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50 Moments That Define an Improbable Presidency

Jeffrey Goldberg

Editor in chief of The Atlantic

In an October 2016 editorial, The Atlantic wrote of Donald Trump: “He is a demagogue, a xenophobe, a sexist, a know-nothing, and a liar.” We argued that Trump “expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers, and evinces authoritarian tendencies himself.” Trump, we also noted, “is easily goaded, a poor quality for someone seeking control of America’s nuclear arsenal. He is an enemy of fact-based discourse; he is ignorant of, and indifferent to, the Constitution; he appears not to read.”

In retrospect, we may be guilty of understatement.

There was a hope, in the bewildering days following the 2016 election, that the office would temper the man—that Trump, in short, would change.

He has not changed.

This week marks the midway point of Trump’s term. Like many Americans, we sometimes find the velocity of chaos unmanageable. We find it hard to believe, for example, that we are engaged in a serious debate about whether the president of the United States is a Russian-intelligence asset. So we decided to pause for a moment and analyze 50 of the most improbable, norm-bending, and destructive incidents of this presidency to date.

Our 2016 editorial was a repudiation of Donald Trump’s character as much as it was an endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president. It was not meant to be partisan. The Atlantic’s founders promised their readers that we would be “of no party or clique.” This remains a core governing principle of the magazine today. What follows is a catalog of incidents, ranked—highly subjectively!—according to both their outlandishness and their importance. In most any previous presidency, Democratic or Republican, each moment on this list would have been unthinkable.


Donald Trump touches the magic orb

“For clarification,” the Church of Satan helpfully tweeted, “this is not a Satanic ritual.” Read More


A Cabinet officer likes private planes too much

In retrospect, this scandal almost seems quaint. Read More


The president praises the congressman who body-slammed a reporter

In Trump’s view of masculinity, cheap shots replace bravery and hostility replaces honor. Read More


An overcompensating press secretary lies about crowd size

In his inaugural appearance as White House press secretary, Sean Spicer set the tone for the next two years. Read More


Trump tells the Boy Scouts about a hot New York party

"I was doing well, so I got invited to the party," the president told thousands of teens at a jamboree. "I was very young.” Read More


A name-calling feud ends with the secretary of state’s ouster by tweet

It’s difficult to advance diplomatic goals when the president shows no qualms about publicly embracing American adversaries. Read More


The WikiLeaks president goes silent

Julian Assange and Donald Trump share enemies—and they use similarly nihilistic tactics toward similarly antidemocratic ends. Read More


The nation loses its consoler in chief

In the wake of a tragedy, a president must act as the leader of supporters and critics alike. Trump has proved incapable of this. Read More


The first president to complain about an election he won

The past two years have shown that Trump has no special affection for the democratic process. Read More


Trump waits 19 months to pick his science adviser

In this administration, empiricism is inconvenient and expertise unnecessary. Read More


The president’s most trusted adviser is his own gut

The president’s glandular instinct has become a substitute for all expertise and all nuance. Read More



Trump holds a top secret confab on the Mar-a-Lago dining terrace

The president has repeatedly proved himself a hypocrite when it comes to information security. But what about her emails? Read More


The president just wants to go home

Trump has visited fewer foreign countries than his predecessors, as American influence abroad diminishes. Read More


Trump threatens to strip security clearances from his critics

The administration may have broken precedent in more than one way. Read More


Mueller’s “witch hunt” is good at finding witches

The indictments keep coming, no matter what Trump says. Read More


Trump leads the country to the longest government shutdown in American history

And it isn’t just the longest—it’s different in another meaningful way. Read More


The chief justice of the United States corrects the president

The rare rebuke from John Roberts shows that he fears for the viability of our political system. Read More



The White House punishes a CNN reporter for asking questions

What started as a theatrical rivalry is now actively putting press freedom in jeopardy. Read More


The buck stops over there

The president loves splashy displays of military might. But when something goes wrong, he blames his generals. Read More


The president tries to kick transgender service members out of the military

Do impulsive Twitter messages from the president count as formal policy action? Read More


Trump tweets the wisdom of Mussolini

“I know who said it,” he insisted. “But what difference does it make?" Read More



Trump helps the Saudis cover up a murder

The president made it very clear what really matters to him. Read More


“We’re gonna have the cleanest air”

In withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, an indoor man rewrote the future of the Earth’s climate. Read More


The president can’t stop talking about carnage

Donald Trump’s grim view of the world was obvious from the day he was inaugurated. Read More



The UN General Assembly laughs at the president

And American allies are laughing at the whole country. Read More


Rain stops Trump from honoring the dead

Most presidents have visited and spoken at Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day. Not Trump. Read More




The president lies constantly

Americans have never seen this level of truth-bending come out of the Oval Office. Read More


Trump threatens to press his “nuclear button”

Then he tried to persuade North Korea’s dictator to abandon his weapons with a faux movie trailer. Read More



The CIA dead become a TV prop

The president’s strained relationship with the intelligence community goes back to his visit to Langley just a day after his inauguration. Read More


You know you’re in a constitutional crisis when...

The health of the republic may seem imperiled, but this is in many ways a slow-moving catastrophe. Read More


Trump mocks Christine Blasey Ford to a cheering crowd

He’s a master of reading a room—and he knows exactly how to use cultural context as a provocation. Read More


A new term enters the presidential lexicon: “shithole countries”

In insulting certain countries, Trump revealed the hierarchy he imposes on the world. Read More



“I have the absolute right to pardon myself”

Trump’s claim goes way beyond Nixon’s “I’m not a crook.” Read More



In the annals of revelatory Trump tweets, this one's the ultimate. Read More


The president calls his porn-star ex-paramour “horseface”

No other commander-in-chief has offered such direct, unfiltered access to his psyche. Read More


Trump picks the wrong countries for his travel ban

The president’s stated purpose was to keep terrorists out, but his plan has all kinds of problems. Read More


Trump declares war on black athletes

Trump is the only president in recent memory to attack players for their politics. Read More


James Comey is fired

May 9, 2017, could turn out to be the most consequential day in the history of this presidency. Read More


Putin and Trump talk without chaperones

What did Donald Trump say to Vladimir Putin when no one else could hear them? Read More


The president still hasn’t released his tax returns

He also seems to be making a lot of money outside the presidency. Read More


“Very fine people on both sides”

Trump’s response to Charlottesville reveals the core of his philosophy. Read More


Children are taken from their parents and incarcerated

To separate children from their parents is an offense against nature and civilized society. Read More


Join the conversation

Which moments from the Trump presidency would you add to this list? Email us at with the subject line "Unthinkable," and include your full name, city, and state. Or tweet using #TrumpUnthinkable.

Image Credits

Photography: Gage Skidmore (CC BY SA-2.0) / Video Footage: Reuters and AP