Wednesday marks a year since Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, and it’s just as strange now as it was then. Adrian Morrow looks at the highlights.
Maybe it was the time he fired the man investigating his campaign team’s ties to the Kremlin. Or when he mused there were some “very fine people” among a riotous mob of white supremacists. Or when he baited a nuclear-armed totalitarian dictator during a speech at the United Nations.
Anyone who believed, when Donald J. Trump was elected President of the United States on Nov. 8, 2016, that the heavy mantle of the most powerful political office on Earth would temper the most uniquely undisciplined man ever to hold it has certainly found their hopes dashed by one of the many jaw-dropping moments in the year since then.
But neither has Mr. Trump fulfilled the most apocalyptic fears at his accession. He has not (so far) started a trade war with Beijing, or a nuclear war with Pyongyang. His promised “complete shutdown” on Muslims entering the U.S. has been repeatedly blocked and narrowed by the courts. And he has failed to stop the probe into Russian intervention in the election that brought him to power.
While Mr. Trump has undoubtedly turned Washington into a multiplatform reality show – including televised feuds with football players, surprise policies announced on Twitter and palace intrigue splashed across the fronts of newspapers – his success at imprinting a nationalistic “America first” agenda on the nation has been mixed at best.
“It’s been mostly a sideshow,” said Elaine Kamarck, a governance expert at the Brooking Institution and a White House aide during the Clinton administration. “He hasn’t had any major legislative victories. He has rolled back some regulations, but that isn’t any different from what a regular Republican president would have done.”
Whatever its effect, the world’s most important country is firmly in the thrall of the Trump spectacle, full of outlandish storylines, myriad plot twists and an ending no one can predict.
At least nine people in Mr. Trump’s orbit are now known to have dealt with the Russian government or its intermediaries. The contacts range from secret talks about government sanctions (fired national security adviser Mike Flynn) to financial dealings with Mr. Putin’s family (Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross) to clandestine discussions over embarrassing Democratic Party e-mails stolen by Russian government hackers (campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos.)
The President’s reaction to the investigation, meanwhile, has only dug him deeper. In May, he turfed then-FBI director James Comey, who was overseeing the probe into what Mr. Trump described as “this Russia thing.” The subsequent uproar resulted in the Justice Department bringing in independent counsel Robert Mueller to take over. Mr. Mueller has so far secured a guilty plea from Mr. Papadopoulos and laid charges against Mr. Trump’s former campaign chair, Paul Manafort and associate Rick Gates. And he appears only to be getting started.
His party may hold majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, but Mr. Trump has notched just one significant legislative success – getting his Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch, confirmed. The President struggled for months to get his caucus to fulfill the GOP’s seven-year-long promise to repeal former president Barack Obama’s signature health-care reform, an effort that ultimately died in the Senate over the summer.
Part of the problem is Mr. Trump’s inability to drive coherent policy: He famously promised to both scrap Obamacare, which provides health coverage to 20 million people, and guaranteed that no one would lose their insurance in the process. It hasn’t helped that he’s publicly feuded with his own party. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and senators Bob Corker, John McCain and Jeff Flake have all found themselves scorched by the President on Twitter.
Robert Shapiro, professor of government at Columbia University, said the Obamacare episode was indicative of a larger problem for Mr. Trump. He simply does not have the governing savvy to step up to the plate on a major file.
“He was very inexperienced, and it shows. He’s had opportunities that he hasn’t been able to take advantage of,” Mr. Shapiro said. “On health care, he was passing the buck to Congress.”
Mr. Trump has, however, still managed to make some substantive policy changes by fiat. He directed authorities to deport any undocumented immigrant they could find, rather than focusing mostly on serious criminals, as had previously been the case. He pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and is girding to do the same with the Paris climate agreement. And he is cutting off Obamacare subsidies to insurance companies, a move likely to result in higher premiums. “The executive orders are not trivial,” Mr. Shapiro said. “There are policy actions he’s taken that are significant.”
From the campaign-trail promises of a Muslim ban and a border wall to his repeated attempts at curbing immigration, Mr. Trump’s political career has been fuelled by xenophobia, and he has long found ardent support from the racist fringe of U.S. politics.
These threads converged on an August Saturday in Charlottesville, Va., when white supremacists rioted over the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, leaving an anti-racism counterprotester dead. The President insisted the blame for the violence was shared by “many sides,” that there were “very fine people” among the white nationalists and that he was personally in favour of preserving monuments to the Confederacy.
Later that month, Mr. Trump decided to stir up anger at football players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence and racial profiling.
If the Russia investigation has emerged this past year as the largest threat to Mr. Trump’s presidency, the great menace to global stability in the same period has been the rising tension over Kim Jong-un’s nuclear arsenal. The President has delighted in taunting the dictator, calling him “Little Rocket Man” and threatening to “totally destroy” his country.
Exactly what Mr. Trump is trying to do is unclear. No one believes Pyongyang is going to abandon its weapons program in the face of the President’s threats. Instead, Mr. Trump’s rhetoric has stoked fears that he could inadvertently goad Mr. Kim into taking disastrous action.
There have, however, been some signs of a strategy: Mr. Trump has tried to buddy up with Chinese President Xi Jinping in hopes Beijing will exert more economic pressure on Mr. Kim; earlier this year, Mr. Xi did not stand in the way of tougher sanctions on his putative North Korean ally. And this week, Mr. Trump abruptly backed off his hard line during a trip to South Korea, calling on the North to “come to the table and make a deal.”
Mr. Trump has been remarkably consistent on trade since the 1980s: He argues America is getting cheated and has to crack down. Now, he’s renegotiating the North American free-trade agreement, demanding Canada and Mexico accept tough measures meant to protect the U.S. economy from them.
And his administration has used the full weight of U.S. trade law against foreign companies, slamming Canadian softwood and Bombardier C-Series jets with hefty punitive tariffs.
A year in, the fate of the U.S.’s single largest trading partnership remains up in the air.
From the start, Mr. Trump’s inner circle split into tribes, with nationalists pushing the President to close borders and tear up trade deals and globalists trying to turn the administration into a conventional Republican government. Over time, the camps themselves fragmented, as presidential aides formed alliances of convenience to oust rivals or save their own skins.
The chaos reached its peak during a tumultuous two weeks in July when Mr. Trump brought in financier Anthony Scaramucci as communications director, prompting the resignation of bombastic spokesman Sean Spicer and the firing of chief of staff Reince Priebus. Mr. Priebus’s replacement, John Kelly, in turn fired Mr. Scaramucci.
Ironically, some in the GOP argue that the non-stop drama is actually useful cover to push through their agenda, such as slashing red tape for business and scrapping Obama-era environmental regulations. In an interview with the Washington Examiner in July, Housing Secretary Ben Carson admitted he was “glad that Trump is drawing all the fire” so he could focus on his work without attracting too much attention.
“Donald Trump has taken the oxygen out of the room and distracted the press, while people are getting stuff done,” said Mary Kate Cary, a GOP pundit and former presidential speechwriter for George H. W. Bush. “He’s crazy like a fox, he knows exactly what he’s doing: He throws the media the bright shiny object, and they keep falling for it.”
The Globe and Mail, November 7, 2017