In his single term as president, George H. W. Bush negotiated the peaceful reunification of Germany. He liberated Kuwait while losing few American lives. He signed legislation to end acid rain. He did a budget deal that reduced federal deficits, enacted the Americans With Disabilities Act, and successfully resolved the collapse of the savings-and-loan industry.
Jimmy Carter, in his one term, deregulated passenger aviation. He updated the regulation of rail freight, shipping, and trucking, laying the foundation for America’s modern delivery system. He negotiated the Camp David Accords, ending belligerency between Egypt and Israel. He avoided a major crisis in Central America with his Panama Canal Treaty.
William Howard Taft also achieved much in his one term as president. It was his Department of Justice that busted the Standard Oil monopoly. Taft forcefully advocated a central bank for the United States, although that project was not completed until the year after he lost the presidency to Woodrow Wilson. Taft urged free trade with Canada and negotiated the treaty that ended a century of rancorous North American waterway disputes.
To say the least, Donald Trump is not a president in the league of Bush, Carter, or even Taft. Few presidents have left office with so little accomplished, impeached and disgraced. Trump took a lot of credit for the economic growth of his first three years, but the economy was already growing strongly when he took office. Pick a measure, almost any measure, and the trajectory of his first three years was identical to that of Barack Obama’s final three years: unemployment, manufacturing, wages, you name it. And whereas Obama passed a successful economy to Trump, Trump bequeaths a wreck to his successor.
The Trump tax cut promised to accelerate long-term growth by stimulating business investment. That promise was broken; business investment did not rise. The Trump tax cut imposed indefinite trillion-dollar deficits upon the United States even before the pandemic crisis, while conferring little, if any, benefit on economic output.
Trump’s trade policy was an utter fiasco, and his much ballyhooed U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement simply inserted more automobile protectionism into the old NAFTA, without addressing the big North American trade issues of the 21st century, especially the needs of the digital economy and cross-border shipping.
Trump did appoint a lot of judges, but that was a partisan achievement, not a national one: a zero-sum win for conservative Americans, not a legacy for the nation as a whole.
Yet nobody does nothing as president, not even someone who watches television for five or six hours a day. There were achievements in the Trump years, and even if they hardly begin to compare to Jimmy Carter’s, they are still worth noting as this presidency comes to an end. I have below tallied a baker’s dozen of accomplishments that a majority of Americans, Democrats as well as Republicans, can reckon as successes of the Trump era.
Stricter regulation of vaping
Vaping technology can help adult smokers quit, but it can also lure teenagers into addiction. In January 2020, Trump signed regulations restricting the use of fruit and mint flavorings in vaping cartridges. This was not as bold an action as anti-tobacco groups sought, but it was not nothing, either. Trump almost immediately regretted his benign action. Two weeks later, he complained on the phone to Health Secretary Alex Azar, “I should never have done that fucking vaping thing.” But the policy remains, despite Trump’s change of heart.
Dramatic reductions in the burning of coal
Coal is the most environmentally dangerous of all fuels. In 2016, as a candidate, Trump vowed that the U.S. would soon burn more of it. Instead, U.S. coal consumption declined in every year of his presidency. In 2019, the U.S. burned 586 million tons of coal—a reduction of almost 50 percent from the 2007 peak, and a drop of almost 15 percent over 2018.
This was not a result Trump wanted. A harder-working president might even have thwarted it. But in this one crucial respect, Trump’s legendary laziness has left the world a cleaner and greener place.
Normalization in the Middle East
President Trump moved the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and proposed a peace plan that substituted economic development for immediate Palestinian statehood. Traditional experts feared that Trump’s policies would ignite regional conflict. Instead, if anything, the region has calmed. First the United Arab Emirates, then Bahrain and Sudan, and most recently Morocco have opened diplomatic relations with Israel. It’s now possible to fly direct from Tel Aviv to Dubai, overflying Saudi Arabia.
Trump also brought long-delayed justice to Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani, author of so many acts of terrorism. Again, experts feared that the killing of Soleimani would trigger the direst consequences. Instead, the Iranian regime itself halted the cycle of retaliation after its own reckless mistake brought down a civilian airliner over Tehran airport, killing all 176 passengers and crew. Iranian authorities first lied about their responsibility; when the truth could be concealed no longer, outrage among the Iranian people shook the mullah regime.
Trump broke every rule in the diplomatic book. He accepted payments to himself and his family from the same parties he was negotiating with—not only single millions at his hotels, but the multiple millions in financing that his son-in-law’s family received from the Qataris to retrieve a bad investment in a New York City office building. Trump showed blatant favoritism to the Israelis over other negotiating parties. He repeatedly surprised all involved with abrupt changes in U.S. policy: supporting the Kurds, betraying the Kurds; appeasing Turkey, sanctioning Turkey; provoking Iran, sanctioning Iran; withdrawing U.S. forces from the region, recommitting U.S. forces to the region. And this one time, his seemingly aimless and herky-jerky approach worked, at least in the immediate term. Maybe Trump’s vagaries frightened Israelis and Gulf Arabs into getting along better. Maybe normalization would have happened even without him—it started before him, after all. Whatever the cause, he leaves office with this particular conflict closer to resolution than when he entered office.
Safeguarding 5G networks from Chinese control
Trump’s trade policy lacked rhyme or reason. He provoked futile, consumer-harming conflicts with partners like Canada and Germany. But Trump’s campaign to build 5G networks on Western rather than Chinese technology was powered by abundant reason: to secure communications in democratic countries from Chinese surveillance, and even Chinese sabotage. For once, Trump’s motives were not narrowly nationalistic; the main alternative suppliers to China’s Huawei are Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia.
In 2018, Australia banned Huawei from its 5G networks. In June 2020, Canada and Singapore announced that they would rely on non-Chinese technology. The United Kingdom followed in July—and even ordered the removal of Huawei components where they had already been installed. France barred Huawei that same month. In September, Germany tightened its review of the security risks posed by Chinese technology.
5G is a rare case in which Trump’s abrasive methods yielded results that might not have been achieved by a more emollient administration. Score one for him, and it’s an important one.
Appointment of Jerome Powell as Federal Reserve chair
Janet Yellen’s term as chair of the Federal Reserve expired in February 2018. Trump refused to reappoint her, reportedly because he thought she was too short for the job. Jerome Powell, Trump’s appointee, apparently met the president’s aesthetic requirements.
Powell also proved a superb appointment just in time for the pandemic-caused economic crisis of 2020. The Senate was stingy with cash relief to the economy. Monetary policy had to do most of the lifting—and Powell was equal to the lift.
Trump raved and ranted against Powell for not flooding the economy with liquidity in 2019, when the economy’s main problem was Trump’s own tariffs. But Powell stepped up in 2020 with a policy that was both bold and—unusual for any Trump appointee—internationally coordinated.
As so often happened, Trump later tried to sabotage his own good deed by adding extremists, misfits, and weirdos to the Federal Reserve board. Points to the Republican senators who blocked those nominees, enhancing the clout of this rare wise Trump appointment.
Destruction of the ISIS caliphate in eastern Syria and northern Iraq
The Obama administration launched an international coalition to destroy the redoubt of the Islamic State in August 2014. The anti-ISIS campaign scored victory after victory in 2015 and 2016. ISIS lost control of its last oil field in October 2016, destroying its economic basis. That same month, coalition forces launched an offensive to retake Mosul, the last Iraqi city in ISIS hands, as well as the symbolically important Syrian town of Dabiq. Trump continued the anti-ISIS campaign in 2017 and 2018, and it remained successful, culminating in a U.S. raid that killed the ISIS commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019.
ISIS survives as an inspiration for terror attacks, but the Obama-Trump operation put an end to ISIS’s attempt to found a territorial state, and destroyed its conventional military forces.
Speeding generic drug approval
In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration approved 73 new generic medications. That figure rose year by year through the Trump administration, reaching 107 in 2019. That same year, Congress passed new legislation that will bring more generics to market even faster in the future. The Creates Act will allow generic drug makers to sue drug developers that withhold information needed to manufacture generics in a timely way once patent protection expires.
Pharmaceutical companies did heroic work in 2020 by bringing coronavirus vaccines to market fast, but predatory pricing has shadowed the industry for many years. Faster approval of generics is only a step toward a solution. But a step it is, so kudos for that.
Tightening asylum rules
In the 21st century, asylum seeking has expanded dramatically. If asylum seekers can set foot in the U.S., they gain residency and work rights, pending the slow adjudication of their asylum claims. A system of rules written to protect people fleeing state persecution now enables people to migrate by citing spousal abuse or gang violence in their country of origin.
In mid-2020, the Trump administration revised the asylum rules to return them to their original purpose. Asylum seekers who spent more than two weeks in any country en route to the United States will have to file their claim in that country. Fear of crime will no longer be deemed persecution, for asylum purposes. Claims deemed frivolous can be closed.
These changes go into effect in January 2021. They have upset many in the asylum-advocacy community. They may also save the Biden administration from a migration surge as COVID-19 abates—protecting it from another of those summertime rushes to the border that did so much damage to the Obama administration politically in 2014 and 2016.
Nearly doubling the standard tax deduction
The 2017 tax bill failed to deliver an investment boom, but it did lighten the tax load of many low-income earners, as well as simplify their life. Before the tax bill, the standard deduction for taxpayers was $6,350 for single people, $9,350 for heads of household, and $12,700 for married couples. (There was also a personal exemption of $4,050.) Beyond that protected amount, low-income taxpayers could deduct additional amounts—if they kept proper records.
The tax law swept away that need for record-keeping by lower-wage workers. And it nearly doubled the standard deduction: For income earned in 2020, single people pay no income tax on their first $12,400, heads of household on their first $18,650, and married couples on their first $24,800.
While most of the benefits of the 2017 bill were collected by the richest, this measure did a real service not only to the working poor, but to many middle-income families, who can deduct more while reporting less.
Restoring due process on campus
In 2011, the Obama administration issued new guidance to universities to guard against sexual harassment and sexual abuse. Many universities interpreted this guidance as a command to do away with due-process protections in sexual-assault cases. Many accused students lost such basic rights as knowing the charges against them. Universities often saved money by appointing the same official to investigate accusations, determine guilt, and apply punishment.
Emily Yoffe reported for The Atlantic in 2017 on the extreme unfairness universities often inflicted after the 2011 guidance. Courts agreed. Students were soon filing and winning lawsuits against universities for denying their due-process rights—by one scholar’s count, about 100 cases a year by decade’s end.
The Trump Education Department has rescinded the 2011 guidance and reaffirmed that sexual-misconduct accusations on campus must be dealt with using the same due-process rules that apply everywhere else in American society.
A space force
At the start of the nuclear era, the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force each demanded its own nuclear role.
The resulting triplication not only wasted money, but nearly toppled the world into catastrophe. The Army’s nuclear ambitions saddled the U.S. with thousands of short-range nuclear weapons that invited war planners to imagine a battlefield role for Hiroshima-style warheads. The Air Force sustained its strategic bomber force for decades after it was rendered obsolete by intercontinental missiles. The balance between land-based and sea-based missiles was driven as much by Navy–Air Force rivalry as by military rationality.
To satisfy the nuclear ambitions of the three services, the U.S. built too many warheads—risking the health of workers at nuclear facilities and creating a dangerous disposal problem once the Cold War ended.
In retrospect, the country would have done better to create a single Nuclear Force, while the Air Force, Army, Marines, and Navy continued in their conventional combat roles. That insight seems to have led the Department of Defense to create a new Space Force for national-security operations above the atmosphere. Trump’s childish enthusiasm for a deadly new toy has tended to discredit what seems like a good new idea.
Of the 2.1 million incarcerated people in the United States, fewer than 10 percent are held in the federal prison system. Yet federal prisons play a disproportionately large role in prison policy. They set trends that states follow, and suggest standards for states to emulate.
The Trump administration’s First Step prison-reform proposals were cautious, but humane. Mandatory minimum sentences will be reduced for certain drug offenses. Prisoners will more easily qualify for early release, and be closer to their home. Women in prison will also receive sanitary products free of cost—helping to end the economic exploitation of prisoners, who are often overcharged for basic necessities.
The most important benefit of the First Step program is that it offers political cover to states to embark on their own reforms. If the supposedly “tough on crime” Trump administration can endorse lighter sentences and free tampons, so can conservative state politicians.
The United States has historically been characterized by lower levels of political participation than other advanced democracies. Trump fixed that! Throughout 2020, he made clear his determination to hold on to power unless repudiated by a massive popular margin. He had won the presidency in 2016 despite losing the national popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots. Plainly an even bigger margin would be required to force him out.
The anti-Trump majority of the electorate absorbed that message and acted on it. Never in U.S. history has such a high proportion of the adult population cast a ballot. Nearly two-thirds of eligible voters—66.2 percent—turned out in 2020. The last year to come close was 1908, when 65.7 percent of those eligible voted. But in 1908, women were not eligible to vote; men qualified to vote at age 21, rather than age 18. And in much of the country, Black people were effectively ineligible, too.
The 66 percent of 1908 was achieved when a U.S. population of 88.7 million cast 14.9 million votes. The 66 percent of 2020 was achieved by a population of 331 million casting 158 million votes. A president who sought to subvert U.S. democracy instead inspired unprecedented numbers of Americans to participate in that democracy, in order to save it from him. This was an achievement Donald Trump did not intend and surely did not want. But it was his achievement, even so.