When Donald Trump took to the stage in the Hilton Hotel in Manhattan in the early hours of November 9th 2016, he spoke of a desire for national unity. Trump appealed to both Republicans and Democrats to leave the election in the past and move forward in the interests of the nation. In his victory speech he told the jubilant crowd gathered in the Hilton that “it is time for us to come together as one united people.” On that night a year ago Trump offered the world a glimpse of a presidency that could have been.
However, in the past year the Trump presidency has been engulfed with personal grudges, infighting and an unwillingness to get out of campaign mode and get into the mode of governing. This has been spurred by Trump’s choice to choose personal friends from his previous life in business over Washington bureaucrats to fill key administration positions. The choice of oil mogul, Rex Tillerson as the country’s top diplomat and his son in law, Jared Kushner as a special advisor, to name but a few. The decision last January to name Republican National Committee Chairperson, Reince Preibus as Chief of Staff was seen as a nod towards congressional Republicans. However Preibus’ tenure was overshadowed by his inability to control what came out of the White House; many administration officials gave“off the record” stories to media outlets which gave the sense of an administration in free fall. The choice of Steve Bannon can be seen as Trump’s most controversial pick to fill the position of chief strategist to the president. Bannon is infamous in so-called “Alt right” circles primarily due to his association with the news website Breitbart. Bannon describes himself as an American nationalist and was the pioneer of some of Trump’s most controversial campaign measures, such as a ban on Muslims entering the country. Bannon is often accredited with successfully guiding Trump to the White House.
It is fair to say that Trump’s election threw all the norms of US presidential politics out the window and marked the end of the conservative Republican Party that has been around since the 1960’s. Trump identified the growing negative sentiment against the political establishment, which the likes of Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton epitomised. By using catchy phrases such as “boring Jeb” and “lying Ted,” Trump was successful in eliminating two of the most prominent political figures in America during the primaries without offering any substantial policies. The election became about personalities over substance and it began to resemble one of Trump’s reality TV shows.
However, top campaign officials such as Bannon knew that the only way of pulling off a historic upset was for Americans to see Donald Trump as the outside guy, the one the elite wanted to bring down. Trump’s character and his non-conventional style was his biggest asset and was successful as painting himself as the workers candidate, as the one that could “drain the swamp” of Washington elites; this was highly ironic as Trump himself is worth over three billion dollars. Trump was also successful in making his support base believe that the media wanted Hillary Clinton to win the election, he publicly ridiculed journalists, in one instance mocking a journalist’s disabilities. Media personnel recall being subjected to verbal abuse at campaign rallies and Trump’s loud accusations of “fake news” only galvanised his base. Trump’s promises to bring back the once thriving coal and auto industry along with his commitment to introduce strict and arguably racist immigration laws saw him do an electoral sweep of Rust Belt states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio along with key swing states such as Florida, he won 304 electoral votes and took the election in the biggest upset in presidential history.
It can be said that never before has a President entered office with a better opportunity to govern. With a Republican majority in both the Senate and the House, Trump was well placed to make good on his electoral promises. Yet over the past year the President has failed to implement any substantial part of his legislative agenda. One of Trump’s key campaign promises and something that Republicans have advocated for during the Obama years was the repeal and replace of the controversial Obamacare policy. Vice President Pence was pioneering the repeal effort on behalf of the White House while simultaneously Trump was causing friction with GOP senators over Twitter, accusing majority leader Mitch McConnell of failing to give enough effort towards the cause. When a Bill finally passed the house after numerous attempts in May, Trump heralded it as a great victory. Yet it became clear that in the eyes of McConnell, Trump’s involvement was more destructive than constructive and he made it clear that he was to play no further part in the repeal and replace effort.
The failure of Senate Republicans to pass the measure on a July 28 vote, after veteran senator John McCain voted against his party, was seen as personal protest against the President. This showed the fractured nature of the Republican Party who, despite having a majority in the Senate and campaigning for Obamacare repeal for seven years, failed to make good on their mandate. It put disputes within the party on display and it was evidence that while Trump ran a successful campaign, he may not run a successful presidency.
The appointment of four star general John Kelly as the new Chief of Staff following the resignation of Reince Priebus last July was seen as a step forward. It was hoped that Kelly could restrain Trump and make him more presidential by reducing his access to Twitter and also trying to decrease the open door policy that Trump was working off, which Kelly viewed as a distraction to the President. Changes came quickly, Kelly reduced Kushner’s and Ivanka’s access to Trump and ensured that they had to report through him before anything made it to the resolute desk. Kelly was also quick in despatching domineering figures in the administration with Bannon and Sean Spicer leaving their positions shortly after Kelly’s appointment. He was also eager to improve relations with the media and so came the appointment of Hope Hicks as Communications Director and Sarah Sanders as Press Secretary.
Kelly was successful in isolating Trump from his business life and as a result, many of his personal friends no longer work or have access to the White House. Trump’s long-time bodyguard and close confidant Keith Shiller, famous for delivering the letter of removal to FBI Director James Comey, has since left his position in the West Wing. Shiller was viewed as Trump’s closest friend in the White House and his departure has further isolated the President.
Kelly’s efforts have been overshadowed by the Russia investigation which is being led by the ominous Special Counsel, Robert Mueller. The indictment last month of Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and George Papadopoulos shows that Mueller isn’t going anywhere and he is determined to find, if there is any, evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia which could have affected the result of the 2016 election. Of course, Trump always has the option to dismiss Muller however this would be political suicide and would resemble Richard Nixon’s firing of the Watergate prosecutor which at the time spelled the end of the Nixon presidency. Mueller’s discovery of correspondence between Donald Trump Jr and Russian officials, coupled with the rumour that Papadopoulos has been wearing a wire since July, is sure to have certain members of the administration, possibly Kushner, quaking in their boots. It will only prove to be a further headache for Trump as his approval rating continues to plummet.
Trump’s approval ratings continue to drop to historic lows, with 33% of Americans having a favourable view of the President in a poll taken in July. It remains to be seen whether Trump will be successful in implementing the biggest tax reforms in American history, the reforms involved lowering corporation tax by nearly half in an effort to attract American companies home. However many people such as Senator Bernie Sanders view the reforms as only favouring the rich. Trump’s support base view the President’s unconventional and unpredictable style of governing to be a much needed refreshing adjustment to politics. Conversely, his opponents view his use of Twitter to make key legislative announcements as an inappropriate and an unacceptable way to govern. Trump supporters argue that the United States’ low unemployment rate and the growth of the stock market is due to pro-business measures implemented by the administration over the past year. His opponents argue that it was successful Obama policies which brought about these changes.
Trump’s biggest flaw is that he is still operating as if he is fighting an election campaign. Whenever he is faced with a problem he resorts to campaign tactics, such as personal attacks or angry tweets to fix it; this is evident from his continued attacks on “crooked Hillary” on Twitter. The criticism from GOP senators such as Bob Corker prove that he has failed to connect with the political class of Washington. Trump is at the core, his own worst enemy.
The message of healing and unity that Trump spoke about a year ago is now a distant memory. It is clear that changes need to be made if Trump is going to salvage his presidency. It is still not known if he run again in 2020 or if he will even still be president when that time comes – because if there’s one thing we can count on Donald Trump for, that is unpredictability. Trump has to realise that running a country is not like running a business and a 140 character tweet cannot always get you what you want. However if the 2016 election proved anything, we can never write “The Donald” off.
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