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Trump Emphasizes Terrorist Threat In Address To Congress

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In his address to Congress last night, the president addressed a whole range of issues, including national security, where he hit some familiar notes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are also taking strong measures to protect our nation from radical Islamic terrorism.

(APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: The president also tackled ISIS, Iran, defense spending. For more, we're joined in our studio by NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly. Also with us is Kori Schake. She served in various policy roles, including at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.

Good morning to you both.

KORI SCHAKE: Good morning.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: What did we learn about the president's national security priorities from this speech, Kori?

SCHAKE: I don't think we learned anything that was new about his priorities. But we learned he can give a milder, more moderate version of them than we heard on the campaign trail, than we have heard since he's been in office.

MARTIN: Mary Louise?

KELLY: I think we learned, as we just heard there, he is going to keep calling it radical Islamic terrorism. This has been a debate already inside this administration. His new national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, reportedly has said, this is unhelpful; stop calling it that because it alienates the very allies the U.S. is going to need to beat ISIS. You heard last night, apparently, Trump is going a different direction.

MARTIN: So he also, in that speech, defended his travel ban, which has been very controversial. Let's listen to a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

TRUMP: We cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to form inside America. We cannot allow our nation to become a sanctuary for extremists.

MARTIN: U.S. officials have reportedly said that the initial executive order has been revised, and Iraq will no longer be included on that list. So Mary Louise, is this evidence they're rethinking all this?

KELLY: They certainly are rethinking all of this. And part of that is we know there's been pushback from the Pentagon and the State Department. Again, if you're trying to beat ISIS, the place where that battle is unfolding right now is mostly in Iraq as the battle for Mosul continues. And so...

MARTIN: In partnership between the U.S. and Iraq.

KELLY: In partnership. In Iraq - but it's Iraqi forces who are on the ground doing this. And so why alienate them? So I think that's part of the thinking there. It's also interesting - and in that same section of the speech, the president mentioned attacks here at home and how to prevent a return of the Boston terror attacks, the San Bernardino, the 9/11 attacks. And you will note that the people responsible for those attacks had ties to Pakistan, had ties to Saudi Arabia, had ties to many countries, none of which...

MARTIN: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Are reflected in the seven countries that are incorporated in the travel ban currently.

MARTIN: Kori Schake, he also promised a big boost to defense spending. He says it's one of the biggest in American history. Is it?

SCHAKE: No, not really. It's a welcome, near-term, pothole-filling splash of money to assist readiness. But it's nowhere near the levels of defense spending that Robert Gates, when secretary of defense in 2012, proposed, for example. And I do think the most interesting question coming out of this speech is whether there will be Republican-on-Republican violence in the Congress between the budget hawks and the defense hawks.

MARTIN: Because there are those who say we should actually be spending more, others who say, like, budget is too big. We've got to make some cuts somewhere.

SCHAKE: Well, I'm not sure that there are folks who are arguing the budget is too big. But there are a lot of folks on the Hill arguing that we need to balance the budget and that debt is a bigger problem than military readiness shortfalls or other shortfalls in our defense spending.

MARTIN: You say this money would go towards readiness. Explain what that means. What would it buy us, as an American people, in terms of security?

SCHAKE: Well, the near-term fixes in the defense budget that the president has proposed would add steaming hours for ships. It would add flying hours, training exercises, things like that because it's near-term money. It's not programmatic money that gives you the budget stability to be able to start new contracts, to recruit new soldiers, the kinds of longer-term fixes that consistent money over time provides.

KELLY: And worth noting, we got no details on that last night. In a speech like this, you're never going to get down into the weeds of detail. But if you're looking at everything from a pivot to Asia to what's happening in the fight against ISIS, we know that a plan was delivered to the White House. For how that's going to happen, we got zero insight, zero new details in terms of how that might actually unfold or what it's going to look like.

MARTIN: I want to bring up this moment in the speech last night. By consensus, everyone agrees this was kind of the emotional apex of the address last night, when President Trump acknowledged the widow of the Navy SEAL Ryan Owens who was killed in a recent operation in Yemen. His widow was invited as a guest in the first lady's box. Let's listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

TRUMP: We are blessed to be joined tonight by Carryn Owens, the widow of U.S. Navy Special Operator, Senior Chief William Ryan Owens. Ryan died as he lived - a warrior and a hero, battling against terrorism and securing our nation.

MARTIN: I mean, to some degree, Mary Louise, this was a unifying moment. The applause went on for a really long time. Trump went on to say Ryan was part of a, quote, "highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence." Is that true?

KELLY: Well, I mean, it was unquestionably an effective piece of political theater. I mean, the applause did go on forever, and you watched this very recently widowed woman weeping. And your heart had to be made of stone not to weep right along with her.

It is worth noting who was not there, which was Owens' parents. Owens' father refused to meet with President Trump when his son's body was flown back to Dover. The father has called for an investigation, and there are legitimate questions about this raid. The Pentagon, as the president noted, has said that it produced valuable intelligence. As often happens with intelligence, they have not made any of that public, so it's difficult to assess. And it's always a fair question to ask - whatever the intelligence was produced, does it outweigh the human and financial costs of this obligation? - which, in this case, were obviously significant.

SCHAKE: Moreover, I think the president has a Jekyll-and-Hyde problem because earlier in the day, he was refusing to take any responsibility for having approved the raid himself and blaming the military for it.

MARTIN: Suggesting that it was the generals, yeah.

SCHAKE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Just really briefly, Kori, any omissions that stood out to you, things you would have wanted him to talk about?

SCHAKE: One big thing I think he missed was the opportunity to celebrate Congress' role in bringing his agenda to the fore. He kept talking about his team being - you know, his team developing something, putting it forward - not Republicans in Congress, not Democrats in Congress.

MARTIN: Kori Schake, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly, thanks to you both.

KELLY: You're welcome.

SCHAKE: It's a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "RUINS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.