President Trump’s first year in office came to an end in much the same way it began: marred by uncertainty and chaos inside the White House, as Washington stood paralyzed wondering what comes next.
This time, however, it was not the prospect of a reality TV star taking control of the engines of power that frightened the nation’s capital on the eve of Jan. 20. It was the prospect of those engines screeching to a halt when the federal government partially shut down on the one-year anniversary of Trump taking the oath of office.
The 48 hours leading up to Trump’s milestone sent White House aides and D.C. denizens scrambling. In many ways, both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue were mirroring patterns late Thursday and Friday that could easily characterize all 363 preceding days. The president took his ridicule of the “fake news” media to new heights, endured a semi-public rift with a top aide over the Southwest border wall, and contradicted his own staff via Twitter about which spending bill he backed, forcing White House hands to spend half a day clearing up confusion that thrust another layer of chaos onto Capitol Hill.
For better or worse, many things changed during Trump’s first year in office. The president wooed lawmakers in both parties, inviting them to dinner and Oval Office meetings at a frequency not seen during the Obama years. Presidential tweets moved markets and blew up legislative negotiations. Long-standing trade deals were undone or rewritten, international agreements, like the Paris climate accord, were subject to U.S withdrawal, and new sanctions were leveled against North Korea, Russia, Venezuela, and Iran. Corporate tax rates were slashed, and the economy benefited from a resurgence of American manufacturing and domestic investment. Illegal border crossings reached a 45-year low.
But Trump’s inaugural year also ushered in uncomfortable conversations about race, culture and the dignity of the office he now occupies. The specter of Russian collusion haunted the White House from the days of the transition, and a series of high-level departures added to the sense of disorder that so often shrouded the West Wing. For all the conservative victories Trump notched in Year One, he also pushed the boundaries of political discourse and controversy in ways that often eclipsed the populist agenda that put him in the Oval Office.
Through conversations with policymakers, party leaders, and current and former White House officials, the Washington Examiner identified four areas where the 45th president has left his greatest mark after one year in office, and gauged his plans for the year ahead.
For the better half of his first year in office, a major legislative victory seemed less and less likely for Trump. It wasn’t until last fall, on the heels of congressional Republicans’ humiliating failure to repeal Obamacare, that the president first looked like he might reclaim a fruitless legislative year.
“The biggest mistake he made was leading off with healthcare without a good plan,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a leading Republican voice in the repeal and replace debate.
But that mistake may have helped the White House push tax reform over the finish line, when the time came for Republicans to turn their attention away from healthcare. Many GOP lawmakers were so dejected and concerned about facing their constituents that a new sense of urgency consumed them.
Though he faults his colleagues for the months-long healthcare debacle, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said the situation may have haunted Republicans so much so that they took resolute action to chip away at Obamacare using tax reform. “I really saw the failure to repeal Obamacare as being just a Republican senator and Republican Congress problem, not a presidential problem necessarily,” he told the Washington Examiner.
“But I would also say that it’s been underreported what a big deal it was for conservatives to get repeal of the individual mandate stuck on the tax bill.”
To be sure, passing tax reform was no easy feat for the president. Amid the back-and-forth with various Republican factions and disagreements over which loopholes to keep and which to eliminate, the administration was still dealing with the massive responsibility of overseeing disaster relief operations in three states — Texas, Florida, and California — not including Puerto Rico.
“I think the White House has had a lot to deal with in this first year,” said Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel. “To deploy resources to Houston, and to be in Florida, and to be prepared at the level they need to be prepared, I’m sure there are things that had to have been learned so quickly in each of those scenarios.”
Despite those challenges, the Trump administration also made progress on a handful of agenda items that did not require action on Capitol Hill. At the president’s direction, Cabinet and executive-level agencies pursued the most ambitious regulatory rollback since Ronald Reagan. With input and guidance from conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and Federalist Society, Trump successfully appointed a new Supreme Court Justice, 12 appellate court judges and several low-court nominees.
And after a lengthy battle with the courts, he checked off another major campaign promise by halting immigration to the U.S. from seven countries with troublesome records on terror. That came only after a botched rollout of the so-called travel ban, after which Homeland Security officials admitted they had not been consulted on the policy beforehand.
“We didn't have a list of validators, talking points. There was no rollout plan. We knew it was coming out; we just didn't know what the specifics were,” said one former White House official. “Part of the reason you go through certain interagency processes is so certain people can go through and make sure what the hurdles are, and that process had never existed.”
First-term presidents have historically feared a sophomore slump at the outset of their second year in office, and Trump is no different. His administration hinted at tackling entitlement reform, and is expected to unveil a long-awaited state and local infrastructure plan later this month.
But the hurdles already faced by Republicans and the White House, while they aim to pass a budget deal and strike an agreement on immigration reform, have already dissuaded them from pursuing a lofty agenda in year two. And allies of the administration are warning Trump to be careful with his plans in 2018.
“I wouldn’t touch entitlements,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a close friend of the president, recently told reporters. “There’s zero reason to pick a fight on any of those in an election year.”
Reshaping the GOP
The party that fought mightily to block Trump from becoming its standard-bearer just two years ago has, in many ways, bent to his will since Inauguration Day. In others, the GOP has resisted Trump's efforts to remake the party in his image.
Trump has empowered immigration hawks within his party to ascend to prominence as he brought into the mainstream the hardline immigration policies that had languished on the margins of the GOP for years.
He has amplified protectionist voices in his party when it comes to trade, popularizing opposition to the kinds of free trade deals that once appealed to Republican leaders.
And he has continued his fight since taking office to transform the GOP into a party for workers and blue collar whites who felt left behind, in yet another break from the Republican leaders who preceded him.
Republicans have even begun to embrace Trump’s bombastic mannerisms in ways big and small. For example, Republican National Committee communiques frequently blast Trump’s foes with nicknames — such as the recent “Derogatory Cory” epithet the RNC applied to Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. — that mirror the style with which Trump attacks his own enemies.
And although Trump’s approval rating has hovered near historic lows for much of his first year in office, his unpopularity has yet to smother support for the party he leads.
“President Trump has been a benefit to the RNC, especially when it comes to our small-dollar fundraising,” said McDaniel. “One thing that we’ve never seen wane throughout this year is the engagement of his base and their support for the RNC, especially to help him keep those majorities in 2018. And it has been historic — the amount of low-dollar fundraising that we’ve had — because of the popularity of President Trump with those voters who put him in office.”
While Republicans have adapted to the president’s populist platform in some areas, they have often recoiled from his conduct. That dynamic has left the party doing more soul-searching about what it stands for in the age of Trump than perhaps Republicans thought they would be doing a year into holding all three branches of government.
Perhaps nowhere was that tension more evident than the special election to fill the Alabama Senate seat vacated by then-Sen. Jeff Sessions when he became attorney general. After a bitter Republican primary last fall that saw the Trump-backed candidate lose, the party reluctantly began to accept Roy Moore, a controversial firebrand, as its nominee in the race.
But after Moore’s candidacy collapsed amid a sexual misconduct scandal, most of the national party abandoned him in disgust. It was just former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon — and, ultimately, Trump himself — who demonstrated a willingness to stick by the anti-establishment candidate even when most Republican leaders were attempting to outdo each others’ condemnation of Moore. Retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a fierce Trump critic, was caught on a hot mic in November saying that Republicans are “toast” if they “become the party of Roy Moore and Donald Trump,” a comment that gained widespread attention because it was thought to capture the private sentiments of many GOP lawmakers.
The entire episode, which ended in Moore’s defeat in December, underscored the extent to which Trump has been comfortable entertaining, and even courting, elements of the GOP that party leaders have long attempted to ignore and disavow.
Trump’s brushes with racism accusations in August, when he appeared to equate white supremacist demonstrators with those who had turned up to protest against them in Charlottesville, Va., and his alleged description of African countries as “shitholes” this month, strained his relationships with Republicans who were already uncomfortable with the political incorrectness of the president. The conflagrations also tested which, if any, of Trump’s few allies on Capitol Hill were willing to brave the airwaves to defend a president who had demonstrated little political loyalty of his own.
Critics of the White House often attributed Trump’s most controversial decisions to the clout of his nationalist aides, particularly Bannon. In fact, it was Bannon’s portrayal in popular culture as the Svengali behind Trump’s power that contributed to his ouster from the West Wing last fall.
“He had massive influence with the president,” said Sebastian Gorka, a former White House adviser who has been perceived as closely aligned with Bannon.
Bannon’s brand of politics ruffled feathers in Washington, and his plans to back primary challengers to incumbent Republicans put him between Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
When Trump publicly severed ties with Bannon earlier this month, McConnell was one of the first Republicans to celebrate openly the demise of a relationship that some Republicans had considered a liability to the party.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he did not buy into the argument that Trump had allowed himself, during his first year in office, to be manipulated by the aides around him.
“I’ve always believed that the president is his own person. I don’t believe that any of these people — everyone always says, ‘Oh this person is in control.’ I don’t think there is any control,” Manchin said in an interview. “I truly believe that President Trump is in control of his own destiny, and he’s in control of his own self, and there’s nobody else who’s going to influence that.”
The intraparty feuds that characterized Trump's first months in office have largely given way to a marriage of convenience between the president and Republicans on Capitol Hill as the party marches toward what will likely be a brutal midterm election. Trump and the GOP leaders on whom he once blamed the country's ills forged a bond during the successful tax reform fight that erased many of the wounds inflicted by the failure of healthcare last summer.
“They’re getting a little bit better,” said Graham of Trump’s relationships with Republicans on Capitol Hill. “The president is getting better at understanding the rhythm of the city. He’s new to this and he’s getting to reach out and he’s getting to know people better.”
Graham is among a handful of Republicans with whom Trump once quarreled, but who has since become an ally and even defender of the president in Congress.
Several of those who could not move past their opposition to Trump, such as Flake and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chose to forego re-election during Trump’s first year in office. Others who consistently supported the president, such as Sens. David Perdue, R-Ga., and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., found themselves elevated within the party due to their alignment with Trump.
Nobody expected the president to torch professional athletes for their social activism when he took the stage to campaign for former Alabama Sen. Luther Strange last September.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of those NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you’d say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now,’” Trump had said, as “Big Luther” stood uncomfortably somewhere off-stage.
The president’s off-the-cuff comments, at a rally that was meant to propel Strange to a victory in the GOP primary, perfectly encapsulated his magnetic attraction to cultural issues and his tendency to wade into them at the expense of longer-term political goals. Just days after Trump returned to Washington, and hours before Strange suffered a surreal defeat by the fiery former judge Moore, liberal commentator Bill Scher published an essay titled, “The Culture War President.”
“Trump has taken it upon himself to prosecute a new culture war, albeit one less obsessed with sex than race,” Scher wrote. “The man weaponizes rallies and turns tweets into grenades. If ‘social justice warriors’ rage online and TV talking heads sputter, then as far as he and his … fans are concerned: Mission Accomplished.”
The president’s fixation with political correctness, radical Islam, immigration, multiculturalism, and race informed many of his actions, staffing decisions, policy changes, and complaints during the first year of his presidency. It was, after all, his vocal disdain for cultural liberalism and left-leaning elites that often inspired his most controversial public statements or tweets.
However frustrating for those on the receiving end, allies of the administration argue that Trump’s zero-tolerance approach to people or trends that taunt his base may be a positive development for the Grand Old Party.
“I think the American people were tired of all preordained, prepackaged, poll-tested … cardboard cutout communications,” said one former White House aide. “He’s connecting with people who are not necessarily always engaged in politics, especially some who are not necessarily always engaged in Republican politics."
For journalists covering his presidency and lawmakers responding to it, it became clear within weeks of Trump taking office that he feels most at ease being at the center of the cultural battles playing out on cable news or dominating the national conversation.
Take, for instance, his criticism of Hollywood icon Meryl Streep after she excoriated the administration for shutting the country’s doors to “outsiders and foreigners” following the rollout of the president’s first travel ban. Trump didn’t defend his own executive order on policy grounds, he instead tore into the “over-rated” actress in front of his dozens of millions of Twitter followers. Or when a car rammed through those protesting a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer, the president censured “both sides” and raged over the subsequent removal of Confederate monuments from public lands in the weeks that followed.
In the culture wars, Trump has found a way to maintain loyalty among his core supporters despite failing to enact some of the major legislative items and reforms he promised to deliver during the 2016 election.
Appearing at a rally in Pennsylvania days before the first anniversary of his inauguration, the president grinned as he shared with local factory workers all he has done to prevent them and others like them from ever feeling “forgotten again.”
“Remember? The ‘deplorables,’” Trump told the crowd, relishing the nickname Hillary Clinton once assigned his politically incorrect supporters.
“We’re all deplorables,” he declared.
Trump's ascension to the presidency as a Republican who disavowed the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq and its subsequent military presence in the Middle East created uncertainty about the type of foreign policy he would conduct from the Oval Office. His "America First" outlook promised to de-emphasize the diplomatic considerations that critics say loomed large over the Obama administration's foreign policy, but his impulsiveness threatened to be an ill fit for the measured tones in which diplomacy is conducted.
And Trump's promise to pursue warmer relations with Russia at the infancy of the collusion scandal last year cast a shadow over his other foreign policy priorities, as detractors accused Trump of harboring affection for strongmen when he sought to ease tensions with countries from China to the Philippines.
"I think the president’s instincts on foreign policy are good," said Paul. "I think they’re extraordinary in the sense that they seem to be different than both Republicans and Democrats in the past. He talks about the fact that we need to put our country, and we need to look to America, first."
Trump took his "America First" message on a global tour during his first year in office, shattering expectations on certain fronts and reinforcing doubts about his leadership in others.
Trump's consistent pressure on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization increased member countries' willingness to contribute more toward their own defenses, a requirement of NATO membership that U.S. presidents had long neglected to enforce. And although Trump had raised eyebrows by calling NATO "obsolete," his speech to the body in May laid the foundations for a position toward NATO that has produced the results Trump set out to achieve.
From moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem to decimating the Islamic State's territorial gains in Iraq and Syria, Trump has delivered on many of the foreign policy promises he made on the campaign trail since taking office.
But a pair of adversarial nations have denied him foreign policy victories in two of the most volatile regions in the world. On both Iran and North Korea, Trump delayed making crucial decisions during his first year in office, guaranteeing that both will haunt his second.
Although Trump took steps in October to give Congress responsibility for the Iran nuclear deal, he stopped far short of tearing up an agreement he described in September as an "embarrassment" to the U.S. Trump had long held up the nuclear deal as the ultimate symbol of the Obama administration's weak negotiating skills and skewed priorities, but he did little to alter the substance of the agreement despite a year of opportunities to reconsider the pact.
"I think he took the right step, and it’s helped significantly move the debate within Congress and with our European partners to try and solve some of the problems that the nuclear deal created in our relationship with Iran," said Cotton, a staunch opponent of the nuclear agreement.
Cotton became one of Trump's top allies in the fall when much of his administration pushed internally for the president to recertify the deal despite his personal misgivings about it. Trump had recertified the deal when the deadline to decide its future arrived in July after privately expressing frustration with the need to put his stamp of approval on it; as the deadline approached again in October, the White House looked to find a way for Trump to avoid the same demonstration of status quo maintenance.
"I urged him to do that in July – he nearly did," Cotton said of what Trump ultimately did in the fall: declare the deal counter to U.S. national security interests and send it to Congress. "In the end, he went with the advice of some other members of his Cabinet, but he also made it clear he wouldn’t do it again in October."
But no other foreign policy problem has more significantly shaped Trump's foreign policy than North Korea's rapid advances with its nuclear weapons program this year. Tensions with Pyongyang tested Trump's unique brand of Twitter diplomacy, raised questions about whether Trump's inability to ignore a personal barb could lead the country into nuclear war and warped his administration's relationship with China.
Instead of slapping China with punishments for trade practices he has long described as unfair or labeling the country a currency manipulator, as he once vowed to do, Trump quickly cozied up to Chinese President Xi Jinping and began a months-long campaign to persuade China to isolate its aggressive neighbor.
Trump's improvised threat to rain down "fire and fury like the world has never seen" on North Korea and his habit of calling its brutal dictator, Kim Jong Un, by the nickname "Little Rocket Man" have exacerbated fears that the president's spontaneity and pettiness could lead the world into war.
While his critics had warned since the presidential race that Trump's personality could create international crises, no conflict has underscored the basis for that concern like the North Korean standoff.
And as Trump heads into his second year in office, perhaps no loose end could prove more consequential for his presidency than the coming decision point on what to do with a nuclearized North Korea.