Every December, The Atlantic looks back on the previous year—to highlight not just the big moments, but the progression of big ideas. Below, the last of four installments looks at Donald Trump’s first year as president.
On the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration—following his “stunning upset” in the 2016 presidential election—Molly Ball welcomed readers to the Trump presidency: “He enters the White House as determined as ever to divide and conquer, to punish his enemies, to do things his way and sideline the enforcers of the old order,” she wrote. Indeed, over the course of 2017, Trump would prove himself no ordinary president.
Ronald Brownstein argued that Trump’s inauguration speech, which was “combative” and reflected disdain for established political norms, “offered a definition of his presidency.” But it was the size of his inauguration crowd that became a focal point of the event, setting up a clash between the administration and the media—and leading top Trump aide Kellyanne Conway to famously coin the term “alternative facts.” Shortly after taking office, Trump signed an executive order that severely restricted immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, igniting protests across the country. He also instituted what Garrett Epps dubbed a “Sloppy, Unconstitutional Order on ‘Sanctuary Cities’” and called for the the construction of a border wall. Priscilla Alvarez argued that the executive orders illustrated how Trump was changing immigration enforcement.
After a tumultuous few weeks, in which acting Attorney General Sally Yates notified the White House that National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn had misled the FBI, Flynn stepped down from his post. In March, then-FBI Director James Comey confirmed that the bureau was investigating the Trump campaign’s links to the Kremlin, weeks after an intelligence report found that Russian hackers had intended to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Trump. Trump later alleged that President Obama had wiretapped him prior to the election: an effort to divert attention from his own administration, Peter Beinart wagered.
Trump’s Cabinet nominees were also garnering scrutiny: McKay Coppins called them a “motley, freewheeling crew of lieutenants and loyalists.” Alia Wong explained why America was playing close attention to Betsy DeVos’s nomination for education secretary. And when Trump appointed Rex Tillerson to serve as secretary of state, questions about the former ExxonMobil CEO’s ties to foreign governments surfaced. Tillerson and Trump would later clash over how to handle foreign-policy issues—and Eliot A. Cohen would dub Tillerson “The Worst Secretary of State in Living Memory.” Meanwhile, the significant number of retired generals in Trump’s Cabinet was at least providing “one of the few constraints” on the president, David A. Graham argued.
That Trump’s first address to Congress was “a subdued speech, even a little staid,” as Russell Berman qualified it, meant that “Republicans loved it all the more.” But lawmakers sought more direction on complicated policy measures like health care and tax reform.
House Republicans made their first legislative priority repealing and replacing Obamacare. Despite Trump trying to sell the plan with “gusto,” as Michelle Cottle reported, it eventually failed. David A. Graham wrote that when it did, the president “issued a crisp, definitive verdict: I didn’t do it.”
After a few months in office, Trump appeared to be learning that “Being President Is Hard,” wrote Michelle Cottle. It was clear that an “Education of Donald J. Trump” was necessary, especially after he told reporters he “never realized how big” the government was.
At the 100-day mark of Trump’s presidency, David A. Graham found that the president had “completed few of the items” on his long list of campaign promises, but noted that Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch for the U.S. Supreme Court was a “notable” accomplishment. Julian E. Zelizer and Morton Keller, meanwhile, argued that a president shouldn’t be graded on his first 100 days.
Trump’s firing of Comey in May was a pivotal moment. The White House claimed the reason for firing Comey was his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, but David Frum didn’t buy it. (When he later testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey said, “I was fired because of the Russia investigation.”) Adrienne LaFrance talked to historians, who said that while the moment was extraordinary, it was also reminiscent of at least one other—Richard Nixon’s dismissal of special prosecutor Archibald Cox during the Watergate scandal. The firing only fueled questions about alleged collusion between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein soon appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel in the Russia investigation. Then, in July, Donald Trump Jr. released an email exchange showing that during the 2016 presidential election, he arranged a meeting with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer, who claimed to have potentially damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Those in Trump’s inner circle maintained that the campaign team had done nothing wrong.
The end of the summer saw a dizzying deluge of shake-ups in the Trump administration, perhaps confirming what John Dickerson had claimed earlier in the year: “Donald Trump Is an Impossible Boss.” When Trump appointed Anthony Scaramucci to take on the communications director role in July, Press Secretary Sean Spicer promptly resigned. But Scaramucci only lasted 10 days in office, until John Kelly—who had just replaced Reince Priebus as chief of staff—fired him. Soon Steve Bannon, Trump’s “dark angel,” was on the outs, too. Trump was also taking to Twitter to criticize Jeff Sessions, his “beleaguered” attorney general. Instability in the West Wing and ongoing feuding made for what David A. Graham called “Trump’s Worst Week Yet.”
In August, Trump was criticized for his response to the deadly protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, by congressional Republicans and prominent business executives alike. After his first public remarks on the incident, Elaine Godfrey explained that his speech was revealing in what it left out. And when the president made another statement two days later, Rosie Gray argued that, by saying there were “some very fine people on both sides,” Trump had made his message clear: He was defending white nationalists.
On policy issues, Trump often passed the buck to Congress to get things done—including creating a legislative fix to DACA, which he had ended, negotiating a replacement for the Iran Deal, and paying out Obamacare subsidies. In regard to foreign policy, Trump promised he would inflict “fire and fury” on North Korea, which Uri Friedman found “stunning for several reasons.”
A slew of natural disasters served as yet another test for the new president. David A. Graham wrote that Hurricane Harvey exposed “Trump’s Empathy Deficit,” while James Fallows argued that Trump’s Twitter attacks on San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz in the wake of Hurricane Maria was “a significant step downward for him.”
Trump was getting combative in other arenas, too. After football star Colin Kaepernick—and then many others—knelt during the national anthem in protest, Trump began a “War of Words With Black Athletes”—an example of what Derek Thompson argued was the “Depressing Politicization of Everything.”
Trump’s “Unforced Error” in making claims about how his predecessors handled consoling Gold Star families and his attack of a grieving widow left his administration scrambling to try to cover up his mistakes, Taylor Hosking and I reported.
In The Atlantic’s October issue, writers assessed the administration: Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that Trump was “The First White President”; Jack Smith wrote that Trump was “testing the institution of the presidency unlike any of his 43 predecessors”; and Eliot A. Cohen explained how the new president was ruining America’s global standing.
By late fall, Mueller had made his first charges in the Russia investigation against former campaign aides Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, and George Papadopoulos. Flynn would later plead guilty to lying to the FBI. And Democrats’ big victories in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections—and later the Alabama Senate special election—would deliver a blow to Republicans. “We are in a Trump-driven worst-case situation now,” a Republican strategist told Ronald Brownstein.
The president’s inconsistent response to sexual-harassment claims against men on Capitol Hill—criticizing Democratic Senator Al Franken but endorsing Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore—also renewed questions about his own history.
Despite the many twists and turns of Trump’s first year in office, it may be that “Trump Has Quietly Accomplished More Than It Appears” in 2017. I reported on Trump’s unprecedented move in shrinking two national monuments made by predecessors, and Alex Wagner argued that “Trump’s Most Lasting Legacy” will be his appointment of young, conservative judges to America’s courts. When Julian E. Zelizer graded the president, though, he noted that Trump is still failing to pass legislation, garner broad public support, and—most essentially—uphold the presidency as an institution.
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