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Before Congress, Trump Presses Military Buildup, More VA Funding

President Donald Trump arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 20a17, for his address to a joint session of Congress. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool Image via AP)
President Donald Trump arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 20a17, for his address to a joint session of Congress. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool Image via AP)

President Donald Trump called on a joint session of Congress Tuesday night to approve a $54 billion boost in defense spending and unspecified increases in funding for the Veterans Affairs Department.

"Our military will be given the resources its brave warriors richly deserve," the president said, adding "my budget will also increase funding for our veterans."

Trump didn't put a figure on how much more the VA would get over its current $180 billion budget but said, "Our veterans have delivered for this nation and now we must deliver for them."

In what was billed by the White House as "his biggest speech yet," the president urged Congress and the nation to put aside the "trivial fights" and "small thinking" that have marred his first weeks in office.

"The challenges we face as a nation are great, but our people are even greater and none are greater or braver than those who fight in the American uniform," he said to his audience that included Supreme Court justices, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and member of the diplomatic corps in addition to elected representatives.

Trump devoted the bulk of his hour-long address to the issues that fueled his election campaign, including reforming health care, cracking down on immigration, cutting taxes, investing in infrastructure, re-negotiating trade deals, and constructing a "great, great wall along our southern border."

Republicans frequently gave Trump standing ovations as he made points, while Democrats remained seated in silence.

In his remarks on defense, Trump sent a message "to those allies who wonder what kind of friend America will be." He said they should "look no further than the heroes who wear our uniform."

"Our foreign policy calls for a direct, robust and meaningful engagement with the world," he said. "We strongly support NATO, an alliance forged through the bonds of two World Wars that dethroned fascism, and a Cold War that defeated communism. But our partners must meet their financial obligations."

With Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, seated behind him, Trump said the U.S. would rely on "shared interests" with other nations.

"My job is not to represent the world," he said. "My job is to represent the United States of America. But we know that America is better off when there is less conflict -- not more."

The address in the House chamber was not a formal "State of the Union" address -- first-year presidents do not traditionally make State of the Union addresses but are expected to outline their agendas to a joint session of Congress early in their tenures.

While focusing mostly on domestic issues, Trump also renewed his denunciations of "radical Islamic terrorism" only days after the new national security adviser, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, reportedly argued against use of the term. McMaster's position was that groups such as ISIS had perverted the teachings of Islam, according to CNN.

Earlier, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the theme viewers should take away from Trump's address was the emphasis on "the renewal of the American spirit. He will invite Americans of all backgrounds to come together in the service of a stronger and brighter future for our nation."

Immediately after he outlined the budget plan Monday, Trump got pushback from top Republicans in the House and Senate who argued that the proposed additional funding for defense was not nearly enough.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican and chairman of the house Armed Services Committee, said the $54 billion amounted to only a 3-percent increase over what former President Barack Obama had proposed for fiscal 2018.

"With a world on fire, America cannot secure peace through strength with just three percent more than President Obama's budget," McCain said in a statement. "We can and must do better."

The speech five weeks into his presidency sought to translate his "Make America Great Again" and "America First" campaign slogans into rough policy specifics for a Congress grown increasingly wary on both sides of the aisle of his unpredictability.

Trump was seeking to get back on message on the core economic pledges that propelled him to a stunning election victory in November amid continuing controversies over his aides' contacts with Russia, his battle against so-called "fake news" and his off-the-cuff comments that put him at odds with his top military advisors.

In a letter to the congressional leadership, the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a group of former senior military commanders and business executives led by retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, the former Supreme Commander of NATO, criticized Trump's proposed cuts in State Department and domestic spending to help pay for the increase in military funding.

"The State Department, USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps and other development agencies are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm's way," the coalition's letter said.

Trump didn't address his occasional differences with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who in his brief tenure has managed to take positions at odds with Trump's while maintaining the confidence of the White House.

He talked Trump out of advocating torture and waterboarding, and on his second overseas trip as defense secretary, Mattis re-assured allies on the U.S. commitment to a NATO that Trump had called "obsolete," while firmly urging them to spend two percent of their gross domestic products on defense.

On Monday, Mattis delivered the plan that Trump had ordered up for the rapid defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. During the campaign, Trump frequently said he knew more about strategy than the generals and asserted that his own idea for defeating ISIS would be to "blow the expletive" out of them.

Pentagon officials said that Mattis outlined a nuanced plan that stressed leaving the ground combat role to local partners and focused on the need for a "trans-regional approach" to terror threats with an emphasis on diplomacy. However, Trump, in outlining his budget proposals Monday, said he would slash State Department funding as part of the effort to offset a military buildup.

Critics of the Trump administration noted that Mattis, while he was still in uniform as commander of U.S. Central Command, famously warned Congress that a combination of the hard power of the military and the soft power of the State Department provided the best defense for the nation.

"If you don't fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition," Mattis told a lawmakers in 2012.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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