President Trump will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for a second time: a two-day summit in Vietnam at month’s end. The announcement was perhaps the most significant national-security development in his 82-minute State of the Union speech.
Trump touted his relationship with Kim. “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,” he said. There is no evidence for this assertion, which the president has made before, and which drew an astonished expression from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, sitting behind his left shoulder.
The men met in Singapore last year in the first bilateral meeting between leaders of their countries.
Trump stuck to the teleprompter in a speech that both urged national unity amid an acrimonious political climate and piqued Democrats with a robust defense of his border wall proposal and other controversial national-security initiatives. Broadly, the speech reflected policy ideas and positions that Trump articulated as a candidate — such as a desire to get out of military engagements in the Middle East — or that his administration has already enacted.
He spoke at length about his administration’s touchstone national-security efforts, including leaving the Iran nuclear deal and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty. He condemned Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose government the Trump administration recently declared illegitimate, and vowed that “America will never be a socialist country.” He boasted that NATO allies’ defense spending has gone up during his administration, ad-libbing, “And they said it couldn’t be done.”
As expected, Trump defended his efforts to remove U.S. forces from the Middle East. “Great nations do not fight endless wars,” he said, saying that the United States has spent more than $7 trillion in the Middle East, fighting “for almost 19 years.” The $7 trillion figure appears to be exaggerated, according to a fact check by the New York Times, and a Brown University study that calculated the total cost of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Pakistan was $3.6 trillion through 2016. Also, the American military mission in Afghanistan began in October 2001, less than 18 years ago, not 19.
Trump touted “progress” in ongoing peace talks “with a number of Afghan groups, including the Taliban.”
“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.
The president did not provide an extended defense of his controversial December decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, an edict delivered via tweet that prompted the resignations of then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and top counter-ISIS diplomat Brett McGurk. He did contradicted his own December assertion that ISIS was “defeated,” saying in the speech that as the United States is “[working] with our allies to destroy the remnants of ISIS, it is time to give our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome home.”
The second summit with Kim will be closely watched for any signs that the rogue regime is serious about giving up its nuclear weapons. After the first summit with Kim, in June, Trump triumphantly declared, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” Last week, Dan Coats, director of the Office of National Intelligence, told lawmakers that “North Korean leaders view nuclear arms as critical to regime survival” and that the intelligence community “continues to assess that it is unlikely to give up all of its WMD stockpiles, delivery systems, and production capabilities.”
Trump has tempered his boasts about North Korea in recent months, but on Tuesday repeated assertions that the country’s cessation of missile testing is evidence of a reduced threat. Pyongyang has said that their ICBMs are now reliable enough to need no further tests.
The speech, which was delayed several weeks by the 35-day government shutdown, clocked in as the second-longest State of the Union in history, and the longest since President Bill Clinton’s speech in 2000.