Donald Trump: Domestic affairs
Donald Trump’s domestic priorities largely reflected the themes he campaigned on: restricting immigration, strengthening public infrastructure, reducing taxes, and repealing the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare). His success in implementing that agenda was mixed.
Trump’s selections for cabinet posts and senior-level advisors reflected a combination of traditional Republican political leaders and unconventional and inexperienced people who were personally loyal to Trump himself. Among modern presidents, he experienced an especially high degree of turnover in top positions, and many positions remained vacant for long periods of time. Early in his presidency, critics noted that, despite having deployed populist and anti-Wall Street rhetoric on the campaign trail, Trump appointed a cabinet heavy with billionaires, multi-millionaires, and representatives of the financial services industry. These included three cabinet leaders who remained in their positions for the entire Trump presidency—Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
A number of top officials left their posts amid scandal or after losing the president’s confidence. Three weeks into his term, Trump fired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn after revelations that Flynn had lied about engaging in unlawful conversations with Russian diplomats during the Obama administration. Retired Marine General John F. Kelly, who served as Trump’s second chief of staff, resigned after a falling out with Trump. Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former CEO at ExxonMobil, after he reportedly called the president a “moron.” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis resigned over disagreements with Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria.
In May 2017, Trump fired James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) who had been appointed to a ten-year term by Barack Obama in 2013. The ten-year term was a tradition designed to create a greater sense of independence for the FBI director from the president. Under Comey, the FBI had been investigating the role of Russian interference in the 2016 election, including the role played by Michael Flynn and the release of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee in the summer before the election.
In a private meeting, President Trump urged Comey to drop charges against Flynn and to stop suggesting publicly that agents of the Russian government had helped Trump win the election. Trump also requested Comey’s personal loyalty and that Comey publicly announce that Trump was not under personal investigation. Comey replied that his loyalty was to the US Constitution, not to any given president. Moreover, the FBI did not make a practice of publicly saying someone was not under investigation, since it would then have to retract that statement publicly if the situation changed.
Democratic leaders in Congress accused Trump of obstructing justice by firing Comey and called for an independent investigation of Comey’s firing and the allegations of Russian interference in the election. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from all matters pertaining to the Russia investigation after revelations that he had met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak while he was part of the Trump campaign in 2016, although he denied any knowledge of any Russian interference in the election. In his absence, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller, a Republican, as special counsel to supervise the investigation. Sessions’s recusal and Mueller’s appointment caused a rift between Sessions and Trump, and Sessions resigned at the president’s request in November 2018. Trump replaced Sessions with William Barr, to whom Mueller submitted his final report on the Russia investigation in March 2019.
Ultimately, Mueller’s report concluded that agents of Russia’s Internet Research Agency attacked Hillary Clinton’s campaign to help Trump and that members of Russian intelligence were responsible for hacking emails from the Democratic National Committee. Although Mueller noted “numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign,” the report did not uncover clear evidence that the Trump campaign had conspired with Russia in those activities. On the question of whether Trump obstructed justice by firing James Comey, the Mueller report failed to make a determination one way or the other. The investigation, Mueller wrote, “does not conclude that the president committed a crime,” but it “also does not exonerate” Trump.
Affordable Care Act
In his first few hours in office, Trump signed a vague and non-binding order that indicated his top domestic policy priority was to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, the legislation—also known as Obamacare—that expanded health care coverage and that the Republican Party had overwhelmingly opposed since President Obama signed it into law in 2010. Trump repeatedly promised an alternative to the bill that retained its most popular provisions, including protecting people with pre-existing conditions from discrimination by insurance companies.
In the spring of 2017, congressional Republicans proposed two bills to repeal the ACA. The first failed in the House; a modified version passed the House but failed in the Senate in July. In December 2017, however, congressional Republicans succeeded in weakening the ACA by revising the tax code to eliminate the “individual mandate penalty”—the provision of the ACA that required people to have health insurance or else pay higher taxes. Nonetheless, some states retained an individual mandate.
Taxes and Regulations
In keeping with longstanding Republican priorities, the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress wanted to cut taxes. They worked together to pass the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which President Trump signed in December 2017. That bill amended the federal tax code and reduced tax rates for corporations and individuals, easing the tax burden disproportionately on high-income and wealthy Americans while delivering only moderate tax cuts to most Americans. It also included the removal of the individual mandate penalty for the ACA.
Trump blamed the regulatory system and the federal bureaucracy for hampering the economy. Early in his presidency, Trump suspended or revoked nearly 100 federal regulations. Conflating the number of regulations with their effect, he also ordered federal agencies to eliminate two existing regulations for every new one they enacted.
Following a pattern Ronald Reagan deployed in the 1980s, Trump staffed several cabinet positions with leaders who were ideologically and/or materially hostile to the mission of the agency. For example, Trump appointed former Texas governor Rick Perry as secretary of Energy, a department Perry had called for eliminating during his own presidential campaign in 2012. The president also appointed climate-change denier Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and “America First” campaign slogans translated into harsh restrictions on immigration during his presidency. Immediately after taking office, he issued an executive order blocking entry visas for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen), as well as temporarily suspending all refugees from entering the United States for four months. Trump’s travel ban sparked large protests and legal challenges. As a result of legal challenges, the Trump administration revised the executive order.
In addition, the administration targeted the issue of illegal migration over the country’s southern border with Mexico. As a candidate, Trump promised to build a wall along the border, paid for by Mexico, although the government of Mexico never expressed any intention of doing so. Trump’s battle with Congress over funding the southern border wall resulted in a government shutdown in December 2018. The shutdown became the longest government shutdown at that time, 35 days, before President Trump and Congress announced a deal. Although Congress agreed to provide $1.375 billion for a border wall, it was far short of the more than $5 billion that President Trump wanted.
Between 2017 and 2021, the United States constructed new barriers along more than 450 miles on the nearly 2,000-mile Mexican border, including nearly 50 miles that previously had no barrier. Although no singular “wall” was ever built, 30-foot steel bollard wall segments replaced fencing along much of this area.
In 2018, the Trump administration introduced a “family separation” policy at the southern border in an effort to dissuade migrants and asylum-seeking refugees from entering the United States. Under this “zero tolerance” policy, parents and children apprehended at the border were separated from each other. Critics immediately protested that no protocol existed to track the separated families or reunite children with their parents. Within six weeks, at least 2,300 migrant children had been separated from their parents. Many were housed in detention centers in chain-link cells that resembled cages. After fierce condemnation from public protestors, American politicians, and world leaders, Trump signed an executive order in June 2018 reversing the policy. By the time of the 2020 election, hundreds of children had still not been reunited with their parents.
Domestic politics in the final year of Trump’s presidency were profoundly shaped by the Covid-19 pandemic. First detected in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, the novel coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2 spread to the United States in January, and the first reported American death from the disease occurred in February. From the beginning, Trump downplayed the risks of the disease and discounted the science around it even as he blamed China, long a focal point of his critique of America’s declining global trade position, for the pandemic. Critics accused Trump of xenophobia and racism when he used racial epithets like “Kung Flu” to associate Covid-19 with China and Chinese people.
In March 2020, the pandemic overtook American life as public events were cancelled, schools and universities shifted to remote learning, millions of Americans stayed in their homes, and in-person work was reserved largely for “essential employees,” including health and public safety workers. Trump acknowledged the scope of the pandemic in March, when he declared a national state of emergency and signed the first relief bill, known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020, which allocated $2.2 trillion in economic stimulus. He also appointed a White House Coronavirus Task Force.
At the same time, Trump actively denigrated scientists and health policy experts, including member of his task force such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, who recommended continued “social distancing” and stay-at-home orders, as well as the wearing of masks. Trump mostly refused to wear a mask, even after he contracted a serious case of Covid-19 and was hospitalized in October 2020.
The pandemic caused a sharp economic contraction, a historic decline in the stock market, and a severe spike in unemployment, particularly as hospitality and service-sector companies laid off workers when they were forced to shutter. The ensuing recession was very brief by historical standards, at two months, but it likely hurt Trump’s political popularity.
By April 2020, more people had died of Covid-19 in the United States than in any other country, a position that persisted until the end of the global pandemic. Public health experts gave the Trump administration credit for expediting the development of vaccines, which became available at the end of 2020. Many critics nonetheless faulted Trump for not taking the virus seriously, sowing doubt about scientific expertise and public health measures such as social distancing and masking. Many argued that more aggressive policies and a closer fidelity to scientific expertise may have reduced the death toll, both during and after the Trump administration.
White Supremacy and Civil Unrest
Both before and during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Trump administration’s domestic politics had to contend with issues related to racism and civil rights. As a candidate and as president, Trump counted white nationalists, white supremacists, and other violent racist, xenophobic, and antisemitic organizations among his supporters. In August 2017, hundreds of white nationalists assembled in Charlottesville, Virginia, for what was known as the “Unite the Right” rally. Violence ensued, and one white supremacist murdered a counter-protestor by driving his car into a crowd.
Trump drew criticism for condemning bad behavior on “both sides” but declined at first to explicitly denounce racist ideology, white supremacy, and right-wing domestic terrorism. Instead, he regularly amplified the conservative view that members of “antifa”—a loosely organized community of left-leaning and anti-fascist activists with no official organization—represented a threat to domestic security.
He also routinely condemned the Black Lives Matter movement, which first mobilized in 2013 in response to the 2012 death of a Black teenager named Trayvon Martin and protested police violence against Black people as well as other instances of racism, discrimination, and injustice. In the summer of 2020, during both the Covid-19 pandemic and the presidential election campaign, a vast series of protests erupted across the country, triggered in particular after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered Minnesotan George Floyd, an African American man. Trump derided the mostly peaceful protest movement, which he saw as contrary to his promise of “law and order.”
Supreme Court Appointments
President Donald Trump appointed three members to the US Supreme Court, the highest number for any president since Ronald Reagan, who appointed four justices over two terms. Typifying the increased partisan polarization of national politics and the intense animosity among political leaders, all of Trump’s nominations sparked protest and outrage for different reasons, and all were confirmed largely on party-line votes.
In January 2017, Trump appointed Neil Gorsuch to fill a vacancy caused by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death nearly one year earlier, during Barack Obama’s presidency. Obama had nominated jurist Merrick Garland to replace Scalia, but Republicans in the Senate refused to conduct confirmation hearings, arguing without historical evidence that a new justice should not be confirmed in an election year. Liberals and Democrats objected to Gorsuch not only for his conservative judicial philosophy but because they believed the seat had been “stolen.” Gorsuch was confirmed 54 to 45. Three Democrats from conservative states voted in favor.
In July 2018, the president nominated Brett Kavanaugh after Justice Anthony Kennedy announced he would retire. Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings were marked by public accusations that, as a high school student, he had attempted to rape a fellow student. During emotional and highly partisan Senate hearings, Kavanaugh denied the allegations. The Senate confirmed Kavanaugh with a vote of 50 to 48.
Finally, Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett in September 2020 following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Despite the Republican leadership’s claim four years earlier that Supreme Court nominations should not be made during an election year, the Republican-controlled Senate quickly called hearings and confirmed Barrett just one week and one day before the 2020 election. All three of Trump’s appointees represented historically conservative judicial philosophies on a range of issues and moved the Supreme Court decidedly to the political right.
Donald Trump is the only US president to be impeached twice. His first impeachment resulted from efforts to persuade a foreign leader, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, to interfere with the upcoming 2020 US presidential election on Trump’s behalf. According to an inquiry by the House of Representatives, Trump corruptly linked military assistance, which Ukraine needed to defend itself from Russia (which had already annexed Crimea from Ukraine and would invade the country in February 2022), to political favors: announcing an investigation into Trump’s likely opponent, Joe Biden, and affirming a false conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, had hacked the Democratic National Committee in 2016. Testimony from witnesses, especially Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, as well as a summarized transcript of a call between Trump and Zelensky, provided the case against the president. The House committee further charged that Trump had instructed government officials not to comply with legal subpoenas.
On December 18, 2019, the House voted to impeach Trump on two articles—abuse of power (for pressuring Zelensky) and obstruction of Congress—making Trump the third US president to be impeached, following Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. The Senate convened to try the president in January 2020, even as most observers predicted that partisan politics would dictate the results. On February 5, the Senate acquitted Trump on both counts, and he remained in office. Only one Republican, Senator Mitt Romney of Utah—who had run for president unsuccessfully against Barack Obama in 2012 and was publicly critical of Trump—voted against Trump on the charge of obstruction of Congress.
Trump’s second impeachment followed the insurrectionist attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, by Trump supporters who falsely believed the 2020 election had been “stolen” from Trump. On January 13, one week after the insurrection and one week before his term constitutionally expired, the House of Representatives passed a single article of impeachment against Trump, accusing him of “incitement to insurrection” for his role in encouraging his supporters to violently and illegally breach the Capitol building in hopes of disrupting the certification of electoral votes. All 222 Democratic and 10 Republican members of the House voted for impeachment; this represented the most members of a president’s party to ever vote for impeachment.
Republican Senate leaders relied on a parliamentary rule to prevent the Senate from formally receiving the House’s article of impeachment until after Joe Biden was inaugurated on January 20, 2021. Democrats thus agreed to delay the trial for several weeks so it did not overshadow the beginning of Biden’s presidency. The Senate trial began on February 9, 2021. An effort by Senate Republicans to dismiss the charges on the grounds that Trump was no longer president failed 55 to 45; five Republicans joined Democrats and independents in agreeing to hold the trial, arguing that holding the trial signaled that no person was above the law. Four days later, on February 13, however, the Senate acquitted Trump for a second time. Although 57 senators voted guilty, that figure fell short of the constitutionally required two-thirds (67 votes) necessary to convict.