Donald Trump’s four years in office as President of the United States

Donald Trump’s four years in office as President of the United States

Environment, the economy, climate change and human rights. A look back at Donald Trump’s one-term, four-year presidency.

Reading time: 23 min.

On the 20th of January 2021, a political era came to an end. After four years in charge, Donald Trump refused to shake the new president’s hand and attend his inauguration ceremony, ignoring unwritten rules of respect between political adversaries. All the complaints, lawsuits and appeals carried forth in several battleground states by his campaign’s lawyers in the hope of overturning the election results have amounted to nothing. The end of this political era in the United States seems set in stone. But transforming the cultural context underpinning Trump’s election in November 2016 and his subsequent presidency will be a longer, more delicate, complex and circuitous process. 

Donald Trump’s four years in office have been marked by endless taboos being broken, and this process of disruption continuously being legitimised. The White House disputed the need to combat climate change, legitimising the US’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Doubt was cast on all evidence about global warming and its anthropogenic causes, expounded by scientists for decades.

Trump’s White House forcefully stopped migrants from crossing borders. It legitimised arresting them and keeping them in cages. Tearing families apart, inhumanely separating children from their parents is legitimate, it said.

Trump’s White House legitimised the economic principle of mors tua vita mea (your death, my life), an isolationist and protectionist outlook taking the form of import tariffs, trade wars and an “us against them” mentality. The old neoliberal tactic of tax cuts for the rich made a comeback. So too did the never-proven “trickle-down” effect whereby if the rich can invest, do business and produce more easily, sooner or later the less-advantaged will also reap the benefits.

Trump’s White House legitimised the idea that international UN bodies can essentially be boycotted if they don’t accept the American way of doing things. This happened with UNESCO, with the finalisation of a rupture whose seeds were planted in the Obama years, albeit for different reasons. It happened with the World Health Organisation, accused of spreading lies about the coronavirus, in an attempt to cover up Washington’s own political and administrative failures in managing the pandemic. It happened with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. These were all attempts to destroy multilateralism: political thought and action driven by egotism and arrogance.

Trump’s White House, essentially, legitimised “Trumpism”. An expression of those parts of the country that are still entirely inward-looking, swayed by the false myth of the American dream, dripping with individualism and warped patriotism. Still invested in an ever-more-questionable idea of American exceptionalism. These are the real problems that Joe Biden will have to confront. The challenge is to start a cultural transition, not just a political one, by appealing directly to the over 74 million people who voted for Trumpism.

2017 – Year one

During his first twelve months in charge, Trump’s approach proved to be vastly different from that of his predecessor, Barack Obama, a Democrat. On the 1st of June 2017, he announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, resolutely confirming his stance as a climate change sceptic. The process for the full withdrawal took over three years, ending – probably by coincidence – on election day 2020.

In practice, however, at all the UN climate conferences that took place throughout the Republican’s presidency, the United States blatantly tried to slow down the ecological transition required to save the world from global warming.

Support for fossil fuels

In his first year in office, Trump pushed Congress to revoke an Obama-era ban on hunting bears and wolves. He then announced that oil exploration would resume in the Arctic Ocean and drastically reduced the size of two protected areas in Utah. Trump also revived two major oil pipeline projects: Keystone XL and Dakota Access. Additionally, he abolished the Clean Power Plan, a piece of legislation that required power stations to reduce their CO2 emissions by 32 per cent by 2030 compared with 2005 levels.

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Protests against the Dakota Pipeline and in favour of Native American rights, 10 March 2017, Washington D.C. © Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

The leadership of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was assigned to a fossil-fuel proponent, Scott Pruitt. On the 20th of April 2018, Pruitt was replaced by Andrew R. Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, who still holds the position today. On the 24th of August 2017, Trump signed a recommendation aimed at increasing mining exploration.

A hard line on migrants and the LGBTQ+ community

The Republican president also made headlines with his migration policy. Trump imposed the so-called “Muslim Ban”, permanently prohibiting entry into the United States for the citizens of seven countries labelled as “hostile”. He also withdrew the US from the UN Global Compact on Migration. Subsequently, the Trump administration set to work on dismantling so-called Obamacare healthcare reforms initiated by his predecessor. The White House website’s page on LGBTQ+ rights was also removed.

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Protests in Miami, Florida against Trump’s Medicaid cuts, which affected millions of people © Joe Raedle/Getty Images

On the 20th of June 2018, the US President had to backtrack on the forced separation of children from their parents at migrant detention facilities near the US-Mexico border. Widespread outrage from around the world led Trump to sign an order that partially addressed the problem. The provision, however, still permitted the separation of adults, and it had no effect on families (including children) who were separated before it was signed.

Israel, Iran and UNESCO: a policy of disruption

In foreign policy terms, Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, transferring the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the Holy City, caused a major stir, especially in Palestine. The president then refused to ratify the Iran nuclear deal, one of Obama’s major foreign policy legacies. The US also left the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) calling it “an anti-Israel body”.

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Violent clashes at the border between Palestine and Israel on the day of the inauguration of the US Embassy in Jerusalem in May 2018 © Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images

Focus – The economy under Trumpism

When Donald Trump took office, the unemployment rate in the US was at 4.7 per cent.

The rate fell steadily throughout Trump’s presidency, reaching its lowest point in 50 years, 3.5 per cent, in September 2019 before the onset of the coronavirus crisis.

With the arrival of the pandemic, unemployment began to rise at pace, reaching a high of 14.7 per cent. It then fell to 7.9 per cent in September and 6.9 per cent in October.

In 2016, the last year of the Obama presidency, economic growth in the US stood at 1.6 per cent.

The following year, it reached 2.3 per cent.

In 2018, the US economy accelerated further, hitting a 2.9 per cent growth rate. This fell back to 2.3 per cent in 2019.

The 2017 tax bill significantly reduced taxes on higher-income groups and lowered business taxes from 35 to 21 per cent.

These measures undoubtedly supported growth, but they also led the deficit to increase by 26 per cent compared to the previous year, coming close to a trillion dollars.

Due to the crisis management measures required during the pandemic, the deficit tripled in 2020, passing three trillion dollars. Consequently, public debt increased to almost 27 trillion dollars.

2018 – Year two

Over the course of his second year as President, Trump’s approach remained combative. Those who had been expecting a more diplomatic political strategy were disappointed.

Tax reform, tariffs, protectionism

Towards the end of 2017, the Senate approved a tax reform bill that drastically reduced taxes for many US citizens starting the following year. This 1.4-trillion-dollar cut over ten years overwhelmingly benefited the super-rich. It has been calculated that the 1 per cent of citizens with an income above 500,000 dollars saved 60 billion dollars in taxes in 2019. This same amount of savings was spread across the 54 per cent of Americans who earn between 20,000 and 100,000 dollars a year.

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In 2018, Philadelphia was recorded as the poorest of the ten largest US cities, with a 26 per cent poverty rate compared to 13 per cent nationally © Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Over the course of 2018, Trump also embraced a protectionist approach to foreign trade. In January, he imposed a 30 per cent tariff on solar panels imported from Asia. This decision was, supposedly, aimed at protecting American manufacturers.

Trump then went on to impose similar tariffs on steel and aluminium, drawing ire not only from Asian countries but the European Union as well. The Trump White House also signed new trade deals with Mexico, Canada and South Korea.

“Free” CO2 for automakers and support for oil

Subsequently, Trump threatened to adopt the same approach towards the automotive industry. He loosened regulatory standards on CO2 emissions for US carmakers. Then, in early December, the administration announced its intention to abolish all subsidies for purchasing electric cars and systems based on renewable energy. The decision was confirmed by United States National Economic Council Director and White House advisor Larry Kudlow.

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During the first two years of his term in office, President Donald Trump didn’t fail to show his support for fossil fuels © Chris Kleponis/Pool/Getty Images

Furthermore, in September Washington began the procedure required to change legislation on methane emissions. This decision allowed oil companies to release more gas into the atmosphere during their fossil fuel extraction activities.

Reviving coal

To make matters worse, at the beginning of December the government suggested repealing another law that was passed under Obama: a limit on greenhouse gas emissions from new coal power plants. Trump aimed to authorise the release into the atmosphere of 1,862 kilogrammes of CO2 for every megawatt-hour of energy produced, compared to 635 under Obama’s law. “We’re rescinding unfair burdens on American energy providers and levelling the playing field,” Wheeler stated.

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According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), fossil fuels such as coal must be phased out if the goals of the Paris Agreement are to be met © Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The Supreme Court as a political tool

The Supreme Court featured heavily in Trump’s first two years, especially after it initially acted to block the Muslim Ban. The president wanted to reduce the likelihood of the court opposing further legislation or slowing his government down. He did so by appointing conservative justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh during his first two years in office, swinging the court’s orientation in a decidedly right-wing direction.

Furthermore, in the lead-up to the 2020 elections, the progressive Ruth Bader Ginsburg – nicknamed The Notorious RBG – passed away. She was the second woman ever to be nominated to the Supreme Court and spent a lifetime fighting for her beliefs.

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Donald and Melania Trump behind Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s coffin during her funeral at the Supreme Court on 24 September 2020 © Alex Wong/Getty Images

Trump chose Amy Coney Barrett as RBG’s substitute, further skewing the court’s balance to the right. Barrett, 48, is Catholic, conservative and has handed down anti-abortion judgements in the past. Her appointment was approved by the Senate with 52 votes in favour and 48 against. She was the first justice since 1869 not to receive any votes from the opposing party (the Democrats, in this case). “I will do (my job) independently of both the political branches and of my own preferences,” she declared after her swearing-in. This remains to be seen.

Dialogue with North Korea and withdrawal from Syria

In terms of foreign policy, the second year of the Trump presidency was marked by the – not uncomplicated – reopening of dialogue with North Korea. The rapprochement culminated in Trump’s historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on the 12th of June 2018 in Singapore.

At the end of 2018, Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops from Syria, giving the Pentagon four months to arrange for the return of approximately 2,000 soldiers still stationed in the Middle Eastern country in the throes of a prolonged civil war.

Tug-of-war on the Mexican border wall

On the issue of migration, Trump decided to stick to a hard-line approach. Convinced of the need to build a wall on the border with Mexico – one of the few campaign promises he had made – the president asked Congress to approve financing for the project. After the midterm elections, however, the Democratic opposition took hold of the majority in the House of Representatives and refused to approve the funding. This led to the so-called “shutdown”, a partial suspension of public administration while the approval of a new annual budget is delayed. “I can’t tell you when the government’s going to be open. I can tell you it’s not going to be open until we have a wall or fence, whatever they’d like to call it,” the president stated from the Oval Office during a call to US military forces on Christmas day.

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Migrants from Honduras at the border fence in Tijuana, Mexico © Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images

Furthermore, in November the government announced that it wanted to stop migrants entering the country illegally from presenting requests for asylum. The president also endorsed a total border closure when faced with a migrant caravan from Central America making its way to the US.

Focus – Climate disengagement

On the 1st of June 2017, President Donald Trump announced that the US would be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement signed during the COP21, the 21st UN global climate conference.

This announcement wasn’t unexpected, but it essentially isolated the US internationally.

Many governments led by climate sceptics have chosen the path of disengagement, but Washington is the only one to have officially withdrawn from the treaty.

After all, the Trump administration’s outlook was clear from the beginning. Many environmental protection laws and greenhouse gas reduction targets approved during Obama’s two terms were eliminated or deprived of any real power.

For example, new drilling in the Arctic was incentivised in the hope of finding oil and gas reserves.

The policy was adopted despite the enormous risks posed by such activities not only for the landscape, considering the potential for accidents, but also for the climate due to the impact that burning fossil fuels has on global warming.

The United States’ disengagement was also obvious during the most recent UNFCCC climate change conferences.

Starting with the COP23 in Bonn in 2018, official US delegations were reduced to a minimum. American cities, universities, states, companies and public figures tried to fill the void left by the federal government, organising events and conferences in which many celebrities also took part.

For example, this image shows actor Harrison Ford taking part in the COP25 in Madrid in December 2019.

2019 – Year three

The Russia inquiry

Launched in the Spring of 2017, the so-called Trump-Russia inquiry left a deep mark on the president’s third year in office. The investigation, carried out by special counsel Robert Mueller, looked into possible interference from the Russian government in the 2016 elections that might have led to Trump’s victory.

In April 2019, Mueller delivered a 448-page report in which he concluded that the Kremlin did, in fact, attempt to influence the result. However, the investigator wasn’t able to prove that Trump was complicit in this interference. However, two months later, Mueller agreed to speak out publicly, stating that he had found evidence of “multiple and systematic efforts” to “damage a presidential candidate”, referring to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. The special counsel also admitted that it was governmental influence and not the absence of evidence that stopped him from drawing certain conclusions regarding Trump’s alleged collusion.

Migrant children separated from their families

During the same period, the world was shocked by new revelations about the dramatic experiences of migrant children detained and separated from their parents and families on the US-Mexico border. An Associated Press investigation also revealed the terrible conditions faced by detained migrants.

It then emerged that the parents of 545 children still haven’t been tracked down. The children might not find out where they are for years. Perhaps ever.

Breaking with Cuba

In the spring of 2019, Trump also acted to escalate economic pressure on Cuba. In stark contrast to the historic reconciliation between the US and the Caribbean island nation under Obama, the president imposed new restrictions on travel and money transfers between the two countries.

Supposedly “taking a stand on democracy and human rights” in Latin America, Trump’s approach proved to be diametrically opposed to that of his predecessor. And, leaning heavily in favour of symbolism, he decided to announce these measures on the anniversary of the United States’ attempted invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.

New drilling in Alaska

In September 2019, the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) drew the ire of NGOs and environmental organisations the world over. The decision that sparked this outrage was the granting of drilling rights for oil and gas companies in 600,000 hectares of coastal lowlands in Alaska. The BLM’s conclusive environmental impact assessment claimed these activities were compatible with nature conservation in Alaska’s protected lands.

“We have taken a significant step in meeting our obligations by determining where and under what conditions the oil and gas development programme will occur,” stated Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt. “Today’s announcement marks a milestone in Alaska’s forty-year journey to responsibly develop our state and our nation’s new energy frontier”, declared Alaska’s Republican governor Michael J. Dunleavy.

Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement confirmed

On the 4th of November 2019, President Donald Trump formally confirmed his government’s intention to leave the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. The official withdrawal procedure was carried out by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who explained in a statement that he had notified UN Secretary-General António Guterres of the decision.

In the statement, the diplomat insisted that the agreement’s text represented an “unfair economic burden” for his country. He then went on to say that Washington would “continue to offer a realistic and pragmatic model – backed by a record of real-world results – showing innovation and open markets lead to greater prosperity, fewer emissions and more secure sources of energy”.

Impeachment trial

One month later, Trump became embroiled in an inquiry that made the prospect of him actually leaving the White House feasible. On the 18th of December 2019, the House of Representatives voted in favour of formally initiating impeachment proceedings against the president, accused of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

These charges were linked to the alleged pressure that Trump exercised on the government of Ukraine to interfere with the 2020 elections by engaging in a smear campaign against Biden, who at the time was just one of many candidates in the Democratic primaries. According to the prosecution, Trump threatened to freeze military aid if Kyiv refused to support the White House in discrediting Biden.

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Donald Trump with a copy of the Washington Post following his acquittal by the Senate © Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A few weeks later, however, the impeachment proceedings – the first since those brought against Bill Clinton in 1998 – came to an end. With 52 votes in favour and 48 against, on the 6th of February 2020 the Republican-majority Senate upended the judgement passed by the Democratic-majority House, ruling that the president wasn’t guilty of abuse of power.

Trump, for his part, claimed to have been the victim of a plot orchestrated by the Democrats and has always denied having put any pressure on Ukraine.

Focus – Black Lives Matter

The Trump years were also been marked by the increased mobilisation of the African American community in the United States, spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement.


The largest wave of protests came in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota on the 25th of May.

African American activists accused the police of disproportionately targeting people of colour with their violent methods.

A video shared widely on social media showed Floyd’s death in all its brutality. Thousands of people took to the streets in Minneapolis, demanding justice.

The protest spread to other cities and states, and soon it had taken over the entire United States.

Demonstrations against racism and police brutality took place throughout the summer of 2020 in over 2,500 US cities and towns, and in many other countries across the globe.

In some cases, they resulted in violent clashes, often escalated by police forces themselves, and there were instances of arson, looting and vandalism.

The clashes between protesters and police forces led to the death of 32 people.

At the end of June, in an interview with conservative media outlet Fox News, Donald Trump accused a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement of trying to start an uprising on US soil.

2020 – Year four

The assassination of Qasem Soleimani

In the first days of the new year, all eyes were on Iran. In the night between Thursday the 2nd and Friday the 3rd of January 2020, a US drone strike hit a convoy near Baghdad International Airport in Iraq. Among those attacked were high-ranking members of Hashd al-Shaabi (the Popular Mobilisation Forces of Iraq’s Shiite military coalition) and, most importantly, Qasem Soleimani, a popular and powerful Iranian military commander. Soleimani died at the scene.

This military operation was ordered directly by the White House and proudly claimed by Trump, sending shockwaves through the Gulf region. Soleimani was one of the most powerful figures in the Middle East, responsible for Iran’s extraterritorial military and clandestine operations and commander of the Quds Force, one of the five Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Coronavirus and the health crisis

On the same day that Trump was acquitted by the Senate, the first death from the novel coronavirus was recorded in the United States. At the time, the president and his entourage consistently downplayed the risk caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, accusing the Democrats of exploiting the emergency to destabilise the government.

“They tried the impeachment hoax … And this is their new hoax,” Trump claimed. Two months later, in April, with the pandemic in full swing, he also stated that ultraviolet rays or disinfectant injected into the lungs could cure Covid-19 patients, with no scientific evidence backing such claims. In the meantime, Trump repeatedly pointed the finger at the so-called “China virus”, spreading fake news about Beijing’s responsibility for its diffusion.

Trump also accused the World Health Organisation (WHO) of having reacted too slowly to the pandemic. Thus, in mid-April, he decided to cut US funding to the UN body. “The World Health Organisation chose not to share … critical information with the rest of the world, probably for political reasons,” the US leader wrote in a letter, stating that he would be “terminating our relationship with the WHO”.

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On 1 October, Donald Trump announced that he had tested positive for Covid-19, and the following day he was transferred to Walter Reed military hospital © Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On the 1st of October, Trump announced that he had contracted Covid-19, and spent three days in hospital. As of mid-January, the total amount of Covid-related deaths in the US stands at almost 400,000 people.

Coal mining in Utah’s National Monuments

In February 2020, the United States government officially announced its blueprint for managing two national monuments in Utah, which President Trump had already downsized in 2017. These changes have opened the doors for energy companies to undertake oil and coal extraction in a region spanning almost 350,000 hectares.

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A coal power plant in Utah © George Frey/Getty Images

The US government justified its decision on the basis on its own analysis, according to which coal production could generate 208 million dollars in income annually and 16.6 million dollars in royalties on lands no longer within the parks’ borders. According to this analysis, oil and gas wells in the region might lead to significant increases in revenue.

Environmental laws suspended during the pandemic

Furthermore, during the pandemic, the Trump administration suspended the implementation of certain environmental laws. This controversial decision was announced in an EPA statement at the end of March. The agency claimed that weakening the regulations was a necessary measure to help industries and businesses get through the crisis, considering that they would have struggled to respect certain provisions.

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President Trump in Louisville, Kentucky in May 2020 © Scott Olson/Getty Images

Cub hunting in Alaska gets the green light

Finally, in June, the US government lifted a ban originally adopted under the Obama administration which stopped hunters from using bait and traps to capture and kill animals in Alaska’s nature reserves. Starting from July last year, such tools can be thus be used to draw out hibernating bears, exterminating entire litters of wolf cubs in their dens, shooting caribous while they swim or targeting any animal from essentially any type vehicle: cars, planes, boats, snowmobiles.

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Donald Trump © Anna Moneymaker/Pool/Getty Images

Capitol riots: Trump supporters assault Congress

As Biden’s inauguration drew near, a group of Trump supporters gathered outside of the Capitol, the seat of Congress, on the 6th of January, exhorted by the outgoing president himself. They then proceeded to storm the building, literally occupying it, while members of Congress were inside, busy certifying the results of the election won by Biden. Five people lost their lives in the attack, including a Capitol Police officer who died from injuries sustained during the “Capitol riots” – as the events have become known – and four Trump supporters. This led Congress itself to undertake impeachment proceedings against Trump for “wilful incitement of insurrection”. The Senate trial coincides with the end of Trump’s term and the beginning of Biden’s presidency.

All in all, it has been four long, very intense years, of which we’ve offered only an extremely synthetic overview. Trump’s time in office was intertwined with a long electoral campaign filled with low blows and fake news. Even the electoral cycle played out longer than expected, with vote counting taking days, even weeks, due to the increase in mail-in ballots and the Trump campaign’s lawsuits and demands for recounts, which did little to speed things up. But, in the end, Donald Trump can’t escape the fact that in January 2021 he has to close the doors to the White House behind him for the last time.

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