Trump called for unity in his State of the Union address while sidestepping the divide over Russia

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump made a fleeting reference in his first State of the Union address.
  • He characterized Russia as a "rival," mentioning that country amid his push for Congress to eliminate spending caps for the defense budget.
  • Investigations into Russia's possible ties to the Trump presidential campaign, meanwhile, continue to roil Washington and confound the president.
President Donald Trump gives his first State of the Union address to Congress and the country in Washington, United States on January 30, 2018.
Samuel Corum | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

President Donald Trump's State of the Union address on Tuesday attempted to paint a picture of an administration seeking national unity and political reconciliation.

It should be no surprise, then, that the president sidestepped the hyper-partisan, acrimonious and increasingly conspiratorial political warfare surrounding investigations into the possible links between Trump's presidential campaign and Russia.

"It was almost as if he was trying to spin an alternative fantasy land from the one we're living in right now," said Doug Thornell, a Democratic strategist at communications firm SKDKnickerbocker.

Trump's speech was packed with more than 5,000 words and ran longer than 80 minutes, making it the third-longest such address in American history. Yet Trump made only one passing reference to Russia – a fleeting mention in a passage about removing caps on defense spending.

"Around the world, we face rogue regimes, terrorist groups, and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy, and our values," Trump said. "In confronting these horrible dangers, we know that weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unmatched power is the surest means to our true and great defense."

Trump's tone on Russia was much softer than recent broadsides from Democrats and some Republicans — along with U.S. intelligence agencies — which have recently described the Kremlin as a threat.

In the Democratic response to the State of the Union address late Tuesday night, Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., said Russia was "knee-deep in our democracy" — alluding to accusations that Russia interfered in the presidential election through leaks of hacked information and a propaganda campaign.

Multiple intelligence agencies, including the CIA, FBI and NSA, agree that Russia meddled in the election, and that its involvement was intended to favor Trump.

On Tuesday, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said he has "every expectation" that Russia will again attempt to put a thumb on the scale during the 2018 midterm elections, though he doesn't think the foreign adversary will have much of an impact.

Democrats pounced on Pompeo's remarks, which came out around the time the White House decided not to impose overwhelmingly bipartisan sanctions on Russia by a Monday deadline.

"I hear senators talking privately about this — that this Congress and the American people don't trust the president on Russia, his closeness to Putin, all those things," Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin at a Senate committee hearing Tuesday.

Trump, in his first official State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill, established the items on his agenda that are likely to become major legislative pushes in the coming months. He urged bipartisan cooperation on issues such as infrastructure and immigration.

But while Trump pointed to more conciliatory political horizons, investigations from the Justice Department and multiple congressional committees continued looking into potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Trump has repeatedly lashed out at central figures in the Russia case, including former FBI Director James Comey, whom the president fired in May, and the bureau's former deputy director and frequent Trump target, Andrew McCabe, who stepped down earlier this week because he reportedly felt pressure to take a demotion.

But Trump didn't mention any of that in his speech, at least not explicitly.

Instead, there was a vague passage in which the president called on Congress to give Cabinet members the authority "to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people."

Trump didn't elaborate on what he meant, but reports have said that Trump is dissatisfied with Attorney General Jeff Sessions' handling of the Russia investigation. Sessions recused himself from the probe last year after revelations emerged that he hadn't disclosed some meetings with key Russians.

Sessions' recusal led to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein taking over and appointing Robert Mueller as special counsel. The New York Times said Trump ordered Mueller fired last June, but White House counsel Don McGahn talked him out of it. Likewise, CNN reported that Trump's advisors have dissuaded him from sacking Rosenstein.

Meanwhile, NBC News, citing a source, reported this week that the president has been talking about asking Sessions, a member of his Cabinet, to prosecute Mueller.

WATCH: Trump's first State of the Union Address

President Trump's 1st State of the Union