bad things," he said.
Trump defended his decision to pull out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, which had lifted crippling sanctions in exchange for Iran curtailing its nuclear ambitions. Trump later announced new sanctions on the country.
“My administration has acted decisively to confront the world's leading state sponsor of terror: the radical regime in Iran,” he said.
“To ensure this corrupt dictatorship never acquires nuclear weapons, I withdrew the United States from the disastrous Iran nuclear deal. And last fall, we put in place the toughest sanctions ever imposed on a country,” he said.
As a candidate for president, I pledged a new approach. Great nations do not fight endless wars."
Iran has denied that it seeks to build nuclear weapons, saying its programs are peaceful in nature.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded to Trump's criticism by declaring in a February 6 Twitter post that "U.S. hostility has led it to support dictators, butchers & extremists, who've only brought ruin" to the Middle East.
One of the other signature policy platforms that Trump highlighted as a candidate in the 2016 election was criticism of how long U.S. military forces have been fighting in wars in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and more recently, in Syria.
In the February 5 speech, Trump made passing reference to his decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Syria -- a decision that has worried U.S. allies. He said that nearly 7,000 Americans had died in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past 19 years, and more than 52,000 Americans were wounded.
He also said the United States had spent more than $7 trillion in the Middle East.
“As a candidate for president, I pledged a new approach. Great nations do not fight endless wars,” he said.
“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 troop presence and focus on counterterrorism,” he said.
“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,” he said.
However, the Taliban rejected Trump’s suggestion that progress in peace talks with the Taliban would enable a U.S. troop reduction in Afghanistan and a “focus on counterterrorism” operations there.
“As the first step, we want all the foreign forces to leave and end the military presence in our country,” Sohail Shahin, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, said.
"After ending their military presence, their nonmilitary teams can come,” Shahin said.
“We need them, too. They can come and take part in the reconstruction and development process," said Shahin, a member of a Taliban team that was meeting in Moscow on February 6 with an Afghan delegation led by former President Hamid Karzai.
Trump has also sought to reach a peace deal with North Korea, something that has eluded other administrations for decades. Trump has met with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un once before, and during the speech, he announced that a second meeting was scheduled in Vietnam on February 27-28.
“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.
As is tradition, Trump’s national televised speech was followed by a Democratic response, this time given by Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost her bid to become the first African-American governor of a southern U.S. state.
Abrams blamed Trump for the government shutdown, calling it a “stunt.”
"The shutdown was a stunt engineered by the president of the United States," Abrams said, "one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people, but our values."
Stuart Rothenberg, a longtime political analyst and senior editor with the nonpartisan newsletter Inside Politics, said it seemed as if foreign policy was an afterthought to Trump’s speech, as he “dipped into a whole bunch of issues: China, trade, Venezuela, Russia, INF treaty.”
“He didn’t draw any bright red lines anywhere really,” Rothenberg said, noting also that Trump didn’t mention the name of Russian President Vladimir Putin once during the speech.
“I always fall back to one point: The proof is in the pudding. It’s not in the applause, or members standing and cheering. It’s what’s the focus going to be? And right now, [Trump] is all over the place, and he’s all over the place because he thinks he’s the most effective speaker for the country, the most effective public relations person for the country.”