WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump avoided criticism of Russia in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, despite facing multiple foreign policy challenges from Moscow ― and domestic claims that he is too soft on the U.S. geopolitical rival amid multiple investigations of its role in influencing the 2016 U.S. election.
Trump mentioned Russia only once in his hour-plus speech, in a broad reference to concerns abroad.
“Around the world, we face rogue regimes, terrorist groups, and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy, and our values,” Trump said. “In confronting these dangers, we know that weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unmatched power is the surest means of our defense.”
That framing fits neatly with Trump’s thinking. He has praised authoritarian Russian President Vladimir Putin as “a strong leader,” blaming U.S.-Russia tensions on the Obama administration’s failure to be tough rather than on Russian actions condemned by both parties.
But it overlooks Russian policies the Trump administration otherwise claims to have on its radar ― notably, Moscow’s ongoing occupation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and its support for violent separatists in eastern Ukraine and the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. It also entirely ignores the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community ― sometimes challenged and sometimes accepted by Trump ― that Putin interfered in the 2016 election to improve Trump’s odds.
The Trump administration has reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to treaty allies worried about Russian expansionism, has approved the largest arms sale to Ukraine since 2014 and has ordered strikes against Assad over his chemical weapons use. Yet skepticism about his approach is alive and well, most recently over his meddling with the Justice Department investigation into allegations that his campaign colluded with Moscow, and his administration’s decision to not yet impose fresh sanctions against Russia-friendly actors that Congress last year enabled it to levy.
Tuesday night’s performance did nothing to change that equation. Instead, it just invited fresh barbs.