In this May 16, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump listens to a question in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Trump was the 45th president of the United States, elected in 2016 after one of the most unconventional campaigns in U.S. history. Trump has championed First Amendment religious freedoms while being accused of religious discrimination for a travel ban aimed at Muslim countries. Image of Trump at a New Hampshire Town Hall on August 19, 2015. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
Billionaire businessman Donald J. Trump (1946- ) was the 45th president of the United States. He was elected in 2016 after one of the most unconventional and populist campaigns in U.S. history.
Trump mastered Twitter early on to attack political opponents
He distinguished himself from a large field of Republican contenders with strong and stinging rhetoric often communicated through the social network Twitter. He employed similar rhetoric against Hillary Clinton, whom he accused of committing crimes by using a private web server for email correspondence when she was secretary of state.
Trump began his campaign by claiming that the U.S. was being overrun by illegal immigrants who committed crimes and by promising to build a huge wall on America’s southern border to keep them out. Trump mustered support among Republicans by his opposition to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), which he promised to repeal.
He questioned U.S. trade policies, said that America’s allies needed to contribute more to their own defense, opposed governmental regulations (particularly environmental) that he thought were interfering with economic growth, and was far friendlier to Russian leader Vladimir Putin and other foreign strongmen than his predecessor was.
Trump, who had never before held elective office, was arguably aided by the perception that he offered an alternative to politics as it was (Clinton had been both a U.S. senator and secretary of state) and by leaks from the Democratic National Campaign headquarters.
Trump was combative during the presidential debates, in one case launching a sharp attack against moderator and then-Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly.
Trump attacked establishment news media
It is doubtful that any national candidate since President Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, has been more negative toward the established media than Trump.
He frequently called members of the media dishonest and singled them out for ridicule at his rallies. He called the press “the enemy of the people” and often bypassed the media by refusing to be interviewed. He instead preferred to reach his followers directly through tweets, many of which were outrageous but nonetheless captured public attention and news media coverage.
Trump initially hired a number of people from the alt-right movement, including Steve Bannon of Breitbart News, to be in his inner circle. He and his defenders often accused the media of manufacturing “fake news”.
Trump has faced criticism for his attacks on the news media. Arizona Senator Jeff Flake gave a speech on the Senate floor on Jan. 17, 2018, in which he said that Trump's characterization of the press as “the enemy of the people” echoed the words of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
Trump won evangelical support by promising more freedom
Early in his campaign, Trump was endorsed by Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University. Trump convinced many evangelicals that he would secure their First Amendment free exercise rights and exempt them from government regulations, such as the requirement that health plans provide access to birth-control pills that they consider to be abortifacients. As president, Trump signed an executive order seeking protections for religious freedom (Campbell 2015).
Trump promised to "open up" libel laws
Trump promised to punish individuals who burned the American flag and to “open up” libel laws (Cole 2017).
After excerpts from Michael Wolff’s highly critical book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, was released in January 2018, Trump’s attorneys sent an 11-page letter to Wolff and to his publisher, Henry Holt & Co., asking them to “cease and desist from any further publication, release or dissemination of the book, the article, or any excerpts or summaries of either of them, to any person or entity, and that you issue a full and complete retraction and apology to my client as to all statements made about him in the book and article that lack competent evidentiary support” (Quoted in Nichols 2018).
Wolff and his publisher, undoubtedly thankful for the additional publicity, instead expedited publication of the book, which became a bestseller. The Authors Guild issued a statement saying that “[i]t is one thing for a private citizen to use libel laws to quash speech. It is unheard of for a sitting President to do so."
The U.S. Supreme Court held in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964) that state libel laws must comport with First Amendment standards and ruled in Texas v. Johnson (1989) that some flag-burning is a form of protected political speech.
Trump often made false claims
Trump and his press secretary often made claims that appeared to be palpably false, as, for example, in saying that more people showed up to his inauguration than any previous president (photographs strongly suggested otherwise). Trump also claimed that the only reason that he lost the popular vote (he clearly won the Electoral College) was because millions of immigrants illegally voted.
No evidence substantiated this claim or similar claims that he made about the election of 2020.
Trump and the media had troubled relationship
Trump was frequently parodied, especially by comedy and late-night television programs such as "Saturday Night Live." In June 2017, comedian Kathy Griffin crossed the line of good taste when she held up what appeared to be a severed head of the president. Although her right to do so was unquestioned under the First Amendment, CNN ended its agreement with her to host its New Year’s Eve broadcast and several venues canceled her tour dates.
On July 25, 2018, White House officials Bill Shine and Sarah Sanders, barred CNN's Kaitlin Collins, that day’s pool reporter for all the networks, from a presidential event in the Rose Garden. Collins had shouted a question and apparently offended Trump as he was meeting with the president of the European Commission. Other members of the press, including Fox News that was usually friendly to Trump, protested the action against the reporter, which some associated with dictatorial regimes.
In January 2020, President Trump praised Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for doing “a good job” on National Public Radio (NPR) reporter Mary Louise Kelly after she reported that Pompeo shut down an interview with her. Pompeo had stopped the interview, then shouted and cursed at her, after she had asked about his support for State Department personnel. Pompeo subsequently removed another NPR reporter from a list of reporters allowed on his flight to Eastern Europe, an action that the State Department Correspondents’ Association condemned.
Circuit court ruled Trump's travel ban discriminated based on religion
As a candidate, Trump referred often to “radical Islamic terrorists.” As president, Trump issued two orders banning immigration from a select number of countries, all with Muslim majorities. After a number of federal courts enjoined the first order, Trump issued a second.
In International Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump (2017), the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law improperly discriminated on the basis of religion, largely using Trump’s own campaign statements and tweets as evidence of what the Court considered to be the order’s discriminatory purpose. In Trump v. Hawaii, 585 U.S. ____ (2018), however, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the President’s broad authority to impose restrictions on immigrants from foreign countries when he thought they posed special security dangers.
Trump named three Supreme Court justices
Although Republicans had a majority in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, Trump’s administration had a rocky start. Although he succeeded in getting Neil Gorsuch confirmed as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court (replacing Antonin Scalia), efforts to repeal Obamacare did not succeed. Controversy over both the president’s actions and tweets took attention and energy away from his plans for major improvements in America’s infrastructure and tax reform, though tax changes eventually were implemented by Congress in December 2017.
Trump was given another opportunity to appoint a Supreme Court justice when Justice Anthony Kennedy, who had often cast a decisive swing vote in close cases, announced his retirement. Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh (b. 1965) a former Kennedy clerk who served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Considered much more conservative than Kennedy, Kavanaugh was confirmed on Oct. 6, 2018, after highly contentious Senate Judiciary Committee hearings.
Trump investigated for Russia relations
After Trump fired FBI Director James Comey and Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from investigations into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel to investigate. Mueller resigned in 2019 after saying the investigation was over.
William Barr, the attorney general appointed by Trump to replace Sessions, claimed that the investigation, which on many points was inconclusive, had exonerated Trump. Trump called the whole affair a “witch hunt.”
This investigation, which has resulted in a number of pleas and indictments of members of the Trump team, as well as of Russian foreign agents, continued into the new year, as did independent congressional investigations. Some of Trump’s congressional supporters introduced resolutions for the impeachment of Rosenstein. Rosenstein resigned in May 2019.
The President received considerable criticism for meeting in Helsinki, Finland, with Russian President Vladimir Putin without another American official other than a translator in the room. Some members of Congress had called for the translator to testify about the content of the conversations.
Trump fought accusations on many fronts. In 2018, his former attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to breaking campaign finance laws related to a payment to a former Playboy model. The payment was designed to keep a story about an alleged affair between her and Trump out of the news during the presidential campaign. Cohen released a tape of a conversation with Trump that indicated that Trump was aware of plans to make a payment.
Trump’s first impeachment
As much as Trump sought to discredit the media, there were increasing calls for his impeachment.
These were brought to a head when it was revealed that Trump had engaged in a phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he appeared to condition military aid to that nation, which was threatened by Russia, unless and until it launched in an investigation of the salary that the son of Joe Biden had received as a member of Ukrainian energy company board of directors.
In an almost completely party-line vote, the House indicted Trump both for this apparent attempt at extortion and for his failure to cooperate with congressional investigators. The Senate acquitted him.
2020 election and the attack on the Capitol Building
The Republicans renominated Trump for president, and Joe Biden, Obama’s former vice-president, emerged from a wide field to be the Democratic nominee. Biden selected as his running mate Senator Kamala Harris of California, whose mother was from India and whose father was African- American.
As the election approached, COVID-19, a virus that originated in China, began infecting an increasing number of Americans and taking an increasing number of lives. Trump downplayed the deaths, claiming that the virus would disappear. He refused to wear face masks and did not insist that supporters do so at his campaign rallies even after he was briefly hospitalized with the disease.
Largely as a result of the pandemic, many states liberalized voting so that more people could cast mail-in ballots rather than physically go to a polling place. Trump charged that this would lead to voting fraud.
Many states decided to count mail-in ballots after they finished counting votes cast in person on election day. Trump, who had urged his own supporters to vote in person on election day, was shown with an early lead as vote-counting began. This lead evaporated as more votes were counted. Although the election was held on Tuesday, it was not until that Friday that news outlets were comfortable in reporting that Biden had won both the popular vote and the majority of the Electoral College.
Ironically, Biden won the 2020 presidential election by the same margin in the Electoral College that Trump had beaten Hillary Clinton in 2016. Despite longstanding tradition, Trump refused to concede the election and launched a series of lawsuits in states that he lost questioning the electoral results and calling for recounts. Trump attorney Rudi Giuliani was among those who continued to advance Trump’s case in public, often making exaggerated charges in public that he chose not to advance in court cases, which consistently went against Trump even as recounts confirmed initial results.
Trump continued to question electoral counts, even in states like Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin where Republican state officials affirmed that they were accurate. Trump called the Republican Attorney General of Georgia urging him to "find" sufficient votes for him to carry that state. The phone call was recorded and released through the news media for the public to hear.
As the time came for Vice President Mike Pence to open the Electoral College votes before a joint session of Congress on January 6, 2021, Trump held out hope that Pence could, contrary to all historical precedent, convert this ministerial act into a discretionary one and declare him the winner. As Pence indicated that he would not do so, Trump supporters gathered for a rally at the White House. Trump and his allies urged the crowd to continue to fight and to go to the Capitol Building. Trump told them that if they did not do so, they might not have a country left.
As the crowd approached the Capitol Building, they began scuffling with Capitol Hill police officers who they greatly outnumbered. In time, members of the mob not only broke through the barricades but also broke into the Capitol Building where they carried flags, broke into congressional offices and threatened to hang the vice president. Members of Congress took cover in fear for their lives. Trump did not intervene. But when order was restored, Congress reassembled and affirmed that Biden had won the presidential election. Five people, including a police officer, died in the riot.
In an extraordinary move, Twitter suspended Trump’s account “due to the risk of further incitement of violence” by the president. Despite criticism, this action did not violate the First Amendment because the site is not owned or maintained by the government.
Trump’s Second Impeachment
The House subsequently impeached Trump a second time, this one for inciting an insurrection at the Capitol Building. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delayed sending the indictment to the Senate until after Biden and Harris were inaugurated. Again, Trump broke with tradition in refusing to attend the inauguration although his vice president and former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama did so.
When the House delivered its indictment to the U.S. Senate, a majority of Republicans claimed that the Senate had no right to try an ex-president. If a two-thirds majority of the Senate decided to convict Trump, they would have the power to exclude him by majority vote from holding future governmental offices.
As Trump left office, he pardoned a number of individuals who had stood by him during his first impeachment hearings, although he did not seek to pardon either himself (something that many scholars believe he has no right to do) or his family members. There is a chance that he will face charges connected to tax evasion and related financial dealings. Shortly after Trump left office, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed cases alleging that he had violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution by directing business to his enterprises during his presidency on the basis that they were moot.
The Biden Administration
The Biden Administration brought hope that he and his administration would treat members of the media with greater honesty and respect and that he might be able to heal some of the national divisions that the Trump Administration had accentuated. Trump’s attacks on the media helped undermine public faith in traditional news sources and led to the increasing public acceptance of conspiratorial world views that make compromise difficult. Amid fears of continuing civil unrest, it remains unclear whether the Republican Party will continue to embrace, or whether it will repudiate, the first president in U.S. history ever to have been twice impeached.
John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was updated Jan. 28, 2020.Send Feedback on this article