Recapping President Donald Trump's Four Years in Office
Here are some of the most notable moments from Trump's time in the White House
Donald Trump's presidency, both revered and widely reviled, has been a nearly constant source of turmoil since it began on Jan. 20, 2017 — when narrow victories in three states brought the anti-establishment, anti-internationalist and anti-immigrant businessman and reality TV host to power.
With former Vice President Joe Biden's victory in last week's election, however, the Trump administration is now coming to an end.
The following are some of the most notable moments from Trump's time in the White House.
These include a mix of conservative tax and deregulatory achievements, a remaking of the federal judiciary, a bipartisan bill on criminal justice reform, military operations in the Middle East, sweeping anti-immigrant initiatives, unusual moves in foreign policy and history-making scandals such as impeachment and sexual abuse allegations.
The list goes on.
(... And includes hundreds of days and perhaps thousands of hours of golf.)
The Novel Coronavirus Pandemic
The novel coronavirus was a problem that plagued Trump's last year in office like no other, cratering parts of the economy and killing more than 200,000 people in the U.S. so far.
After the mysterious new pneumonia-like virus was reported in China late last year, and then a case was confirmed in the United States in late January, Trump told CNBC that month that “we have it totally under control" and "it’s going to be just fine.”
His administration spent the next nine months grappling with which stance to take on the virus, as Trump contradicted some of his health officials and openly waffled with encouraging basic public health measures. At the same time, his government struggled to roll out testing and he complained he had not received enough praise for helping develop a vaccine or providing ventilators and other support to the states.
In April, as confirmed cases first accelerated, Trump touted the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, alarming some healthcare providers and scientists who note that the unproven remedy's side-effects could be serious.
"What do I know? I'm not a doctor," he said, adding "What do you have to lose?"
He also spoke of using ultraviolet light inside the body to treat the disease and mused to reporters that an injection of disinfectant might kill it.
"I see the disinfectant that knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning?" he said at a briefing in late April.
When audio emerged showing he knowingly lied to the public about the threat of the virus, Trump said it was to avoid "panic."
As the election drew nearer, he continued to downplay the virus that has taken a complex psychological toll on the country — different parts grief, isolation, exhaustion from isolation and stress alongside the uncertainty and enervation of life in a public health crisis without a cure.
After being infected and hospitalized with the virus in early October, Trump told the country: "Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life."
But his critics charged that, rather than encouraging courage, he was urging others to be careless and ignore simple preventative measures like mask-wearing and social distancing during daily life.
He suggested that if people did become ill, they would receive the same world-class treatment and experimental therapies he did.
Trump bolstered the Republican-backed majority of the Supreme Court — with the key support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for whom judicial appointments are a priority — by appointing Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett to replace Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, respectively.
The Kavanaugh nomination caused an uproar as he defended himself in public hearings against accusations of sexual assault while the nomination of Coney Barrett just weeks before the election, following Ginsburg's death in September — was unprecedented.
Trump has also left his mark on the federal judiciary, appointing 25 percent of America's federal judges, according to a Brookings Institute judiciary expert, reports The New York Times.
Predicting a judge's future rulings based on their political support can be confounding, and history readily presents examples of judges who surprised both their critics and supporters.
What is clear is that the federal courts will have sway on some of the largest social issues of the day, including gay rights, abortion access and healthcare reform. And the highest court now has a notable number of "originalist" judges who prefer to interpret the Constitution as it was intended centuries ago.
Stoking Racial Unrest and Attacking People of Color
The president inflamed one of his largest controversies in 2017, in an episode rival Joe Biden would later often cite as the reason he challenged Trump.
After a 32-year-old woman was killed by a car driven into a group of peaceful counter-protestors gathered to oppose a "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, Trump waited two days to condemn those white supremacists who were in attendance
“I think there is blame on both sides,” Trump said in August.
“You had some very bad people in that group," he said, referring to the original rally attendees. "But you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
Trump has regularly hesitated to denounce white supremacists.
During the first presidential debate, when Trump was asked if he condemns white supremacy, he said this regarding the Proud Boys, a far-right nationalist roup with a record of violent confrontations: "Proud Boys — stand back and stand by. But I'll tell you what, somebody's got to do something about antifa and the left."
Forty eight hours later, he condemned white supremacist groups.
Critics cite his attitude toward race — and what they say is his support of far-right groups — as a factor in stoking racial divisions and hostility as well as a rise in anti-semitism across the U.S.
In the summer, as massive demonstrations across the country erupted over the death of George Floyd, Trump falsely portrayed the majority of anti-racist protests as violent. He also welcomed the physical dispersal of peaceful protestors outside the White House to clear a way for him to have a photo-op at a nearby church.
The president also has a history of personally denigrating non-white lawmakers who oppose him, including telling a group of progressive women representatives to "go back" to their home countries, though all of them are citizens.
He likewise criticized the late Rep. John Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement, to focus more on his "crime infested" congressional district, which includes much of Atlanta.
Middle East Deals Toward Peace with Israel
In 2017, Trump promised to create peace between Israel and the Palestinians, declaring the task was "not as difficult as people have thought over the years," according to The Washington Post.
However, the peace plan crafted by his son-in-law Jared Kushner and revealed earlier this year has "all but disappeared," the Post reported in October.
Instead, the Trump administration did succeed in normalizing relations between Israel and three Arab states — a related but by no means decisive move toward the as-yet-unrealized goal of peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Some observers said this was a reflection of shifting priorities in the region, with more and more countries more focused on countering Iran than Israel.
Two of the countries — the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — have not been involved in armed conflict with Israel. The third country, Sudan, was involved with the 1967 Arab-Israeli war but since then has "engaged in under the table arrangements with Israel for years," reports the Post.
The Space Force
Trump signed Space Force — the first new U.S. military branch in over 70 years — into law in late December of last year. (The subject soon became a Netflix series starring Steve Carell.)
“When it comes to defending America, it is not nearly enough to merely have an American presence in space,” Trump said when he called on the Pentagon to begin work on establishing Space Force. “We must have an American dominance in space.”
Trump's Tax Secrets
Trump is the only president in decades to not release his tax returns, insisting he has to wait until he is no longer under audit (though there is no law stating this). Critics say this prevents the public from knowing what ties, if any, Trump's businesses might have to foreign countries.
Nonetheless, some of his tax information has become public through leaks. A recent Times report analyzing Trump's tax information showed that the self-proclaimed billionaire paid a total of $750 in federal income taxes in both 2016 and 2017 thanks to a nearly $10 million tax credit partially connected to a hotel project in Washington, D.C.
Though the Times report did not cover 2018 and 2019 tax filings, the paper analyzed 18 years' worth of tax returns for Trump, 74, and his businesses going back to 2000, finding that he paid zero income taxes in 10 of those years.
According to the paper, it was “largely because he reported losing much more money than he made.”
The Times found that, according to the Trump tax info it obtained, he “racks up chronic losses that he aggressively employs to avoid paying taxes” despite his millions in income and assets.
Trump promptly dismissed the report as ″totally fake news."
Misinformation, Misstatements and Lies
Trump, more than any other modern president, has repeatedly spouted false and/or misleading claims — a total of 22,247 times through Aug. 27, according to the Post's fact-checking team.
He has a particular penchant for hyperbole and for lying about his losses — including his election loss to Biden, which he has alleged was rigged, despite not providing proof.
The most often repeated of Trump's falsehoods, repeated 407 times, according to the Post: "Within three short years, we built the strongest economy in the history of the world....In a new term as president, we will again build the greatest economy in history."
Another oft-repeated falsehood (101 times, according to the Post): “We will always and very strongly protect patients with preexisting conditions. And that is a pledge from the entire Republican Party.”
As the newspaper's fact-checking team writes: "This could hardly be more false .... Trump took office and immediately began trying to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, and now, his administration is asking the Supreme Court to strike down the entire law, including the preexisting condition coverage guarantee. Trump has not offered a replacement plan, despite promising one since days before taking office in 2017."
Sexual Assault Allegations
During the 2016 presidential campaign, over a dozen women — including former PEOPLE writer Natasha Stoynoff — said Trump had sexually assaulted or harassed them, allegations he has denied with claims the women are lying.
In June of 2019, another bombshell of an accusation dropped when the the noted advice columnist E. Jean Carroll accused Trump of raping her in a New York City department store dressing room in the 1990s. After denying Carroll's story, Trump said: "I'll say it with great respect, No. 1, she's not my type" and he accused her of lying.
Carroll has since sued Trump for libel.
Another woman, Amy Dorris, came forward in September, accusing Trump of shoving his tongue down her throat in 1997. Trump, through his lawyers, denied the accusation.
And last year, former Trump campaign staffer Alva Johnson claimed in court papers that he forcibly kissed her in Florida in August 2016 — an allegation the White House dismissed as “absurd on its face.”
Trump, despite touting a record on the LGBTQ community largely to do with gay rights, has a record that shows otherwise, including campaigning as an anti-gay marriage candidate and targeting transgender people.
The Trump administration has stripped protections for the LGBTQ community that include erasing Obamacare provisions protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in health care and banning transgender people from serving in the military.
“Every year since 2017, we’ve seen an uptick in discrimination and violence,” Alphonso David of the Human Rights Campaign previously told Rolling Stone. “Donald Trump and Mike Pence have really been fueling the flame and perpetuating stigma and discrimination. That leads to violence. We are on track to have more transgender people killed in this country than any other year since we’ve been tracking the numbers.”
The most powerful climate change skeptic in the country — if not the world — Trump has repeatedly dismissed the scientific consensus about what is happening to the world and the role played by human society. Instead, he has said his focus is more narrow: on ensuring clean air and water.
However, since he took office, Trump and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have reversed some 100 protections meant to clean the air, shield water from pollution, curb toxic chemicals, protect wildlife and fight climate change.
Criminal Justice Reform
In 2018, Trump signed the First Step Act, which lowered federal prison sentences for some nonviolent offenders and ended the shackling of pregnant prisoners, among other reforms.
Kim Kardashian and Jared Kushner advocated for its passage with Trump and the measure was a lone bit of bipartisanship for his administration, which largely advanced more controversial policy changes such as his limits on immigration.
While the president relished the work of prison reform, he has been skeptical of other changes to the criminal justice system.
He has called for increasing penalties for anyone who assaults a police officer, reports NPR, and continuing to require people charged with a crime to post bail or remain jailed until trial. (Critics of cash bail, except in cases of imminent violence or flight, say it places an undue burden on suspects in poverty.)
The president's anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric was notorious during the 2016 campaign. But it wasn't all just talk: Soon after taking office, Trump banned immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries — though his administration had to revise the policy under court pressure.
In 2018, border officials along with federal prosecutors enacted and then reversed a widely denounced "zero tolerance" policy of criminally prosecuting migrants who illegally cross the southern border rather than referring their cases to immigration court.
The policy's most prominent change was to separate parents and their children. The reports of the conditions in which the children were held fueled the international backlash to the policy.
(In a related, infamous episode, First Lady Melania Trump visited some of the detained children while wearing a jacket with "I Really Don't Care Do U?" on it, which she maintained was a jab at the press.)
While the courts in 2018 ordered the government to work with outside attorneys to try and reunite all of the separated families, lawyers in the case said in late 2020 that hundreds of the kids had still not been able to locate their parents.
Trump has argued immigration, both legal and illegal, must be reduced to ensure American jobs and America's safety. Critics call that a thin veil for prejudice not rooted in reality.
The Campaign Against ISIS
Trump campaigned as a different kind of Republican when it came to the Middle East, particularly compared with former President George W. Bush.
Once in the White House, Trump pushed to return American troops home — sometimes over objections of his generals, who said he was moving too hastily and could create more destabilization. He also inherited ongoing military operations against the terror group Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group's leader, killed himself after being cornered during a 2019 raid by U.S. commandos in north-western Syria, American authorities have said.
al-Baghdadi had a $25 million bounty on his head and had been pursued by the U.S. and its allies since the emergence of ISIS as an international threat six years ago.
While ISIS has been pushed out of much of the territory it took over during earlier campaigns, it has not been wholly eradicated, despite what the president says.
“Islamic State remains flush with cash despite setbacks in the past year, holding financial reserves and a range of revenue streams that U.S. and Western security officials warn could pay for a dangerous resurgence,” The Wall Street Journal reported in September.
Elsewhere in his presidency, in January, Trump ordered an airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
America blames Soleimani for the deaths of hundreds of service-members, describing him as a notorious operative of Iran's security forces and a key behind-the-scenes force in Middle Eastern violence.
The Russia Investigation
For two years, special counsel Robert Mueller investigated Russian meddling in the 2016 election — including interference with the electoral process, possible coordination between Trump associates and Russians and possible financial crimes committed by his associates.
When the investigation wrapped up in 2019, Mueller's report said that “the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion” to try and help Trump.
The report also found efforts by Trump campaign officials to obscure contacts with Russians and that the campaign was "receptive" to offerings of help from them.
Mueller's team also found 10 episodes where Trump may have obstructed justice, including times when Trump made demands to interfere with the investigation but his aides blocked him. However, Mueller declined to make a judgment on whether Trump committed the crime of obstruction, citing difficult underlying legal questions.
Mueller said he did not establish that there was collusion or a conspiracy between Russia and Trump.
The Russian government has denied that it has interfered in U.S. elections, which contradicts the assessment of America's intelligence officials.
The FBI was already investigating the Trump campaign's ties to Russia when he was elected — creating an unusual dynamic, which Trump only fed further, about how he would work with the historically neutral law enforcement agencies he oversaw.
Shortly after his inauguration, Trump insisted during a private conversation with then- FBI director James Comey that Comey pledge loyalty to him, but Comey refused, according to the Times.
Trump later fired Comey, triggering then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint Mueller as special counsel to investigate Trump's alleged obstruction of justice. (Jeff Sessions, then serving as attorney general, had already recused himself from involvement — drawing Trump's eternal ire.)
Comey was the first in a long line of now former Trump administration officials whom Trump perceived as disloyal to him and ousted. That group includes now-former Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, former Attorney General Sesssions and Alexander Vindman, the former national security official who testified at Trump's impeachment trial.
In a history-making vote in December, the House of Representatives impeached Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress in connection with his Ukraine scandal — forcing the president to stand trial in the Senate in January.
Trump, who has adamantly denied wrongdoing despite testimony otherwise, was only the third president in United States history to be impeached, after Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton.
By a vote of 230 to 197 (and one present vote), the House’s Democratic majority overcame Republican resistance in the minority for the abuse of power charge. And by a vote of 229 to 198 (with one present vote), the House voted for the obstruction of Congress charge.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said impeachment was the House’s constitutional obligation after Trump allegedly pressured Ukraine to investigate his political rivals.
Investigators said President Trump withheld some $400 million in military aid from Ukraine while he pushed Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to dig into former Vice President Biden and Biden’s family as well as probe a conspiracy theory about the 2016 election.
Trump’s behavior toward Ukraine — which he insists was “perfect” — became public following an anonymous whistleblower complaint within the federal government.
Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, mounted a shifting series of defenses of President Trump including that Ukraine’s government was not aware of the withheld aid and so could not have been acting under pressure. Other lawmakers, including Trump, have maintained he was acting to root out corruption in Ukraine and, as president, has a broad mandate in conducting relationships with foreign governments.
Many conservative lawmakers said they were reluctant to proceed with a case against Trump, contending his impeachment amounts to a revenge scheme by liberals following the 2016 election.
In his Senate trial, Trump was acquitted by the Republican majority save for one vote from Republican Sen. Mitt Romney to convict Trump on abuse of power.
Trade Deals Reworked
One of Trump's signature "promises kept," in his words, has to do with trade — repeatedly arguing on the 2016 campaign trail that the country's trade deals were disadvantageous.
Within his first few days in office, Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and began a trade war with China by putting tariffs on numerous imports (though that left American consumers, not China, paying for these taxes in many cases).
In January, he signed a replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
An independent commission assessed that the new law would add 176,000 jobs over six years, according to the Associated Press, and it included multiple pro-American revisions.
The USMCA became a key Trump administration achievement, though the AP described it as not "a revolutionary change" in the context of the country's overall economy and established trade patterns.
Trump's use of tariffs were another strategy he has pursued.
The Tax Foundation estimates that the administration's "imposition of tariffs and along with retaliatory actions taken by our trading partners, will reduce economic output, income, and employment."
The Trump administration has imposed $80 billion in new taxes on Americans in the form of tariffs on thousands of products, according to The Tax Foundation, "which is equivalent to one of the largest tax increases in decades (the 17th largest tax increase as a share of GDP since 1940)."
An early Trump law, the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — passed with significant Republican support in Congress — reduced the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent beginning in 2018, which substantially reduced the tax burden on business investment and boosted after-tax earnings, according to Market Watch.
“This is the capper [of the year],” Trump said at a signing event in 2017.
"Workers benefit. Wages go up. More jobs occur," then-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said on Today.
While the law initially lowered taxes for most Americans, it has built-in, automatic tax increases every two years that begin in 2021 so that by 2027 almost everyone, except the country's top earners, would be facing a higher tax rate, according to Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Columbia University professor and Nobel laureate in economics.
"All taxpayer income groups with incomes of $75,000 and under — that’s about 65 percent of taxpayers — will face a higher tax rate in 2027 than in 2019," he wrote earlier this year in the Times.
What remains to be seen is whether such cuts would be extended, as past tax cuts have been.
A Repeated, Failed Push to Repeal Obamacare
Since the Affordable Care Act's passage more than a decade ago, Republicans have tried to repeal and replace the healthcare reform law, better known as Obamacare.
While conservatives have been united in their disdain for Barack Obama's signature domestic policy, they have never agreed on the best alternative, which has frustrated their legislative efforts .
Almost as soon as he took office, Trump attempted — and failed — to overturn the Affordable Care Act, when Republican Sens. Susan Collins, John McCain and Lisa Murkowski cast deciding votes against the most recent effort.
Separately, however, Trump and Congress did remove part of the ACA via a tax law: the individual mandate, which penalized Americans (with some exceptions) who did not have health insurance.
When Democrats gained a majority in the House of Representatives following the 2018 midterm elections, legislative efforts to strike down the ACA virtually came to an end. However, the Trump administration and Republican attorneys general have argued before the Supreme Court that the law should be tossed out because the individual mandate had been effectively voided.
Justices seemed skeptical to that argument, with some signaling they were more inclined to simply "sever" the mandate from the other text rather than take the more drastic step of overturning all of it.
A ruling has not been issued.
Striking down the ACA would mean about 20 million people would lose their insurance, advocates say. The law also includes widely popular reforms such as protections for those with pre-existing health conditions.
A self-described skeptic of the international order in which the U.S. anchors allied groups like NATO — while, in Trump's words, other countries abuse the U.S.' largesse — the president has at times butted heads with friendly countries while praising some of the world's most notorious authoritarians.
The gains from this have been unclear, though the Trump administration has argued his approach is in keeping with his promise to throw out the old way of doing things.
In his first year in office, Trump antagonized North Korea's leader by saying the U.S. will show the country "fire and fury" if it continued testing missiles, rhetoric leading to a crisis that threatened all-out war, NBC News reported.
But in the spring of 2018, Trump accepted an invitation from Kim to meet face to face, which he accepted; Kim also "wooed" Trump with "love letters," according to The Washington Post.
Unconventional as Trump's approach was, it has not seemed to have brought North Korea closer to America's goal of permanent denuclearization and peace on the Korean peninsula.
As the Post reported in September:
"The result, two years after the start of Trump’s unconventional peace overture, is a North Korea that U.S. officials say is better armed, with a growing nuclear arsenal scattered across a network of bunkers newly hardened against a potential U.S. airstrike."
Trump developed another bond with Russian President Vladimir Putin. During their 2018 summit meeting in Helsinki, Trump shocked many in the diplomatic and intelligence communities when he accepted Putin's word — contradicted by evidence — that Russia didn't interfere with the 2016 election. (Trump sees the case for interference as delegitimizing his win over Hillary Clinton.)
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said at the time.
Sen. McCain called it "one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory."