A year of political farce like no other
Beneath a grey Washington sky – which he would later insist was ‘‘really sunny’’ – Donald Trump placed his hand on a Bible once used by Abraham Lincoln and promised to ‘‘faithfully execute the office of president of the United States’’.
A year ago yesterday, much of the country was still in shock: a billionaire former reality show host whose sex life had once kept New York’s tabloids entranced had stormed to a stunning election win. A twice-divorced billionaire, he had won the votes of evangelical Christians and given a voice to the frustrations of blue-collar whites. He had beaten a rival whose fundraising had dwarfed his. He had, said an army of chastened pundits, rewritten the laws of political physics.
According to one account, nobody was more surprised than Trump. He is said to have assured his wife, Melania, that he would lose. Yet all of that was merely a warmup.
Over the past 12 months America’s 45th president has overseen a political circus unlike any other. He faces allegations that his campaign was in cahoots with the Kremlin. This week the media were awash with reports that his lawyers secretly paid a porn star US$130,000 to keep quiet about an alleged fling – and much of America seemed hardly to raise an eyebrow.
Trump’s erratic and grandiose behaviour has prompted speculation about his mental health. Last week he became the first president to ask to sit a test to screen for early signs of Alzheimer’s, hoping to dispel rumours that his mind is fading. And with the federal government on the brink of a shutdown, Republican leaders were cursing him for his confused messages on immigration, the his campaign.
The blitzkrieg of Trump news has been unrelenting, and much of the commentariat still appears dazed. clearest issue of
The anniversary of his inauguration has been marked by a slew of new polls: most Americans have deemed his first year a failure, think the country is headed in the wrong direction, believe his policies are directed at helping the wealthy, and are afraid that his use of Twitter is dangerous. Among Republican voters, however, he remains popular: nine in 10 believe his first year has been a success, while four in 10 call it a ‘‘major success’’.
Recent history suggests that once a president wins one term, he is the favourite to win another. So for all the outrage at his bullying tweets, for all the horror at his boasts about the size of his nuclear button, for all the concern prompted by his disdain for the norms of politics, there is a good chance that Trump will be in office for another seven years.
The tone for the Trump era was set on the first day, when the hapless Sean Spicer, White House press secretary at the time, insisted that the inauguration crowds had been the largest in history. They clearly were not; Kellyanne Conway, the president’s pollster, would later claim that Spicer had been using ‘‘alternative facts’’.
A week later, chaos broke out at US airports as the White House rushed out a ban on travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries. Barely a fortnight after that, national security adviser Mike Flynn was fired for lying about his contacts with a Russian official.
As the weeks ticked by, the sense grew of a West Wing at war with itself, and Trump became outraged at leaks emanating from his staff – but, according to author Michael Wolff, many of those leaks came from the president himself.
On May 9, Trump stunned Washington when he fired FBI director James Comey. Of all his impulsive acts, this threatened the largest consequences. Comey would later tell Congress that Trump had urged him to ease off an FBI investigation into Flynn.
The sacking of Comey led to the appointment of a special counsel – Robert Mueller, former FBI chief – to untangle the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. He has brought criminal charges against four Trump campaign staff – so far.
In July, it emerged that Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr, had agreed to meet a Kremlin-linked lawyer during the presidential campaign, believing that she could supply compromising material on Hillary Clinton. Steve Bannon, the populist provocateur who served seven months as Trump’s political strategist, later called this meeting ‘‘treasonous’’.
In August, Trump appalled many with his reaction to a rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville that culminated in the death of a counter-protester when he said that ‘‘both sides’’ were to blame for the violence
For many of his supporters, however, Trump’s unorthodox approach is its own reward: they delight in what they say is his refusal to bow to political correctness. Others applaud the advance of a traditional Republican agenda: he has cut taxes and appointed Neil Gorsuch, the most conservative justice on the Supreme Court.
He has also pulled out of the Paris climate accord, withdrawn his blessing from the Iran nuclear deal, proclaimed Jerusalem the capital of Israel, opened up Alaska to new oil drilling, and cut reams of regulations. Arrests and raids by America’s immigration services have increased, and in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State ‘‘caliphate’’ has been obliterated.
The US stock market has been climbing all the while to record highs, and as long as Wall Street remains buoyant, few analysts will be willing to bet against Trump winning a second term.