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Trump says immigration system is a national security threat, but goes easy on Russia

Trump says immigration system is a national security threat, but goes easy on Russia
President Trump speaking with reporters as he prepares to depart the White House on Saturday. (Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

President Trump described the U.S. immigration system as a threat to national security on Monday, saying the “wrong people” are being admitted, even as he touched lightly on Russia’s menace in a speech coinciding with release of his first comprehensive security strategy paper.

Strategy got short shrift in the president’s half-hour address, however, as he reprised boasts about his election and the economy’s gains. In notable instances, such as the treatment of Russia, Trump’s words and those in the paper diverged significantly.

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The president also included a lengthy indictment of unnamed predecessors, hammering them for “disastrous trade deals,” shortchanging the military, and “nation-building abroad” while neglecting the homefront — all of which put U.S. security at risk, in his view.

“They lost their belief in American greatness,” Trump said.

His address, before a friendly crowd of federal officials, military officers, Republican lawmakers and conservative national security experts, was supposed to distill the main points of his 55-page national security strategy paper, a defining document of the sort that presidents since Ronald Reagan have issued. Yet what stood out to many foreign policy scholars were the ways in which he and the strategy paper differed.

The president did not echo the paper’s point about Russia’s “destabilizing cyber capabilities” or its contention that, “through modernized forms of subversive tactics, Russia interferes in the domestic political affairs of countries around the world.” Neither the paper nor Trump alluded to Moscow’s interference in the 2016 campaign, now the subject of criminal and congressional probes.

Instead, in his speech, Trump went out of his way to say that Russian President Vladimir Putin called Sunday to thank the U.S. for the CIA’s help in preventing a terrorist attack in St. Petersburg.

"That is the way it's supposed to work," he said.

Trump did call both Russia and China "rival powers" that want to challenge American influence, values and wealth. But he said his administration will nonetheless try to "build a great partnership" with its rivals, in a way that "always" protects U.S. interests.

The discrepancies between Trump’s comments and the administration paper made some experts wonder whether there is a gulf between Trump and his staff.

“The big question is, does this actually reflect his point of view?” said Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

“It speaks to a broader problem in his administration,” Wright said. “There are really two worlds. There is Trump and there is the ‘adults in the room’ or the ‘main-streamers’ or whatever you want to call them that really have a more traditional view of American foreign policy.”

Trump’s speech as well as the strategy overview reflected Trump’s break from the approaches of both his Democratic and Republican predecessors.

Unlike President Obama’s strategy overview, the Trump administration doesn’t consider climate change as a national security threat, even though the Pentagon has described refugee flows from drought, rising oceans and increasing storms as adding to the potential for global conflict.

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While Obama emphasized global cooperation and alliances, Trump committed the U.S. to protecting its own sovereignty and facing off with world powers such as China and Russia seeking to expand their spheres of influence.

In contrast with President George W. Bush, Trump’s strategy does not include the aim of spreading democracy abroad. “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone,” he said in his address, “but we will champion the values without apology.”

It was the topic of immigration, so prominent in his election campaign, where Trump perhaps most differed with recent presidents.

“We cannot secure our nation if we do not secure our borders,” Trump said, renewing his call to build a wall across the U.S. border with Mexico, shut down a long-standing visa lottery that boosts the number of immigrants from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe, and end what he calls “chain migration,” by which U.S. citizens are allowed to sponsor some relatives to immigrate to the country.

The administration sees untenable risks both in the current legal immigration system, which brings in about 1 million people each year, and in illegal border crossings, which have leveled off for years and dropped since Trump took office.

The president wants Congress to revamp the immigration system to select people based on job skills, education and financial security. He called the current system “a policy where the wrong people are allowed into our country and the right people are rejected.”

The Trump administration’s call to focus legal immigration on skills rather than family connections doesn’t belong in a national security strategy, said Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, a former U.S. counter-terrorism official who worked on Bush’s National Security Council.

“It sends the wrong message and actually works against us in many ways, such as attracting the kind of labor we need and meeting our labor demands and allowing people to come to the U.S. to pursue a dream,” Nelson said.

Building a border wall, he added, is “a better sound bite than it is sound security.”

White House officials spent months drafting the national security strategy, and Trump wanted to roll it out personally. It is based on four pillars: protecting the homeland by restricting immigration, pressuring trading partners, building up the military and otherwise increasing U.S. influence globally.

The paper describes the major threats facing the U.S., including the nuclear weapons programs in North Korea and Iran, the proliferation of radical Islamist terrorist groups, “porous borders and unenforced immigration laws” and unfair trade practices that Trump says have weakened the economy and sent American jobs overseas.

Even so, in Trump’s first year, North Korea has made significant progress in developing both nuclear weaponry and intercontinental ballistic missiles that could deliver the arms to American territory. Iran’s nuclear program has been on ice because of the international deal brokered by Obama, but Trump wants to rip that deal up.

He has made no discernible progress in renegotiating trade deals, companies have continued to create jobs in foreign nations and critics in both parties say Trump is wrong to say borders were open under past administrations and laws unenforced.

Trump emphasized his administration will show flexibility when dealing with competitors, including countries that may otherwise be adversaries — an approach he called “principled realism.”

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The strategy plan cited Russia for violating the sovereignty of Ukraine by annexing Crimea in 2014, though Trump in his speech did not, just as he said little about it during his campaign and into his presidency.

While the document acknowledged that Russian intelligence officials have launched campaigns to undermine the legitimacy of democracies, Trump has repeatedly praised Putin, and has seemed to accept Putin’s denials that Russia interfered in the 2016 election though the denials conflict with the consensus of U.S. intelligence agencies.

In his speech, Trump reiterated his argument that a better relationship with the Russian autocrat could help resolve conflicts in Syria and the nuclear standoff with North Korea.

Yet his paper faulted policies of the last two decades — a period covered by the Obama, Bush and Bill Clinton administrations — for being “based on the assumption that engagement with rivals … would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners.”

Similarly, Trump has praised his “chemistry” with Chinese President Xi Jinping, though that rapport has not produced breakthroughs in areas of U.S. concern. China continues to increase its military presence on disputed islands in the South China Sea and maintains economic policies, including intellectual property theft, that hurt U.S. businesses.

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