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February 05, 2019

What to Look for in the 2019 State of the Union

By Cole Stevens

Washington, February 5 – President Donald Trump speaks to the nation tonight to outline his priorities for the coming year and the opportunities and challenges the country faces. Experts from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) highlight what they will look for in his State of the Union (SOTU) remarks on matters of national security, defense, economics, and trade.

  • Richard Fontaine, Acting CEO and President of CNAS: I’ll be listening tonight to see where the president’s foreign policy priorities currently lay. The administration, in its strategy documents and policy pronouncements, emphasizes great power competition. It places the China and Russia challenges ahead of other issues in importance. But I suspect we’ll hear more tonight about North Korea, Iran, ISIS, and Afghanistan than the resurgence of great power rivalry.
  • Ely Ratner, Executive Vice President and Director of Studies: President Trump will have two opposing messages on China, at once sending encouraging signals about progress in trade talks, while also promising to hold China accountable for its illegal and unfair trade practices. He’ll need to strike the right balance: An overly accommodating tone in service of a near-term deal would send strategically damaging signals to Beijing, U.S. allies, and the American people.
  • Neil Bhatiya, Research Associate: I will be listening for how President Trump lays out the way forward on Venezuela after the imposition of sanctions on the state-owned oil company and Venezuelan sovereign debt. The administration may hope that these moves will lead Maduro’s quick fall, but facts on the ground suggest that the transition process will be much longer and much costlier.
  • Susanna Blume, Senior Fellow: President Trump has an opportunity in this State of the Union address to focus on genuine threats to national security and to bolster the strength of the nation by affirming commitment to the alliances that have underwritten over a half century of relative peace and stability. Let’s hope he takes it.
  • Eric Brewer, Visiting Fellow: How will President Trump set expectations with Congress and the American people for his upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un? Will he stick to his usual optimistic focus on progress thus far and the relationship he has with Kim, or will he use this opportunity to lay out in greater detail the steps Kim must take to denuclearize, including any actions ahead of the next summit?
  • Sam Dorshimer, Research Assistant: The European Union recently launched a Special Purpose Vehicle to facilitate transactions with Iran and continues to resist the administration’s Iran strategy. At the same time, new U.S. sanctions on Venezuela will raise the likelihood that the administration will need to extend waivers for countries importing oil from Iran that they provided in November. I’ll be looking to see how President Trump plans to continue the administration’s strategy of pressuring Iran through sanctions given those countervailing forces.
  • Ashley Feng, Research Assistant: Over the past year, more countries have followed the lead of the United States in banning, or publicly considering banning, Chinese telecommunications company Huawei from bidding or working on new 5G infrastructure. Since Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou’s arrest in December, this pattern has accelerated. I’m looking to see if President Trump will expand on and give more context to these actions.
  • Kara Frederick, Research Associate: In tonight’s State of the Union, I’ll be looking for the president to lay out the U.S. response to increasing tech competition with China – both in talent and innovation. Will this include heightened investments in STEM education and continuing to crack down on Chinese IP theft? How will the administration strengthen the United States’ ability to compete?
  • Ilan Goldenberg, Program Director for Middle East Security: I hope the president can clarify his stance on U.S. forces in Syria and the broader Middle East. Since his announcement in December via Twitter that U.S. forces would be leaving, there has been tremendous confusion and conflicting messages coming from him and his advisors. An authoritative statement and clear plan forward at the State of the Union could put this confusion to rest.
  • Nicholas A. Heras, Fellow: President Trump has been hinting that his decision to withdraw U.S. military forces from Syria may no longer include a firm, imminent timeline for withdrawal. The SOTU is a great opportunity for him to clarify his Syria policy, and I will be looking to see if he takes it or continues to demur to hold criticism of his decision down to a minimum.
  • Rachel Rizzo, Bacevich Fellow: President Trump didn’t mention the words ‘Europe’ or ‘NATO’ even once during his 2018 State of the Union speech. Will he this year? And if so, in what context?
  • Elizabeth Rosenberg, Program Director for Energy, Economics, and Security: The United States has embraced economic coercion as its major tool of foreign policy, employing maximum pressure trade, banking, and investment restrictions. I’m looking for indications from President Trump in the SOTU about whether he will double down on pressuring China, Iran, Venezuela, and perhaps Russia in the year ahead.
  • Loren DeJonge Schulman, Senior Fellow: President Trump has bluntly stated his frustration with ‘endless wars’ with shaky objectives and pledged to bring troops back home. At the same time, he has leaned into threatening military intervention in areas with questionable national security rationale (like Venezuela), with extreme risk (like North Korea), or with little military requirement (like the border). The State of the Union is a chance for him to rationalize his views on military intervention and use of force.

All CNAS experts are available for interviews. To arrange one, please contact Cole Stevens at


  • Cole Stevens

    Former Communications Officer

    Cole Stevens is a former Communications Officer at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). In this role, he led the Center's press and public affairs strategy to advanc...