How Donald Trump Went from Political Joke to President-Elect

Trump faced off against nearly a dozen more-seasoned politicians, and, one-by-one, eliminated his GOP opposition to clinch the party's nomination

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

What a difference a year makes.

When Donald Trump first announced his intention to run for president last July, the announcement was met with snickers. The billionaire businessman was then best known for his popular reality TV show, a feud with President Obama over the leader’s birth certificate and previous, unfulfilled promises to vie for the White House.

Yet, Trump faced off against nearly a dozen more-seasoned politicians, and, one-by-one, eliminated his GOP opposition to clinch the party’s nomination just over a year after his initial declaration of candidacy.

Now, he’s President-Elect of the United States.

So how’d he do it? Here’s a timeline of the crucial and key moments in Trump’s campaign, leading up to the day he locked in the Republican nomination.

July 16, 2015:

Trump officially announced his candidacy for president of the United States in a speech given from Trump Tower in New York City. In the speech, he made comments about being “really rich” and first introduced his plans to build a “great wall” on the U.S.-Mexico border. He also referred to most Mexicans as “rapists” and “morally corrupt” losers.

The announcement was met with mockery at the hands of late night hosts, including Stephen Colbert, who declared in a satirical clip, “This will be the finest, most luxurious gold-plated, diamond-encrusted campaign that will give hope to a weary nation until together we reach that fine fall day when the new season of Celebrity Apprentice premieres.”

Soon after Trump’s first campaign speech, Univision — the largest Spanish-language broadcaster in America — canceled its telecast of the Miss USA pageant, which the businessman owned. NBC then followed suit.

Aug. 6, 2015:

During the first GOP debate in Cleveland, Ohio, Trump attracted boos when he said he wouldn’t pledge to support whoever won the party’s nomination.

“I cannot say I have to respect the person that — if it’s not me — the person that wins. I can totally make that pledge if I’m the nominee. … [But] I will not make the pledge at this time,” he said.

Other debate participants included Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, and John Kasich.

Following the debate, Trump lashed out at moderator Megyn Kelly for questioning him about past derogatory comments toward women, saying, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.” The mogul was subsequently uninvited to a gathering of major conservative figures that month.

Aug. 26, 2015:

By late August, Trump had made significant gains on Clinton in the polls, trailing only by six points — up 10 from the month before. Trump was then leading the GOP pack.

Sept. 3, 2015:

Despite taking an initial strong stance against doing so, Trump caved in September and signed a loyalty pledge binding him to forgo a third-party bid for president and endorse the eventual GOP nominee.

Trump signed the agreement with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a town hall event Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015, in Rochester, N.H.
Robert F. Bukaty/AP

Sept. 16, 2015:

Joining the 11 other GOP candidates for the second Republican debate, Trump focused on character attacks against Rand Paul and Carly Fiorina.

Charged Trump, “First of all, Rand Paul shouldn’t even be on this stage. He’s number 11, he’s got one percent in the polls, and how he got up here -– there’s far too many people up here anyway.”

Sept. 17, 2015:

During a town hall, Trump did not correct a questioner who asserted that President Obama is Muslim and “not American.”

Trump’s then-campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, later told CNN that Trump didn’t hear the part of the man’s question that was about Obama being Muslim.

Sept. 21, 2015:

Trump unveiled his tax plan from Trump Tower, promising that he would “shift the burden” to wealthy families. Of his plan, Trump said, “If you’re single and earn less than $25,000 per year, or married and jointly earn less than $50,000, you’ll not pay any income tax. Nothing.”

The businessman promised to “simplify the tax code” and “grow the economy at a level that it hasn’t been for decades.”

Trump said the plan was born out of collaboration with top economists and tax experts. He also said the plan would entail that, “no business of any size, from a fortune 500 company to a mom-and-pop shop to a freelancer living from gig to gig, will pay more than 15 percent of their business income in taxes.”

Sept. 30, 2015:

During a campaign speech in New Hampshire, Trump said that he would deport refugees of the four-year Syrian war.

“They could be ISIS,” he said. “This could be one of the great tactical ploys of all time. A 200,000-man army maybe, or if you said 50,000 or 80,000 or 100,000, we got problems and that could be possible. I don’t know that it is, but it could be possible so they’re going back — they’re going back.”

Oct. 27, 2015:

Trump polled behind opponent Carson in two national and two Iowa surveys taken in late Oct. of last year. Of the news, he conceded, “It’s certainly a possibility that I won’t make it.”

Nov. 7, 2015:

As the host of Saturday Night Live, Trump danced to Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” and fake live-tweeted a sketch.

The episode gave the long-running series its best ratings in four years: an impressive 6.6.

Nov. 10, 2015:

At the fourth major GOP debate in Milwaukee, Trump went on the offensive after vowing to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Nov. 20, 2015:

In a 20/20 interview with Barbara Walters, Trump slammed then-opponent Cruz’s insinuation that only Christian refugees can be brought into the U.S., doubling down on his initial promise to deport any of those displaced.

“The problem is we don’t know if they are Christian are not. I would certainly say that would be superior,” Trump said. “But we don’t know if they are Christian are not. We have no idea who these people are. They have no papers, they have no paperwork. You can get forged documents very easily in Syria.”

That week, he further told NBC News that he would support creating a mandatory database to track Muslims in the United States.

Dec. 2, 2015

A Quinnipiac poll released in early December showed Trump with the lead among Republican candidates, taking 27 percent of the vote with Rubio in second, trailing 10 points behind.

Dec. 9, 2015

Trump’s lead in the polls remained steadfast: by December, he was up an incredible 13 points since October, nabbing 30 percent of the Republican vote. Cruz followed Trump with 16 percent, and Carson came in third with 13 percent.

Dec. 14, 2015

After facing pressure from Clinton and other Democrats, Trump released a letter from his longtime physician in mid-December about his health.

In the letter, Trump’s doctor said that his patient’s blood pressure and lab results are “astonishingly excellent” and his “physical strength and stamina are extraordinary.”

Wrote the doctor, “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”

During that same time period, Trump’s rallies begin to gain a dangerous reputation. During a Dec. 14 rally in Las Vegas, Black Lives Matter protesters received death threats from Trump supporters and were forcefully escorted out by security.

As one protester was dragged out of the event, supporters in the crowd reportedly yelled, “Shoot him,” “Kick his ass” and “Sieg heil,” a Nazi salute, NBC News reported.

Dec. 15, 2015

Ahead of the fifth and final GOP debate of 2015 — held in Las Vegas — Trump had dropped in the polls, falling behind Cruz.

During the debate, Trump defended his proposed Muslim ban and touted his Mexico wall once again, explaining, “our country is out of control.”

Trump sparred with Bush, who spat, “You’re never going to be president of the United States by insulting your way to the presidency.”

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Dec. 17, 2015

Trump scored a public endorsement from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said he would “welcome” the businessman as president.

In response, Trump issued a statement to PEOPLE, saying, “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.”

“I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect,” he added.

Jan. 14, 2016

The seven remaining GOP candidates met up for the first time in 2016 on Jan. 14, and much time was spent on Trump’s claim that Cruz may not have been eligible to be president because he was born in Canada.

Slamming the claim, Cruz later offered Trump the vice presidency should he be named the GOP’s candidate. He said, “If this all works out, I’m happy to consider naming you as vice president. So if you happen to be right, you could get the top job at the end of the day.”

Trump replied, “I like that. But I think I’d go back to building buildings if it doesn’t work out.”

Jan. 19, 2016

Trump earned another endorsement in early January — from former V.P. nominee and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

At a rally in Ames, Iowa, Palin said of Trump, “He’s going rogue left and right! That’s why he’s doing so well.”

Immediately following, Palin hopped on the campaign trail with Trump.

Jan. 23, 2016

Once again at the front of the GOP pack, Trump proudly declared, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”

Praising his supporters, Trump noted, “My people are so smart, and you know what else they say about my people, the polls? They say I have the most loyal people.”

Jan. 26, 2016

Trump pulled out of a Republican debate after learning that enemy Megyn Kelly would be the moderator. He told CNN, “If I think I’m going to be treated unfairly, I’ll do something else.”

Instead, he hosted a fundraising event for veterans in Iowa during when the debate was airing. Trump, himself pledged to donate $7 million to vets — a promise he followed through on four months later.

Even though Trump didn’t attend the debate, the other Republican candidates dedicated much of their podium time to their absent opponent.

Said Cruz, “Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way, I want to thank everyone here for showing the men and women of Iowa the respect to show up and make the case why each of us believe we would make the best commander-in-chief.”

Courtesy Donald Trump

Feb. 1, 2016

Cruz prevailed over Trump in the Iowa Republican caucuses on Feb. 1, winning 28 percent of the vote with 1,681 precincts reporting. Trump took 24 percent of the vote, and Rubio 23.

In a speech to his supporters, Trump said, “We finished second and I want to tell you something: I’m just honored, I’m really honored. And I want to congratulate Ted [Cruz] and congratulate all of the incredible candidates. We’re just so happy with the way everything worked out.”

The results also lead Gov. Mike Huckabee to officially suspend his campaign.

Trump later blamed his decision to skip the GOP debate for the loss, explaining, “I think some people were disappointed I didn’t go in the debate.” Soon his stance changed, though: “Ted Cruz didn’t win Iowa, he stole it,” Trump later tweeted.

“That is why all of the polls were so wrong and why he got far more votes than anticipated. Bad,” he claimed.

Feb. 9, 2016

The businessman was back on top after the New Hampshire Republican primary, which he won with 34.4 percent of the vote. John Kasich took second with 16.2 percent.

Feb. 13, 2016

Before the South Carolina GOP Debate, Trump was up 16 to 19 percentage points over Cruz.

In the debate, Trump and Bush sparred over Middle East policy after the tycoon said the U.S. should work with Russia to destroy ISIS in Syria.

Feb. 18, 2016

A holy fail: Trump was on the receiving end of scathing remarks from Pope Francis, who called Trump’s refugee deportation and Mexico wall plans signs that the mogul “is not Christian.”

The Pope said, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the gospel.”

In response, Trump said, “No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.”

Trump later reneged on his comments, telling Anderson Cooper instead that the Pope is a “wonderful guy.”

Feb. 24, 2016

Trump took home 44.6 percent of the vote in the Nevada caucus, with Rubio trailing in second with just 24.6 percent.

Said Trump after his victory, “We’re winning, winning, winning the country, and soon the country’s going to start winning, winning, winning.”

Statewide polls leading up to the caucuses showed Trump with an impressive double-digit lead over both Cruz and Rubio. Those polled said they thought Trump would do the best job of all the candidates at handling the economy, illegal immigration, foreign policy, ISIS and social policies such as abortion and LGBT issues.

Feb. 25, 2016

In the first GOP debate with Jeb Bush no longer in the running, Trump directed his zingers at leaders of the past, including John Kerry and Mitt Romney.

Of Romney’s 2012 bid for the White House he charged, “He ran one terrible campaign, that’s an election that should have been won.”

Feb. 26, 2016

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie first announced his support for Trump in late February, telling reporters at a Texas press conference that, “There was no choice in my mind. This is the only guy on that stage –- other than Gov. Kasich –- who has made executive decisions, who understands how to put together budgets.”

Christie, who had suspended his own campaign in January, said, “He is strong enough to take on the D.C. establishment. I have absolute confidence in his ability to get in there and fix the problems.”

March 1, 2016

Super Tuesday left Trump feeling “awfully good” — the GOP nominee claimed wins in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Virginia and Vermont. Cruz took his home state of Texas, as well as Oklahoma, while Rubio took Minnesota.

Cruz used his victories as an opportunity to call on Rubio, Kasich and Carson to end their campaigns and join him in defeating Trump.

He charged, “So long as the field remains divided, Donald Trump’s path to the nomination remains more likely and that would be a disaster for Republicans, for conservatives and for the nation.”

Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

March 3, 2016

In what was certainly a debate first, Trump got fired up and defensive over comments about the size of one of his body parts (that body part).

During the eleventh GOP debate of the 2016 election in Detroit, Michigan, Trump said, “I guarantee you, there’s no problem” in retaliation to Rubio’s jabs about his hand size.

Two days later, on March 5, Trump won the Republican contests for Louisiana and Kentucky, bringing his delegate total to 378 over Cruz’s 295.

On March 8, Trump continued his reign as the party’s frontrunner, nabbing victories in both Mississippi and Michigan.

March 11, 2016

The final four Republican candidates — Trump, Rubio, Cruz and Kasich — focused on issues like immigration, Social Security and trade and tariffs during the March Miami GOP debate.

Soon after, fallen competitor Carson formally endorsed Trump, saying in a press conference, “He’s actually a very intelligent man who cares deeply about America. There’s two different Donald Trump. There’s the one you see on stage and the one that’s very cerebral, sits there and considers things very carefully.”

He said his decision to endorse Trump came after several prayers and “a lot of indications” to do so from friends who told him they’ve had dreams about him and the presidential hopeful.

March 13, 2016

On March 13, Trump lost out on two major primary contests, ceding Washington, D.C., to Rubio and Wyoming to Cruz.

Despite the losses, Trump was still clearly the frontrunner with 460 delegates. Cruz trailed with a total of 369 delegates, while Rubio held 163 and Kasich 63.

March 15, 2016

On Super Tuesday 2, Trump took wins in Florida, North Carolina and Illinois.

Kasich won his home state of Ohio. After losing Florida and all of its 99 delegates to Trump, the state’s Sen. Rubio dropped out of the race.

“While this may not have been the year for a hopeful and optimistic message about our future, I still remain hopeful and optimistic about America,” said Rubio in his concession speech. “While it is not God’s plan that I be president in 2016 or maybe ever, and while today my campaign is suspended, the fact that I’ve even come this far is evidence of how special America truly is.”

After the victories, an expert told PEOPLE that Trump was virtually unstoppable.

“I think he’s going to be the nominee, and I rather think he’ll be the president,” GOP consultant Jean Card, a former Bush administration official said at the time. She added, “My gut really tells me that, in terms of momentum and public sentiment, I see him being unstoppable.”

Still, Trump was at odds with his own party and warned of a contested Republican convention, “I think you’d have riots.”

The candidate told CNN that if he didn’t “automatically” get the nomination it “would be very bad for the [Republican] party.”

March 22, 2016

On Western Tuesday, Trump picked up 58 delegates in the winner-take-all, registered Republican contest in Arizona, where he earned 46 percent of total support. He did lose Idaho, however, to Sen. Cruz, who claimed 20 delegates in the state’s primary.

At that point, Trump was still leading the pack of GOP hopefuls, with 739 total delegates.

March 29, 2016

During the Republican CNN Presidential Town Hall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Trump rescinded his promise to support whomever won the party nomination. Specifically, he noted of Cruz, “Let me just tell you, he doesn’t have to support me. I have tremendous support right now from the people. I’m way over two million votes more than him. I have many, many, more delegates than him.”

He further explained his stance to GMA the next morning, saying that he wanted “to see who the GOP nominee” was before backing them.

On March 30, Trump repeatedly said he was “pro-life,” and when asked to describe how he thought a potential abortion ban should be legally enforced, he said the “answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.”

Shortly after Trump’s interview aired, his campaign released a statement clarifying his position: “If Congress were to pass legislation making abortion illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban abortion under state and federal law, the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman. The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb.”

April 5, 2016

Cruz nabbed Wisconsin in the state’s April primary, taking 52 percent of the vote and all 24 of the delegates up for grabs. The win allowed Cruz to gain on Trump, reaching 505 delegates to the latter’s 737.

Fearing a contested convention, Trump turned his attention to Kasich, calling on the Ohio governor to drop out.

“At a certain point in life, you say, ‘I’m 1 in 32’ and you do what Marco did — which was great — and you do what Rand Paul did and you do what a lot of them did and you get out,” said Trump.

At that point, Trump needed to secure 57 percent of remaining delegates to win the nomination before the RNC started on July 18.

“Before Wisconsin there was a 50-50 chance of a contested convention. After Wisconsin it is 80 percent,” ABC News chief political analyst Matthew Dowd told PEOPLE at the time. “Chances are now low for Trump to get a majority of delegates through the primary process. Right now I would say Trump finalizes the process in June with a little over 1,100 delegates, with at least a 300-delegate lead over Cruz. And my guess is his best vote number is on the first ballot. He could still win the first ballot if he is able to wrangle enough unpledged delegates. But that is dicey.”

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April 19, 2016

Trump won his home state of New York’s primary on April 16, but still complained about the delegate selection system, which he dubbed “rigged.”

Lamented Trump from his Midtown Manhattan headquarters, “Nobody should be given delegates, which is a ticket to victory, and it’s not a fair ticket. And even though we’re leading by a lot and we can’t be caught — it’s impossible to catch us — nobody should take delegates and claim victory unless they get those delegates with voters and voting, and that’s what’s going to happen. Because the people aren’t going to stand for it. It’s a crooked system, it’s a system that’s rigged, and we’re gonna go back to the old way. It’s called, ‘You vote and you win.’ ”

Shortly after, Kasich and Cruz publicly joined together to keep Trump from winning the nomination. Kasich agreed to give Cruz a “clear path” to victory in the winner-take-all contest in Indiana, and, in return, the latter promised to concede Oregon and New Mexico to the Ohio governor.

The men planned to use their strategy to keep Trump from nabbing the necessary 1,237 delegates to lock the Republican nomination.

In response, Trump took to Twitter, writing, “Wow, just announced that Lyin’ Ted and Kasich are going to collude in order to keep me from getting the Republican nomination. DESPERATION!”

April 26, 2016

Despite his opponents’ plan, Trump soon cemented his lead in the critical Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island primaries on April 26. Trump earned the majority of the 172 delegates at stake, sweeping all five states.

“I consider myself the presumptive nominee, absolutely,” Trump said in his victory speech, adding that his two remaining rivals, Cruz and Kasich, should immediately drop out.

Despite it all, though, two-thirds of voters said they disapproved of the billionaire businessman, according to Real Clear Politics.

May 1, 2016

During a speech in Fort Wayne, Indiana, ahead of the state’s primaries, Trump charged, “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country.”

Trump said that America’s “$500 billion trade deficit” with China can be turned around, telling the crowd “we have the cards.”

Shortly after losing the state to Trump, Cruz dropped out of the race, admitting that he no longer had a “viable path to victory.”

Cruz charged, though, “I am not suspending our fight for liberty. I am suspending our fight to defend the constitution; to defend the Judeo-Christian values that built America.”

With Cruz out of the race, Trump was named the presumptive nominee by Priebus. However, Kasich did not announce the end of his campaign, instead switching his focus to a win at a contested convention.

Yet, one day later, Kasich formally dropped out.

May 11, 2016

Trump backtracked on his planned Muslims ban, instead telling Fox News in a May interview that the move would only be “temporary.”

He explained, “It hasn’t been called for yet. Nobody’s done it. This is just a suggestion until we find out what’s going on.”

The next day, Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan met face-to-face on Capitol Hill, vowing to unite to defeat Clinton, despite past jabs.

Ryan declined to all-out endorse Trump, however, telling CNN after the sit-down that he needed more time: “To pretend we are unified without actually unifying means we go into the fall at half-strength. This election is too important to go into an election at half-strength.”

May 18, 2016

Both Trump and Clinton released their 2015 personal finances in May, revealing a noticeably large difference between their paychecks.

Trump claimed that his annual income was more than $557 million — not including dividends, interest, capital gains, rents or royalties. Clinton, on the other hand, earned around $1.5 million in paid speeches last year.

The Trump campaign’s statement further said that the businessman had seen a revenue increase of $190 million dollars year over year, and cited his net worth as “in excess” of $10 billion dollars.

May 23, 2016

In a May poll from the Washington Post and ABC News, Trump was favored 46 percent to Clinton’s 44 percent.

The results marked an 11-point change for the businessman since March alone.

Donald Trump
AP Photo/Jim Cole

June 15, 2016

Republican leaders were quick to distance themselves from Trump after the candidate made anti-Muslim comments in the wake of the shooting at an Orlando nightclub that left 49 dead.

Speaker Ryan denounced the presumptive GOP nominee’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to answer questions about Trump at his weekly news conference.

The Republican exodus led to weakened support in the polls: a June Washington Post-ABC News survey showed that 70 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of Trump, including a 56 percent majority who felt that way “strongly.” Further, another poll found Clinton leading him by 12 points.

In response, Trump told his GOP critics to “be quiet,” threatening to go it alone.

“We have to have our Republicans either stick together or let me just do it by myself. I’ll do very well. I’m going to do very well. Okay? I’m going to do very well. A lot of people thought I should do that anyway, but I’ll just do it very nicely by myself,” he said.

July 8, 2016

In a July tweet, Trump unveiled that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence would be his vice presidential running mate.

Pence also served in the U.S. House for 12 years and had first endorsed Cruz for the party’s candidate ahead of the May 3 Indiana primary where Trump essentially locked the nomination.

July 19, 2016

Closing out the Republican National Convention, Trump was awarded the final delegates needed to reach the mandatory 1,237 minimum and officially claimed his position as the party’s presidential candidate.

On Twitter, Trump celebrated his victory, writing, “Such a great honor to be the Republican Nominee for President of the United States. I will work hard and never let you down! AMERICA FIRST.”

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