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21 January 2019

The only promise Donald Trump ever kept: two years of “American carnage”

We’re exactly halfway through this presidential term. It’s been a long, dreadful, and chaotic era.

By Nicky Woolf

Two years ago yesterday, on a grey day in Washington DC, Donald Trump was sworn in as president of the United States. In a grim inaugural address, he spoke of “American carnage”. It was meant to be about economic threats from abroad and from immigrants at home, but it was to prefigure a presidency marked by staggering cruelty and mind-boggling incompetence.

“For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost,” Trump told the meagre crowd. “The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.”

But this was to start the administration off the way it would continue: in his first ever briefing, Trump’s first White House press secretary Sean Spicer was directed to lie about the size of the crowd.

In fact, Trump’s would turn out to be one of, if not the, most corrupt administrations there has ever been. Ryan Zinke, his secretary of the interior, has just resigned with no fewer than 17 ethics investigations into his conduct. The investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into potential Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has claimed the scalps of Trump’s national security adviser Mike Flynn, Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, and Trump’s former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, and shows no sign of abating. So much for “drain the swamp.”

And Trump has continued to side with Russian President Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence agencies, leading some – including, it was recently revealed, the FBI – to start to wonder the previously unthinkable: whether the US president might be an agent of the Kremlin.

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Then there’s been the rampant cruelty. For example: denying the right of transgender people to serve in the military in a tweet – without even asking the Pentagon. (The status of such people remains unclear; the Department of Defense still does not appear to have received a formal order implementing the tweet.) Or consider the summer of wresting children from their families and interring them in cages in extreme desert heat; a heartless, monstrous policy.

In July, the president, who during the campaign was famously overheard boasting on an old hot-mic recording about his habit of sexual assault (“grab ‘em by the pussy”), nominated a man credibly accused of sexual assault to the Supreme Court. The gruelling confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh were a dismal spectacle even for the Trump administration, as Kavanaugh defensively responded to the heart-breaking testimony of one of his accusers, Dr Christine Blasey Ford, with such rejoinders as, “I like beer.” The miserable spectacle of the hearings did at least lead to one good thing: this amazing skewering in the cold open of that week’s Saturday Night Live.

As 2018 drew to a close, it was time for the midterm elections. Here again, Trump covered himself with shame, using the US military for electioneering, sending troops to the border to defend against a “caravan” of unarmed migrants who were traveling to the US in order to apply (legally) for asylum. The stunt cost US taxpayers $210m, and could not prevent Trump from losing the election to a near-unprecedented degree as a blue wave swept Democrats to control of the House of Representatives.

All the while, he was also waging a war of words with the media, a verbal assault that led to real-world consequences for those who the president still regularly describes as “the enemy of the people” – an approach with echoes of Adolf Hitler’s “lugenpresse” (“lying press”). Especially horrifying was the moment when a Washington Post columnist, Jamal Kashoggi, was brutally murdered by a kill team sent by the Saudi Arabian crown prince – a move which the administration failed to condemn. Pipe-bombs were sent to CNN and other news outlets as well as liberal political figures.

Internationally, Trump has been a bull in a china shop. On trade, Trump has started imposing tariffs on goods from China, Canada, and other erstwhile trading partners, crippling some parts of the US economy and possibly permanently damaging American foreign relations. He also unilaterally decided to pull US troops from Syria and Afghanistan, leading to the immediate resignation of his former secretary of defense, General Jim Mattis, who had long been considered one of the few remaining grownups of the administration. And he continues to threaten to pull the US out of NATO.

Domestically, he has fared little better. Trump enters the third year of his administration with the government still deadlocked over a shutdown – a shutdown which he has decided to entirely make his own – and facing a freshly elected congress with wide subpoena power over him.

And as the various investigations into his impropriety – over the Trump Foundation, his charity that was shuttered by New York’s state attorney-general in December; over his transition team; over his inaugural committee, among many others – close in, Trump is getting more and more unstable, and more and more panicked. What the next two years might hold is anybody’s guess.