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Jacob Heilbrunn US Politics

Trump’s State of the Union address shows he is ready for war. But who with?

January 31, 2018

7:30 AM

31 January 2018

7:30 AM

It was a sound move by Donald Trump to single out the North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho in his first State of the Union address last night. In 2006, Seong-ho had hobbled his way out of what Trump rightly called a ‘depraved country’ to find freedom abroad. ‘Seong-ho, I understand you still keep those crutches as a reminder of how far you have come’, Trump declared. Seong-ho stole the show by rising to his feet and waving his old, battered crutches in the air to tumultuous applause at the United States Capitol.

Earlier in the day, however, the administration made waves with the revelation that Victor Cha, who worked on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration and is a widely admired North Korea expert, would not be named ambassador to South Korea. Cha had apparently voiced his opposition to a unilateral attack on the North and support for free trade with the South. Both positions are eminently sensible and thus sufficed to terminate his candidacy. By the evening, Cha had published a piece in the Washington Post warning of the immense peril to Americans of a ‘bloody nose’ military strategy that might be designed to humble the North but that could easily spiral out of control into a wider war in Southeast Asia. If Trump is really intent on war with North Korea, he may well create an even bigger disaster than Bush’s 2003 Iraq War.

And so it was Trump’s volatility that formed the true backdrop to his speech, which was ostensibly supposed to sound a bipartisan tone that would contrast markedly with his inaugural address about ending ‘American carnage’. Trump stated, ‘I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people,’ but Trump being Trump, his fixation with immigration, both legal and illegal, prompted him to paint a portrait of a country that remains well-nigh under siege from threats like the brutal El Salvadoran gang MS-13. Trump depicted America as virtually the plaything of sinister foreign forces before he became president. Perhaps this is why he called for further bolstering of America’s nuclear forces, a move that will cost hundreds of billions. Trump also called for a £1.1 trillion ($1.5 trillion) infrastructure bill. This at a moment when the United States is hurtling towards a £700bn ($1 trillion) annual deficit. Who’s going to finance it? What will be the impact on America’s credit worthiness? Will inflation increase dramatically as a sea of red ink engulfs the self-proclaimed capital of the free world? But with the economy humming along and the stock market reaching record highs, those worries seem academic to Trump’s followers.

As he heads into 2018, Trump made sure that he connected with his base on immigration and the courts. Trump even demanded that Congress vouchsafe him sweeping powers over the federal bureaucracy: ‘I call on Congress to empower every cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers—and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people’. And as he exited the House chamber, Congressman Jeff Duncan asked him to release a secret memo crafted by House intelligence chairman Devin Nunes that claims the Justice Department and FBI have been illegally targeting Trump. The Justice Department has warned that it would be ‘extraordinarily reckless’ to release the memo as it would reveal classified sources and methods. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s press secretary, said yesterday that no decision had been reached. Trump would consider the matter seriously. Except that he apparently isn’t. ‘Oh, don’t worry, 100 per cent’, Trump responded to Duncan. One way or another, Trump is going to war. Only the outcome remains in doubt.

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