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Trump didn’t say much about tech in his first-ever State of the Union address

Internet access, cybersecurity and other driving Silicon Valley issues didn’t get a major mention in the speech.

President Trump applauds himself after his first State of the Union address Win McNamee / Getty

President Donald Trump pledged in his first-ever State of the Union address to reform immigration laws, rethink U.S. infrastructure and respond to threats like North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

But his speech at the U.S. Capitol contained no explicit mention of the tech topics that are top of mind for Silicon Valley — and had been raised regularly by his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama.

Trump’s pitch to Congress on Tuesday night instead emphasized that his White House has ushered in a “new American moment” — initiatives, like tax reform, that he contended had boosted economic growth and job creation. Woven between his comments touting his track record and promising to take aim at foreign adversaries was only one mention of the tech set: Trump praised Apple for promising to invest anew in the United States.

Otherwise, Trump did not highlight tech’s policy priorities, like internet access, even as his administration labors to assemble a multi-billion dollar proposal to upgrade the very guts of the United States. The White House’s plans for the future of the web have been the stuff of controversy this week, amid fears that the U.S. government could someday seek to build its own wireless network.

Nor did Trump discuss cybersecurity, despite work by the White House to address online malefactors. And the president didn’t wade into new, cutting-edge debacles like artificial intelligence, either.

It isn’t to say that Trump’s White House isn’t working on tech in 2018. It is. Administration aides, federal agencies and outside corporate lobbyists may jostle every year to secure their pet issues a prominent mention on such a national stage, and there’s only so much a president can say in the State of the Union — a long speech can only be so long, after all.

But the lingering question is whether Trump’s omissions will disappoint some in Silicon Valley, who had hoped to hear more in the White House’s annual, agenda-setting address — especially after a year of warring with Washington, D.C.

For now, at least, tech leaders are optimistic. “We heard some positive statements from President Trump tonight,” said Dean Garfield, the leader of the Information Technology Industry Council, which represents tech giants like Apple, Google and Microsoft.

Noting some of Trump’s statements on issues like immigration and infrastructure, Garfield added: “Moving forward, the opportunity will be in the details.”

Make no mistake, Trump’s approach stands in stark contrast to the last administration. In the eight years that Obama occupied the White House, he regularly announced major tech initiatives — including a call in 2011 to improve wireless internet — during the State of the Union address.

In 2013, former first lady Michelle Obama invited Apple CEO Tim Cook as one of her guests, while the president announced a new cybersecurity push. Two years later, Google, Tesla and eBay received praise in Obama’s speech.

In 2018, Trump’s most critical comments to the tech industry came on immigration. Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and other Valley heavyweights have pleaded with the White House and Congress to spare immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children from being deported. Last year, though, Trump scrapped the legal shield known as DACA, which had protected more than 800,000 beneficiaries, known as Dreamers.

On Tuesday, Trump said he would endorse a package that renews protections for those Dreamers if they “meet education and work requirements, and show good moral character, will be able to become full citizens of the United States.” But he stressed any immigration proposal must include security measures, such as funding for a new wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Struggling communities, especially immigrant communities, will also be helped by immigration policies that focus on the best interests of American workers and American families,” Trump said.

Otherwise, Trump didn’t delve into related issues that affect highly skilled foreign workers. His administration recently has sought to curtail legal immigration — and potentially nix a program that awards work permits for some of their spouses.

Later in the speech, Trump touted his support for infrastructure reform. “I am asking both parties to come together to give us the safe, fast, reliable and modern infrastructure our economy needs and our people deserve,” he said. That includes efforts to “streamline the permitting and approval process,” Trump explained, so that companies can build more quickly.

But Trump never actually mentioned a key component of his own plan: High-speed internet access. The omission seemed especially stark on a day when lawmakers in the House of Representatives had convened a hearing that focused on turning Trump’s vision for infrastructure reform into reality.

Nevertheless, the president’s still-unreleased proposal to improve the country’s inner workings is expected to include about $200 billion in federal government aid. Much of that money could be allocated to states to spend as they see fit, either on crumbling roads and bridges or efforts to close the digital divide. For now, Trump on Tuesday estimated that infrastructure reform could be worth $1 trillion or more. But he and his aides only can reach that figure if they include potential matching or related investments from the private sector.

Infrastructure reform is no easy sell on Capitol Hill. Since Sunday, however, the Trump administration has faced an additional headache — a memo first obtained by Axios suggested the U.S. government could create its own, ultra-fast 5G wireless network. The document had been prepared by a staff member on the National Security Council, which advises the president.

Privately, White House sources rebuffed the idea in interviews with Recode. Publicly, official spokespeople stressed that all options remained on the table — a comment that drew sharp rebukes from telecom giants and Trump’s fellow Republicans. The leader of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, expressly disavowed a government-run 5G network.

Contrast that with more than six months ago, when the issue had been top of mind for the administration. Trump even invited top telecom executives from AT&T and Sprint to the White House to talk about 5G, pledging to cut “regulation that’s been so bad, so out of line that it’s really hurt our country.”

Speaking on Tuesday night to congressional lawmakers who might help him achieve that goal, however, Trump didn’t discuss the issue. It was the one infrastructure goal he didn’t list in his State of the Union speech.

“Together, we can reclaim our building heritage. We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways, all across our land. And we will do it with American heart, American hands and American grit,” Trump said.

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