‘A wild 12 months’: Trump’s tumultuous second year

US President Donald Trump. It was has been a wild 12 months in the White House.Credit:Bloomberg

Here is a look back at the highs and the lows of a wild twelve months in the White House.


During the first year of his administration, Trump's economic advisers managed to restrain him from implementing the protectionist policies he promised during the 2016 election campaign. But this year Trump broke free and announced a raft of new tariffs aimed to stop America being "ripped off" by other countries, especially China.

In March Trump announced a new 25 per cent tariff on foreign-made steel and a 10 per cent tariff on foreign aluminum. The decision was made on supposed national security grounds, which allowed Trump to bypass Congress. Australia and Argentina were the only countries to be granted long-term exemptions from the tariffs. The new imposts triggered retaliatory tariffs from Canada, the European Union and China on US goods such as soybeans, pork, whisky and motorcycles – an action apparently aimed squarely at Trump's "base" voters.

But Trump was just getting started. In July he announced a 25 per cent tariff on $US34 billion of Chinese exports; in August he announced a second round of China tariffs on $US16 billion worth of goods. In September he announced a 10 per cent tariff on $US200 billion worth of goods and threatened to more than double this if China retaliated.

By the end of the year, however, it appeared both sides were looking for a way out. China exports far more to the US than it imports and has basically run out of options for retaliatory tariffs. And Trump would dearly love to declare victory and provide evidence of his much-hyped reputation as a dealmaker.

At the G20 summit earlier this month Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to a temporary ceasefire and set the clock ticking to strike a comprehensive trade agreement by March.

US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands at the beginning of a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki in July.Credit:AP

While the Singapore meeting with Kim was an initial PR success for Trump, his one-on-one encounter with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July was a catastrophe.  Coming just days after Robert Mueller issued indictments against Russian intelligence officers for interfering in the US elections, Trump appeared to kow-tow to Putin at their joint press conference. His performance drew immediate criticism from senior Republicans like John McCain who called it "one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory".

Trump followed up with a half-baked backdown.

Throughout the year Trump antagonised America's traditional allies. He took a swipe at Theresa May during a visit to the UK and attacked German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He called Canadian Prime minister Justin Trudeau “dishonest” and “weak”.

Trump did cling tightly to one ally: Saudi Arabia. After the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Turkey, Trump said that the US would remain a “steadfast partner” of the Saudis.

The economy

In July Trump said: “We’ve accomplished an economic turnaround of historic proportions.” The claim may be hyperbolic, but there is no doubt the US economy performed strongly this year. The unemployment rate currently sits at 3.7 per cent, a 49-year low. In June, black unemployment hit a record low of 5.9 per cent. Hispanic unemployment also hit a record low that same month.

In the most recent quarter, economic growth was at a solid 3.5 per cent, following an impressive 4.2 per cent growth pace in the second quarter. Wages also rose by 2.9 percent from September 2017 to September 2018, although for many workers most of the gains were wiped out by rising prices.

However as the year ends, the economic situation is looking less rosy than it did a few months ago. US stock markets initially surged after Trump's victory, disproving fears that he would crash the economy. But the volatility caused by his trade war with China eventually began to spook investors. Markets plummeted this month, with the Dow Jones and S&P 500 recording their worst December performance since the Great Depression.

And while manufacturing jobs have boomed under Trump there has been some recent bad news. At the end of November iconic car manufacturer General Motors announced it would cut almost 15,000 jobs. Many of these are located in the American midwest – the area that delivered Trump his 2016 election victory.

The investigations

The year began with two big questions swirling around Trump. Was there collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election? And did Trump seek to obstruct the FBI investigation into Russian interference? At the end of 2018 these questions still remain unanswered. Despite regular predictions that his inquiry is about to wrap up, special counsel Robert Mueller continues it, quietly and methodically. So far, Mueller has indicted or obtained guilty pleas from 33 people. Trump continues to slam it as a "witch hunt" and a "hoax".

In a plot twist, the most damaging scandal to hit Trump this year had nothing to do with Russia. Instead, it concerned hush-money payments made during the 2016 election to stop two women going public about alleged affairs with Trump. Prosecutors argued these payments amounted to illegal campaign finance violations because they were undisclosed at the time and were intended to help Trump's election chances. Earlier this month Michael Cohen, Trump's former lawyer and fixer, was sentenced to three years in prison for arranging the payments (as well as other crimes). Cohen said Trump directed him to make the payments, thereby implicating him directly in a crime. The spectacular development led to serious speculation about whether Trump could be headed for jail when he leaves office.

Michael Cohen, former personal lawyer to US President Donald Trump, was sentenced to three years in jail in December. Credit:Bloomberg

Cohen also pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow that lasted well into the 2016 election.

Meanwhile, Trump's former campaign chair Paul Manafort has been convicted of eight counts of tax and bank fraud and has pleaded guilty to conspiracy against the US and conspiracy to obstruct justice. He will be sentenced in the new year. So will Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his interactions with Russian officials during the transition period.

Mueller is expected to file more Russia-related indictments in the new year, including against longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi, who seemed to have had advance knowledge that WikiLeaks obtained emails from Hillary Clinton's campaign.

Firing and hiring

Trump's first year in the White House saw more departures than any administration in at least the 40 previous years. Among the senior officials who did not even last a year: chief strategist Steve Bannon, chief-of-staff Reince Priebus, press secretary Sean Spicer and national security advisor Michael Flynn.

The exodus continued this year: six cabinet-level officials, the heads of several important agencies and another chief-of-staff were either sacked or resigned from the Trump administration in 2018.

Rex Tillerson left Donald Trump’s White House earlier this year.Credit:AP

The first major departure came in March when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (the equivalent of Australia's foreign affairs minister) left the building. Trump hired Tillerson, the former head of oil giant Exxon Mobil, because of his business reputation. The pair had never met before Trump's election victory and it turned out they had none of the personal chemistry that Trump prizes. Tillerson famously called Trump a "moron" and resisted his signature foreign policy moves like shifting the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal.

Tillerson was replaced by then CIA director Mike Pompeo, who has a strong relationship with the president and has so far been free of scandal.

Following Tillerson out the door was national security adviser H.R McMaster. The decorated military veteran didn't gel with Trump either. He gave long, detail-filled briefings that Trump found boring and condescending. He was replaced by the hawkish John Bolton, one of the leading advocates of the war in Iraq.

Donald Trump sacked US attorney-general Jeff Sessions the day after the midterm elections.Credit:Bloomberg

Gary Cohn, the Director of Trump's National Economic Council, left the White House in April. Cohn was always a strange fit for the Trump administration: he was a registered Democrat whose free market views conflicted with Trump's populist approach to economics. Cohn tried to stop Trump from imposing tariffs but when he lost that internal battle he packed up his rucksack.

The day after the November midterm elections Trump did something he had been itching to do for months: he sacked Jeff Sessions, his attorney-general. Sessions had been the first sitting senator to endorse Trump as a presidential candidate and shared his tough-on-immigration views. But Trump never forgave him for recusing himself from the investigation into Russian election meddling. Trump wanted his attorney-general to act as a personal protector rather than an impartial official.

Trump has nominated William Barr, who served as attorney-general during the George H.W Bush administration, as Sessions' permanent replacement.Earlier this month Trump announced that his chief-of-staff John Kelly would leave the crucial role early in the new year. Kelly was praised for bringing more order to the White House but his relationship with Trump, who loathes being managed, soon grew frosty.

And on Thursday night Washington time Trump suddenly lost another cabinet member when the highly respected James Mattis quit as Defence Secretary. Mattis disagreed with Trump's decision to pull US troops out of Syria and his disregard for traditional alliances.


After two years of complete Republican rule in Washington, Trump has failed to deliver his signature promise: a wall on the border with Mexico. He has also been unable to achieve other goals such as ending the diversity visa lottery and moving the US immigration system to a skills-based model similar to Australia's. In April his administration implemented a "zero-tolerance" policy at the border that produced a sharp spike in migrant children being separated from their parents. Nearly 2000 immigrant children were separated from parents during six weeks in April and May alone, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Distressing stories of children being removed from their parents sparked widespread outrage and forced the administration to soften its policy. In October the administration announced that immigrant families would be held together during the process of prosecution and deportation at the border.

The courts

Long after US presidents leave office, their influence can still be felt through the judges they appointed. Trump's undoubted highlight of the year was the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court following a divisive and emotional nomination process.  Kavanaugh was accused of attempted sexual assault while at a teenage party, but maintained he was the victim of a smear campaign. His appointment locked in a 5-4 conservative majority in the court that will have ramifications for decades to come. Trump also appointed a record number of judges to lower level courts where some of the most important legal decisions are made.

US President Donald Trump reviews border wall prototypes in San Diego in March. Credit:AP

The elections

The pivotal political moment of the year came in early November with the US midterm elections. This would be the first opportunity for most Americans to express their disapproval with Trump or their support for his policies. The midterms were universally seen as a referendum on Trump's first two years in office, a perception he encouraged at his raucous campaign rallies.

In the end, Democrats picked up 40 seats in the House of Representatives, more than enough to take back control of that chamber. The Democrats did particularly well with well-educated, suburban voters and in a worrying sign for Trump, performed strongly in the key midwestern states that will determine the 2020 presidential election.

Republicans performed better in the Senate where they won a net two seats, extending their majority in that chamber. There were worrying signs for Democrats in the perennial swing state of Florida, where they lost a Senate seat and a highly-anticipated governor contest. The results showed that while Trump is loathed in the cities, he still retains strong support in the rural, mostly-white parts of the country.

And now, for 2019

Next year could be even more dramatic. Much will hinge on the contents of Mueller's final report, which could land as early as February. Democrats will be in control of the House and will be pressured by their base to use their majority to impeach Trump. Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress will be closely watched for signs they are turning against the President. Jockeying for the 2020 presidential election will begin in earnest with dozens of  Democrats expected to put themselves forward as a potential Trump slayer. And the likelihood of Trump facing a serious primary challenge from a more moderate Republican grows by the day.

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