The Unauthorized History of the Trump Presidency (2017–2020)
By Rob Huckins
It was unusually warm for January and the sprawling, subdued crowd scattered over the expanse of territory directly in view of the man moments away from becoming the 45th President of the United States. Donald Trump’s right hand sat contentedly on a black, leather bound King James Bible while Chief Justice John Roberts recited the oath of office with more precision and sternness than his first go around eight years prior. Trump possessed the contented, satisfied smile of a man supremely of his own time, among the people by his own anointment, boasting wealth and affluence beyond what any of his flock could imagine. He had enemies among his supporters, those bitter souls who vehemently disagreed with — no, loathed him. No matter. This was not a time for indecisive men. Despite the decidedly mid-winter calendar date and stiff wind pouring across the acres of pomp and circumstance, Trump’s face boasted a bronzed, nearly golden, aura while his coif stood firm atop his head, almost daring nature to knock it askew.
Outgoing President Barack Obama sat off to the side, just behind the proceedings, along with his wife Michelle and two daughters. There were rumors of POTUS 44 ditching the whole ceremony, stories largely unfounded no matter what his personal feelings on the matter. This was the peaceful transfer of executive power, after all, untested in all the years of the republic, a tradition much larger than any one man. One wondered what Obama felt at this moment. Relief? Distress? Regret? Happiness? Surely not hope. He had seen too much over the last year for that. If not hope, then perhaps an optimistic avoidance with what he thought could never happen. Shouldn’t have happened. But it did.
Trump repeated the short, parsed language of the oath, his pressed blue suit and blindingly white shirt upholding the grandeur of the occasion, his smile now gone, replaced instead by a stern determination, one borne of a entitled purpose charted only a few short months ago under the most inexplicable circumstances in an even more inexplicable time and place. The tempest now rested here it seemed, finally stilled after months of theater and farce and everything associated with the artful dodging of truth that was modern politics. Donald Trump was President. Just like he told everyone he would be. Project Make America Great Again could commence.
The first few months of the Trump Administration unspooled on the calendar more subtly for both his supporters and detractors than anyone would have imagined. It had occasional bursts of volume and headlines but mostly it just happened, day after day, season into season until the country largely forgot what all the fuss was in the first place. This wasn’t “Hope” or “Change” or any nonsensical, opaque promise that, but rather a neutral, subdued acceptance, much like one feels when a particularly strange weather pattern passes through for a few days. The President’s main platform plank, “The Wall” bordering southern United States and northern Mexico, gradually became a nonstarter in most press briefings as the Mexican government proved resiliently opposed to paying for it while the American Congress balked at funding what would surely be the most expensive public works projects in U.S. history.
After some heated press conferences, the president let it quietly go, turning his attention instead to economic policy and employing the curious tactic of reporting economic statistics personally each week, the kind of numbers most Americans had very little use for, much less understood fully. President Trump rolled them out anyway, seemingly to prove he was both mindful and capable of processing for his citizenry, like a defiant teenage miscreant boldly proving to his family that he actually knew what he was talking about. Perhaps even more than them.
He talked about bond ratings, currency trading, monetary policy, tax codes and anything else he could cram into the unofficial allotted time for his weekly segments, presentations he put out on radio and online under the moniker “The Trump Report”. Unemployment was already quite low when he took office, a challenge for President Trump in light of his earlier declarations en route to the GOP nomination calling unemployment figures under President Obama “way off” and “ridiculously under reported” and at times “flat out wrong”. Now things appeared to be fine. At least that’s what President Trump kept saying, reinforcing he intended to “keep it that way”.
He established a quick and definitive practice of ending his press conferences abruptly and after only discussing a single subject. Never two or three. Four was a hopeless dream for any reporter. This was the Trump Way. He had a press secretary but largely relegated him to the back of the podium, hands folded in front of him, waiting. His exact purpose, then, proved a mystery since the President ably took over nearly all press events, saying pretty much all the things he said during his campaign, except in labored generalities and broad verbal brushstrokes.
During one media session just before Christmas, President Trump was hammering the press corps with more economic vocabulary, once again like a boozy party host trying to impress his guests with how much he knew, a group of people which likely thought him bright enough but simply trying too hard to prove it. President Trump blasted away, throwing terms and concepts around loosely, predicting economic trends for the next year and even beyond, promising once again to “rein in” the Chinese and their wayward currency valuing ways. “After all, we all know they need us more than we need them,” the President said on this occasion, “and let me tell you, they’ll come around. They will. Believe me.”
A reporter raised his hand. “Yeah, question?” The reporter, a young man from a prominent political blog the President’s staff clearly under-vetted said “ISIS” in the midst of his question. “You know,” the President said, “I don’t know how you got in here, I really don’t. But I can tell you, I’m tired of talking about what I think of ISIS over and over. We know it, you know it. Everyone knows it. They’re losers. Worse than that, they’re horrible, horrible people. Killers. We all know it. They know it. We’re going to beat them. No question. We will defeat them in droves in a way never before seen in warfare. They’re done. Cooked. It’s that simple. It really, truly is. Now, I have meeting to tend to. Good day, ladies and gentlemen.” With that, the President left the stage with a curt wave and tight smile before heading off to the Oval Office. Project Make America Great Again rolled onward.
In some ways, President Trump’s first year in office felt much like one figured New York Yankees fans felt the morning after The Boston Red Sox won the 2004 World Series. Alright, that was rough. Never thought it would happen. But here we are. Let’s get some coffee, go to work and get back to living life. Next year. There’s always next year. And just like that, everyone returned to their lives. Press conference after press conference, the president continued with his message. Nobody was bombed, not even ISIS. Reports of the economy trickled in, slowly, to the point most paid little attention to them as they went about their lives.
Vice President Mike Pence clumsily made the rounds on policy matters President Trump knew were important but didn’t really care enough to go out of the White House to discuss in any great detail. Rumors of the disgraced Chris Christie taking over as his top lieutenant were rampant, especially the more Pence bungled the few tasks he was given. Despite his missteps, Pence remained a single failed Trump heartbeat away from being President. Christie stories persisted through to the next summer. But Trump took that possibility head on at every opportunity (“No way in hell Christie’s ever getting past Air Force Two. Are you serious? No way. I am telling you that will not happen”).
All Trump’s appointments worked this way, as he corralled people of his political ilk to very public positions and then used them as foils, like has-been celebrity hacks acting as participants in his old show “The Apprentice”. Sarah Palin was made head of Homeland Security. Ben Carson inexplicably became Labor Secretary. He plucked former Maine governor Paul LePage for Commerce. And so on and so on it went for most of the first few months and into the next year, when the Washington D.C. trees turned orange, then shed their leaves and snow fell before melting into spring once again in the nation’s capital, a city the President strangely claimed would eventually cede its position to New York City (“I mean, seriously. D.C.? Over New York. Come on. We’ll change that”).
Congress stemmed any momentum on this initiative through back channels to avoid utter embarrassment. The President quietly offered cabinet posts to GOP luminaries and former foes, like Marco Rubio (refused), John Boehner (no way) and even Lindsey Graham (no way in hell) but all declined, content to remain where they were at the moment the Trump presidency began. Back in their home states, happy to be out of the growing mess.
The lull couldn’t keep everything at bay, especially considering the types of issues and fissures pushing at the seams of a presidency as already stale as it was originally refreshing, kind of an anti-Obama version of Hope and Change, Trump style. The economy slipped into a recession by Year Two of the Trump presidency. Nothing big, the president promised. A bump in the road.
Things abroad didn’t go much smoother for the president, as Iraq and the surrounding region festered with the embers of war created two administrations prior. Despite his claims to defeat ISIS, the Iraqi government struggled mightily to stem the tide of the reduced but still dangerous terrorist organization. Trump promised to “take care” of Afghanistan for good, going so far as to draft an “announcement” of policy he promised “would make Bush’s Surge policy look like a trip to the grocery store”. Russia made eerie statements regarding Ukraine, and China, perhaps sensing disunity, began talking about Taiwan again. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), called “a Cold War hand-me-down” by President Trump earlier, began organizing to prepare for an American exit. The President seemed to encourage NATO member countries to square off against the U.S., as the president made repeated claims of its inefficiency and lack of relevance.
Congress, in what appeared to be its pattern so far during the Trump administration, quietly worked to counter the president’s policy statements. Bills were crafted to avert any executive exit from NATO and other international organizations. Trade bills were drafted as a precautionary move to avert President Trump’s possible knifing of established trade agreements. The grinding machinery of government, so often slow to keep pace with modern society’s changing dynamic, was prepared to move swiftly to counter any of the chief executive’s ill-advised decisions. Some conservative members of the House quietly began voicing concern over the president’s clumsy approach to the world economy, a move which forged a surprised albeit temporary alliance with more moderate members of Congress who as a general rule favored free trade.
When it came to foreign policy, President Trump appeared overmatched, allowing calls for a new isolationism to weigh down any practical attempts to maintain international ties to dubious, but important, foreign powers. ISIS, despite being dealt several huge blows both on the field and financially, persisted to grow even more brutal and desperate, seemingly oozing out of the gaps left with more gratuitous attacks and purposeful targeting. The president held more news conferences, promising to “gut” the remaining ISIS cells while getting “our troops back home”, claims which barely moved the needle in President Trump’s polling. Perhaps the country had low expectations thus any news of the president’s policy was greeted with suspicion if not outright disbelief.
By the third year of the Trump Administration it became clear the man himself was overseeing a period of governmental gridlock unlike any seen in recent memory. The midterm elections saw a wave of Democrats take office as new governors and members of Congress. Trump refused to campaign for any GOP hopefuls, remembering sharply the lack of support they offered him when campaigning on his own years earlier.
Congress girded itself to ward off any significant initiative President Trump had in mind or actually proposed to Congress, which was rare because like past presidents, Trump possessed the power of the bully pulpit, a tool built for important and choice occasions where nothing else legislatively really worked but in Trump’s hands it became mundane and the equivalent of crying wolf one too many times to be believed. So Trump’s initiatives withered and died on the legislative vine, enjoying quiet deaths each week, each month, each year until it became clear Trump would perform some small miracle if he were to get elected again.
No justice on the Supreme Court dared retire even though one or two appeared to even defy death to ensure they got through the president’s four year term firmly on the bench so as not to give the man a chance at extending his legacy even further with a nominee. Resignations began piling up, slowly and quietly at first, a slow trickle of defiance of Trump’s vision for governance until the end of the third year when Vice President Pence tendered his resignation due to personal scandal involving accepting gifts and suppression of evidence dating back to his gubernatorial campaign in Indiana. His replacement was Senator Rubio from Florida, an odd but reasonably safe choice given the bizarre and chaotic tenure of the Trump presidency thus far. So surprised were Rubio supporters that rumors circulated feverishly of his secret Machiavellian plan to supplant his superior in the White House by way of sabotage from the inside, a plan according to sources was sure to be an imminent removal from office or resignation on the part of President Trump. Wild stuff, to be sure, but not entirely without merit in what history would show to be three of the strangest years ever seen during a Presidential term.
In what ended up an extension of establishment Republican outrage at President Trump managing to muscle his way to the GOP nomination four years earlier, the party announced the convention would be contested and “up in the air” this time out, barely a few weeks after Mr. Trump announced he would seek reelection in 2020, surprising pundits and citizens alike, a move so self absorbed, so out of touch with the national pulse of America it had to be simple hubris, the kind which only can occur in the truly the most sociopathic and narcissistic of people. Perhaps Mr. Trump was this person. He would fight again, four years after beating the establishment at their own game.
But there would be no such run this time. Mr. Trump announced his candidacy for the GOP nomination for the job he already held in strange and anticlimactic fashion, posting his intentions online in a video produced by a trusted family associate, a questionable move in retrospect given the showmanship demanded by the president in previous cycles. There was little fuss over the announcement, even by those who supported him in 2016.
Perhaps Mr. Trump overplayed his hand, some speculated. Others went further, claiming his hand was always overplayed but few were willing to ante up this time around. The GOP, perhaps determined to avoid the utter embarrassment of hand-wringing in allowing the president to effectively hijack their party four years earlier, circled the wagons, bringing their brand of conservatism up to speed with the times as best they could.
Concessions were made, platforms tinkered with, speeches laced with traces of mea culpa permeated throughout the circuit, all in hopes of making it clear the incumbent was not the choice this time. Insiders secretly urged the party to get “younger and darker” this time out, scouring the ranks for a more diverse body of representatives to put the nail in the Trump political coffin for good.
President Trump got more desperate, even berating one news outlet to have him come on for an uninterrupted two hours to make his case. Ratings were decent at the start but tuckered out by the midway point of the program. It was a nadir of sorts for a man used to always having his way, the same management style which ruled his own myopic world of commerce and strong armed deals but doomed him from the start in the political world, his thin skin causing him to react to any comment or criticism with flailing desperation, swinging his clenched, tired fists in any direction he could muster, connecting listlessly with the lowest of oppositional hanging fruit while the true prize, the highest goal of making a mark was left untouched. The man was, it seemed, an utter and unremarkable failure after all.
The Trump Presidency came in as a fresh and brash windstorm of possibilities, the outsider of outsiders making his way to the highest perch by the will of a small but determined electorate that outlasted a poor and largely untrusted field of candidates. It was not a hollow victory per se, but one that seemed more fitting for a paper tiger rather than a lion.
The Republican National Convention began in Los Angeles during a particularly dry week in July, smack in the middle of one of the worst water crises in state history. President Trump had little to offer to solve this problem, either, instead vainly attempting to draw attention to his damaged candidacy, one faced with an onslaught of younger and more virile candidates, two men and one woman who appeared unimpressed with his boisterous and now foolish posturing and head shakes and immature gestures, the cheap parlor tricks that once worked so well. Worse, the opposition appeared to feel sorry for the old man in a way, eager to beat down this political Frankenstein with one fell swoop and then get to the serious business of picking the next Great Republican Hope.
As the delegates cast their votes, the din in the Staples Center grew louder and more urgent, as if warding off an ill advised wardrobe choice from earlier years, an outfit made when the peer pressure of political adolescence ruled the day. Those days were over. The delegates trumpeted their choice, state by state, until finally it was over. President Trump left before the second day of the convention was over, somber and buried in Secret Service protection, a detail boasting more members sworn to his protection than even President Obama enjoyed. The king was leaving the building for the last time, the party of the future behind him, reveling not simply in his defeat but in the promise of a new beginning.
President Trump resigned from office within a month of the convention, his carefully prepared speech soon turning into a rambling mess of an address that mentioned every meager policy goal he had when he took office and the reasons why he never lived up to these promises. The game was rigged, he said. The media hammered him, he told the audience. Who in the hell could run a country with those low-lifes on his back all the time? His family flanked him the entire time, their faces looking downward or off to the side slightly, supporting their father and husband but wondering how this all happened. So much promise, now gone. Would anyone even remember their father — her husband — was president once?
Vice President Rubio took office immediately, promising to help create a smooth transition for the next occupant of the White House, small hands be damned. It would not be him but he knew that coming in. He was done, too, another victim of Hurricane Trump. One political writer noted Trump’s time in office was not a solar flare at all but more an uninvited growth in your otherwise peaceful and crowded garden, an invasive species that took over before you had a chance to resist, forcing the strongest occupants to simply ignore it in hopes of seasonal death but finally yielding to the reality that only decisive action would end its reign. The earth would be here whether humans were or not. Such was the way of nature. Our political system, with all its inequities and failings, would also survive this climate shift. The sands would settle, the waters would rise and fall, storms would come and go until finally, the sun would come out to offer some measure of temporary relief. And so the cycle would repeat.