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What Moments From The Trump Presidency Will Go Down In History?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Last Thursday, the House voted to impeach President Trump, making him just the third president to have ever been impeached. His administration has attacked the impeachment process as unfair and has called it “illegitimate,” but this moment is something that will inevitably make the history books on his presidency … right?

So let’s talk about the most important moments of Trump’s presidency so far.

I’d start with his impeachment as the most important moment so far, but is this where you’d start, too? Or is there another moment that you think is even more important to defining his presidency?

ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior writer): I’d start there too — and not just because the vote happened last week. To state the obvious, impeaching a president is a really, really big deal, even if the outcome of the vote felt foreordained. This will be central to how Trump is remembered, regardless of how it turns out for the people involved.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): Yes, if we define “moment” as “a series of events that has happened over a few months,” I would say impeachment is clearly #1. But if we want to zoom in to a specific event, my #1 moment would be the period of Sept. 21-24 this year, beginning when the Ukraine story broke wide open and ending when Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry. Everything that has happened since — the hearings, the vote — stems from that.

The events of Sept. 21-24 were also when public opinion changed most decisively. The vote itself doesn’t look like it will change anyone’s minds, nor did any of the individual revelations along the way.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): To me, impeachment isn’t the most important moment of his presidency — even if it will be the easiest and clearest thing to remember. Instead, I think there are three other defining events: 1) The firing of former FBI director James Comey, which illustrated Trump’s disregard for norms and the rule of law; 2) his reaction to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where after it erupted in deadly violence he said there was blame “on both sides”; 3) his press conference in Helsinki, Finland, with Russian President Vladimir Putin at which he downplayed the U.S. government’s finding that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

ameliatd: The Comey firing was on my list, too, and not just because it was a violation of norms. It also kicked off special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election that consumed almost two years of Trump’s presidency. The release of the Mueller report was important too, but I’d argue that in the scope of the Russia investigation, Comey’s firing was the more significant moment, since it set the entire process in motion.

nrakich: I have the Comey firing at #2, for exactly the reason Amelia says.

The Russia investigation was a big backdrop for so much of Trump’s presidency and I think undermined his legitimacy with a substantial portion of the population.

As for Charlottesville and Helsinki: While I found those to be bizarre, even disturbing, moments, I don’t think they’re ultimately important enough to make the AP U.S. History study guide version of the Trump presidency.

ameliatd: That’s the trouble with trying to pick out individual moments — are we talking about what will lead the high school U.S. history curriculum 50 years from now? Or the events that crystallized the biggest themes of the Trump presidency? Without going on a detour about what makes it into history books in the first place, Comey’s firing seems like an event that fits both categories.

sarahf: We are trying to identify discrete events that eventually make the history books, but to your point, Amelia, some of these will encapsulate big themes in his presidency, too.

perry: Speaking of themes, Trump’s identity politics have perhaps been the defining trait of his administration. The idea that people use the word “racist” to describe the American president is jarring, but it fits with some of his behavior. I assumed that some of Trump’s racist rhetoric was kind of an act until Charlottesville. That made it even more real. I think it really cemented how people covered and thought of him.

ameliatd: The Charlottesville rally was on my top five list, and I do think that will end up in the history books. Trump’s reaction was just such a shocking acknowledgment of the role that racism and white supremacy seems to play in his voting coalition, after an incredibly tragic and disturbing event.

nrakich: Interesting. I agree that Charlottesville (and Trump’s response to it) was representative of a fundamental aspect of his election and presidency. But with the benefit of years of perspective, I just think it fits into a long line of outrageous and racist things Trump has said and done that haven’t really damaged his standing politically.

And I think history will be written with either moments that shifted public opinion or moments that affected policy and thus the day-to-day lives of real people, either in the U.S. or abroad.

ameliatd: But if you’re thinking about the moment that most embodies the outrageous and racist things Trump has said — that has to be it, right?

nrakich: During his time in office, yes.

There were others during the 2016 campaign (the Access Hollywood tape being #1 on that list).

perry: It’s true that what we’re talking about goes beyond what happened in Charlottesville. In fact, in terms of substance, you might say that the policy of separating children from their parents at the border or the travel ban that temporarily barred all visitors from seven majority-Muslim countries are better examples of some of the racist policies the administration has put forward. Charlottesville is just easier to describe as one moment.

ameliatd: I was wrestling with whether to put the travel ban in my top five. It was an action that made Trump’s campaign trail rhetoric immediately seem real. Trump wasn’t just going to attack Muslims and immigrants on the campaign trail — he was actually going to act on his promises.

nrakich: The entire first week of the Trump administration was truly surreal.

ameliatd: I had one moment on my list that we haven’t mentioned yet — Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination and confirmation hearings. If we’re talking about actions that both fit into the broader themes of Trump’s presidency and will have serious ramifications for Americans for years to come, I think that has to be in the top five.

nrakich: Agreed, Amelia. The Christine Blasey Ford hearing, and Kavanaugh’s subsequent confirmation, were #3 on my list.

Not only did he replace Anthony Kennedy, locking in five conservative votes on the court, but the allegations of attempted rape and indecent exposure that emerged spoke so much to the #MeToo zeitgeist of the time.

perry: It was, of course, a big deal that the swing justice (Kennedy) was replaced by a significantly more conservative person on the court, but in some ways, Kavanaugh is also a standard-issue conservative who could have been appointed by a more traditional Republican president like say, Jeb Bush.

It was the process by which Kavanaugh was appointed that was the real moment — a president accused of sexual assault put a judge accused of sexual assault on the highest court. The #MeToo movement was the one big story that happened between 2017 and 2019 that wasn’t centered on Trump, but I think Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle connected with that broader conversation about sexual misconduct.

ameliatd: Well, also, Perry, I think Jeb Bush would have probably pressured Kavanaugh to withdraw after the allegations against him were made public. The fact that Trump stood by him just feeds into the dynamic you’re describing.

perry: Exactly. If anything, the controversy seemed to make Trump more determined to put him on the court.

ameliatd: Women’s anger against Trump, too, has been a defining theme of his presidency, starting with the Women’s March in 2017 after his inauguration and continuing through the 2018 midterms. And I think the Ford/Kavanaugh hearing was a key moment in representing some of that.

perry: Yes, the vocal anger of liberal women is a big part of the reaction to the Trump presidency. The Women’s March illustrated that powerfully on the first day of Trump’s presidency, but as you say, the Kavanaugh hearings were a kind of culmination of that, too.

sarahf: It’s harder to define some of what we’re talking about now as one “moment,” but there has been such a strong undercurrent of liberal activism throughout his presidency that I could definitely see images from protests being included in the history books.

But are there other moments in people’s top five that we haven’t hit yet?

nrakich: My #4 moment was the failure of the Obamacare repeal in summer 2017, embodied by the late Sen. John McCain giving a thumbs-down no vote on the Senate floor.

I think, for most presidents, policy achievements are some of the biggest moments of their presidency. But, to be honest, Trump hasn’t pushed through much on the policy front. (Arguably, his tax cuts are probably his biggest legislative accomplishment, but I’m not sure how strongly they will be remembered.)

ameliatd: What about the government shutdown, though, Nathaniel? That was another moment when Trump tried to force a campaign promise through Congress and it backfired kind of spectacularly.

nrakich: Yes, the government shutdown came close to cracking my top five as well. It was one of the few events of Trump’s presidency that actually seemed to affect his approval rating! But as we’ve said over and over again, the effects of government shutdowns are pretty short-lived, whereas the consequences of Obamacare not having been repealed can still be felt.

perry: The failure of repealing the ACA was big, in part, because it is a policy that affects millions. But I thought at the time that the ACA-repeal setback indicated that Trump might not be able to implement his agenda more broadly. That’s not really happened, though. The tax bill passed a few months later, and even though Trump hasn’t gotten as much funding as he wanted for his border wall, he has been able to accomplish a lot of his immigration policies through executive orders.

There are at least three other moments I’d call out, too. Two of which we have already kind of hit on. First, the actual Mueller report, which outlined a lot of really questionable behavior and in some ways led to Trump’s impeachment. Second, the 2018 midterm elections (a pretty firm rejection of Trump by the voters). And third, although there is no single event we can point to, I’d argue that the low unemployment rate and strong GDP growth have made it easier for Trump’s supporters to rationalize some of his behavior and has probably kept his approval rating from going too low.

nrakich: Yes, Perry, the 2018 elections rounded out my top five moments. They were a bloodbath for Republicans, especially in the House and governors’ mansions. And that has had reverberating policy implications both on the state and federal levels — for example, impeachment was really only possible because of the House results in 2018. Also, as you said, it was a strong statement by voters against Trump. Democrats flipped more House seats than they had in any election since 1974. It definitely has set the tone for the last two years of Trump’s first term.

ameliatd: We also haven’t talked about Trump’s foreign policy or his trade policy, both of which have had pretty broad consequences. What about the withdrawal of troops from Syria or his steel tariffs?

sarahf: Or everything with North Korea!

nrakich: Yeah, his trade policy is significant, but again, it’s hard to boil down to a single moment. The historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore in 2018 was a milestone but didn’t end up having any actual policy implications, really.

perry: I mentioned Helsinki at the beginning because when it comes to foreign policy, the only thing I think that is really notable is its pro-Russia weirdness. To some extent, that includes everything with Syria, too (Russia wanted the U.S. to withdraw forces from Syria).

sarahf: The conceit of this chat was to distill Trump’s presidency into five key moments, which as we’ve discussed can be difficult to do, especially as so many of the things we’ve talked about are interconnected, but if you had to write down your top three or five moments for defining his presidency so far what would they be?

nrakich: Here are my top 10, because I am nothing if not a completist:

  1. Ukraine story breaks/impeachment inquiry launches
  2. Firing Comey/Mueller appointed special counsel
  3. Kavanaugh hearing and subsequent confirmation
  4. McCain votes down Obamacare repeal
  5. Election Day 2018
  6. House votes to impeach
  7. First week of presidency (travel ban and protests)
  8. Government shutdown
  9. Family separation policy and protests
  10. Release of the Mueller report

ameliatd: I’d say my top four moments are:

  1. The impeachment vote (and process, if we’re allowed to cheat a bit and fold that into a “moment”)
  2. Comey’s firing and Mueller’s appointment
  3. The Charlottesville rally and Trump’s reaction
  4. Kavanaugh’s nomination and confirmation hearings

A lot of the things we’ve discussed are significant, but those are the ones that really rise to the top for me — and in some ways encompass elements of the others. Maybe I’d add the government shutdown as a significant moment: Trump tried to force Congress to fulfill a campaign promise and had to back down. Or the family separation policy and travel ban as policies that had a big and serious impact.

perry:

  1. Comey’s firing
  2. The Mueller report
  3. Trump’s reaction to Charlottesville
  4. Trump’s comments in Helsinki
  5. Impeachment
  6. The travel ban
  7. Kavanaugh’s confirmation
  8. The Women’s March
  9. The 2018 midterm elections
  10. Family separation

But that list is not necessarily based on order of importance. And that’s because in answering this, one thing I’m struggling with is things that are important symbolically (Comey’s firing) versus those that affect a lot of people (family separation/travel ban).

nrakich: My overall takeaway from this chat is how many of our top moments were not good ones (i.e., policy accomplishments) for Trump. It just goes to show how turbulent his presidency has been so far — and I’d say not very effective either.

ameliatd: Right, I think that’s an important takeaway, Nathaniel. In nearly all of the moments we mentioned, you can see a current of upheaval, divisiveness and norm-defying behavior running underneath.

perry: These moments do show that Trump’s presidency has been norm-breaking and divisive. I’m not totally sure they show that he has been ineffective, though, because it seems to me that annoying liberals, the political establishment and the media is something he likes and something that his core base of supporters loves. Division, it seems to me, is a feature — not a bug — for Trump, and I think he has been effective in pursuing it.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s politics editor.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

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