Blunders, gaffes, and dubious behavior are an inexhaustible resource in the Trump administration. Below, an inexhaustive list of the year’s forgotten missteps.
1. “You’re Fired.” Or Not.
Turnover abounds in the Trump administration, yet the president rarely pulls out his Apprentice catchphrase. “He hates firing people,” a senior official told New York’s Olivia Nuzzi. “He knows he’s gotta fire every one of them — but he can’t bring himself to do it.” Below, a sampling of some of the more high-profile exits of the year.
On January 19, after CNN reported on his past comments disparaging African-Americans, Muslims, gay people, and vets with PTSD, Higbie, the chief of external affairs for the Corporation for National and Community Service, resigned under pressure.
On February 7, the White House staff secretary resigned after both of his ex-wives came forward with allegations of abuse while they were married to him, including an allegation by one of the women that Porter ran over her foot with their car.
Two days later, White House speechwriter David Sorenson resigned after his former wife came forward with allegations of abuse.
Cohn, who is Jewish, threatened to quit after Trump’s response to the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, but it was ultimately Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports that caused the director of the White House National Economic Council to resign in protest on March 6.
On March 13, the secretary of State learned that he was going to be fired when a top aide showed him a tweet from the president announcing Mike Pompeo’s appointment to his job.
Under pressure for his “lack of candor,” FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe intended to retire on his 50th birthday, in order to receive his full pension. But on March 16, 26 hours before his birthday/retirement party, Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired McCabe. In December, it emerged that McCabe and Rod Rosenstein had opened a secret obstruction of justice investigation after the ouster of James Comey the year before.
H. R. McMaster
The week after Tillerson’s departure-by-tweet, the Cabinet shake-up continued when Trump announced on March 22 that John Bolton would replace H.R. McMaster as national security adviser.
One of the administration’s most reliable, least public officials, the 29-year-old White House communications director resigned on March 29. (March was an especially shaky month for the administration, with the departure of eight high-level staff members.)
Dogged by a litany of ethics scandals — including the installation of a $43,000 soundproof booth in his office and the use of official channels to try to get his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise — the EPA chief stepped down on July 5.
By threatening to resign if Trump fired Robert Mueller, White House counsel Don McGahn helped save the special counsel investigation, and was rewarded when the president announced his resignation by tweet on August 29.
On October 9, Haley — who sparred with the White House in April when Larry Kudlow said she had “some momentary confusion” about Russian sanctions — announced her intent to resign at the end of the year.
After a year and a half of Twitter ridicule for recusing himself in the Russia investigation, Jeff Sessions was fired on November 7, the morning after the midterms.
On his way to the Army-Navy football game on December 8, Trump told reporters that his embattled chief of staff would resign at the end of the year: “John Kelly will be leaving — I don’t know if I can say ‘retiring.’ But he’s a great guy.”
Like Scott Pruitt, Zinke’s twin goals in the administration appeared to be revoking environmental protection regulations and getting embroiled in ethical investigations. In the midst of no-less-than 17 inquiries, Zinke announced his intention to resign on December 15.
The last of the president’s class of pet generals, Mattis resigned from his position as Defense secretary on December 20, after Trump’s surprise decision to withdraw from Syria. Three days after his resignation, Trump sped up Mattis’s departure by two months, because he had not realized how scathing Mattis’s resignation letter was until TV news explained its contents.
2. You’re Hired. It’s Fraught.
With all the staffing changes, some new employees were bound to be controversial. With other hires, it seemed as if stirring the pot was the point.
The physician to the president, Jackson was slated to be the next secretary of Veterans Affairs, until allegations that he was the White House “candy man” became public. Jackson was accused of creating a toxic work environment; passing out unprescribed Ambien and Provigil to staff on flights; and, on a 2015 trip, drunkenly banging on the hotel-room door of a female employee so loudly that Secret Service agents stopped him, concerned that he would wake up President Obama. On April 26, he withdrew himself from consideration.
When her boss at the CIA, Mike Pompeo, was confirmed as Trump’s second secretary of State, deputy director Gina Haspel seemed like the natural candidate to head the agency — barring a 2002 stint running a black site in Thailand, where, under her command, a detainee was subjected to waterboarding and other acts of torture. Ultimately, six Democrats voted for her nomination in the Senate on May 17, for a final vote of 54 to 45. John McCain, who was in the hospital and did not vote, urged senators to reject the nomination.
The day of Scott Pruitt’s resignation, former Fox News co-president Bill Shine became the White House deputy chief of staff for communications. Shine, who was accused in several lawsuits of ignoring the network’s rampant sexual-harassment problems, is the man responsible for those weird videos of Trump yelling at the camera in the Rose Garden, which are filmed, according to five senior officials, because they make the president feel good.
As if to hermetically seal the Fox News–West Wing loop, former Fox & Friends news anchor Heather Nauert was nominated as U.N. ambassador upon the resignation of Nikki Haley. Six months earlier, working as a State Department spokesperson, she cited the D-Day invasion as an example of America’s “strong relationship with the government of Germany.”
Scandal at the VA continued after the withdrawal of Ronny Jackson: In August, ProPublica published a story about an informal council based out of Mar-a-Lago, led by the chairman of Marvel Comics, that shaped department policy. Although the confirmation of the Air Force reservist and former Jesse Helms aide Robert Wilkie appeared to be a nonissue when he was appointed in July, by December it emerged that in 1995 Wilkie had called Jefferson Davis a “martyr to ‘the Lost Cause’” in a speech at the U.S. Capitol. In 2009, he doubled down in a speech to a chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, of which he was once a member.
3. Things Trump Forgot
4. Our Fair Lady
Melania Trump may be the most reserved First Lady in decades, but the subtext of her behavior speaks volumes.
In February, Melania encouraged “positive habits on social media and technology,” with the entirely transparent parallel to her husband’s Twitter fingers going unacknowledged. The platform developed into her “Be Best” public awareness campaign, with a Kushner-sized purview focusing on well-being, cyberbullying, and the opioid crisis.
In May, Melania disappeared from the public eye for 25 days, with little explanation for her prolonged absence. According to a White House statement, she underwent an embolization for a benign kidney condition — an alibi which ignored that she disappeared just after the Stormy Daniels payoff derailed the administration. Though she maintained a strong poker face, her body language shortly before the disappearance may have given her away.
Upon her return in June, Melania incited outrage when she wore an army-green jacket emblazoned with the phrase “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” to meet incarcerated migrant children separated from their families at the border. The first couple tried to explain away the jacket as an artless and innocuous decision, but that excuse lost any merit when Melania donned a white pith helmet on her solo trip through Africa, a colonialist staple of British soldiers on the continent in the 19th century. After wearing the symbol of colonial oppression, she declared in an interview, “I could say I’m the most bullied person on the world.”
5. A Relationship in Three Tweets
- April 21: “Michael is a businessman for his own account/lawyer who I have always liked & respected. Most people will flip if the Government lets them out of trouble, even if it means lying or making up stories. Sorry, I don’t see Michael doing that.”
- July 25: “Sounds to me like someone is trying to make up stories in order to get himself out of an unrelated jam (Taxi cabs maybe?)”
- December 3: “Michael Cohen asks judge for no Prison Time.” You mean he can do all of the TERRIBLE, unrelated to Trump, things having to do with fraud, big loans, Taxis, etc., and not serve a long prison term? He makes up stories to get a GREAT & ALREADY reduced deal for himself, and get his wife and father-in-law (who has the money?) off Scott Free. He lied for this outcome and should, in my opinion, serve a full and complete sentence.”
6. The Trump Doctrine: “We’re America, Bitch”
How does the Trump administration see itself in history? At the halftime — or, at least the end of the first quarter — of the 45th presidency, early speculation on the Trump doctrine has already begun. In June, a senior national security official described Trump’s worldview to The Atlantic: “Permanent destabilization creates American advantage.”
According to the president’s comments to the international community this year, that’s right on the money. In January, after learning that Kim Jong-un has the nuclear button on his desk, Trump tweeted, “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” By summer, Trump was in Singapore for a historic, if unfruitful, summit with North Korea. In July, a week after calling the European Union “a foe,” Trump went off on President Rouhani of Iran: “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.” A couple months later, he had mellowed, saying that although he had no immediate plans to meet with Rouhani, “I am sure he is an absolutely lovely man!”
A senior official in the White House explained this approach in more direct terms. “The Trump doctrine is ‘We’re America, Bitch,’” the official told The Atlantic, adding that the president “doesn’t feel like he has to apologize for anything America does.” That certainly lines up with some of the president’s more vulgar observations, whether it’s declaring that immigrants who seek American citizenship are from “shithole countries,” or drumming up racist fervor about Central American migrants to rally the MAGA vote for November. Or just giving the rub to our neighbors to the north: “I love Canada but they’ve taken advantage of this country for many years!”
But an overlooked tweet from October might provide the most salient expression of the Trump doctrine yet: nationalism funneled into meaningless gesture.
7. Umbrella Trouble, and Other Physical Comedies
Trump’s year in physical humor began when presidential physician, Dr. Ronny Jackson, shared the results of his checkup, which determined that Trump’s “overall health is excellent” and that he clocked in at 239 pounds — conveniently, a BMI just one point shy of obesity for his supposed height of six-foot-three. Cue the comparisons to men of similar size, but more athletic frames: Tim Tebow, Jay Cutler, Alex Ovechkin.
Then came the umbrella trouble. In February, despite carrying a huge one up the stairs to Air Force One, he could not be bothered to cover his wife or 11-year-old son. In October, he left Melania hanging again on the White House lawn. Later that month came the coup de grâce: Boarding Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Trump appeared to not know how to close an umbrella, leaving it on the airstairs for someone with the technical skill to wrangle it in.
Over in Europe, the slapstick continued: In July, boasting his shoulders-out, child’s posture, Trump stepped in front of the 92-year-old Queen of England and stopped, forcing her to walk around him. Anticipating rain at the ceremony honoring the 100th anniversary of World War One’s end, the White House canceled, citing “scheduling and logistical difficulties caused by the weather.” Other leaders of the Allied powers defied the showers, but considering Trump’s history with umbrellas — and the state of his hair in a wind gust — perhaps it was the right call.
A highlight reel fit for the Ministry of Truth.
January 7: Senior adviser Stephen Miller shows the zeal of a true believer in an interview with Jake Tapper, calling Trump “a political genius” twice and “a self-made billionaire who revolutionized reality TV and changed the course of our politics.” After 12 minutes of purple praise and CNN trashing, Tapper cut the interview short; Miller refused to leave, and security was called to escort him out.
January 11: Trump denies campaign collusion a prolific eight times in a 20-second period.
March 3: In a private speech to Republican donors at Mar-a-Lago, Trump says “it’s great” that Xi Jinping became the Chinese “president for life,” and that “maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.”
July 25: Trump, at a VFW rally in Kansas City: “Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news … What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
July 31: At a rally in Tampa, Trump defends voter-ID laws — a vital tool of voter suppression — saying that if people need a picture ID to buy groceries, they need one to vote.
August 2: When Jim Acosta asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to denounce Trump’s remarks that the media is the “enemy of the people,” Sanders demurred. Later that day, Trump clarified his comments: “It is the FAKE NEWS, which is a large percentage of the media, that is the enemy of the people!”
August 19: Defending Trump’s decision not to perjure himself by appearing before the special counsel, former New York mayor and ontological expert Rudy Giuliani said, “truth isn’t truth.”
September 25: When Trump told the U.N. General Assembly that his “administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of the United States,” he received a wave of laughter, which hardly derailed him. “So true. Didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s okay.”
November 7: Sarah Huckabee Sanders posts a video from an editor-at-large at InfoWars, in which it appears that Jim Acosta struck away the hand of a White House intern attempting to take his microphone away. The clip was sped up to exaggerate the benign motion, and Sanders used it to “stand by our decision to revoke this individual’s hard pass.” On November 16, a federal judge ruled to return Acosta’s press pass immediately.
9. Mourning in America
In death, as in life, Trump has trouble giving up the spotlight.
Trump began the year with an acceptably “presidential” appearance at the service for Billy Graham in March, giving a short, scripted speech commemorating the Evangelical leader. But the unremarkable behavior didn’t last: In April, the White House stated that Trump would skip the ceremony memorializing Barbara Bush “out of respect.”
Respect was notably absent in the president’s treatment of John McCain, who requested before his death that Trump not attend his funeral. When the senator died on August 25, Trump posted a “deepest sympathies” message to the McCain family, but put his own picture on it. The next day, it emerged that Sarah Huckabee Sanders, John Kelly, and other White House aides pushed for an official statement that called McCain a “hero” and honored him for his service in the military and Senate; Trump passed, and went golfing. After two days and much criticism, the president finally allowed the White House flag to be lowered to half-mast.
Trump did attend the funeral of George H. W. Bush in December, although he didn’t look happy about it, sitting stone-faced through the ceremony, with Melania serving as a buffer in their pew with the Obamas, Clintons, and Carters. The Times reported that Trump’s annoyance emerged out of jealousy:
Mr. Trump has been snappish with aides most of the week, according to administration officials, miffed in part by so many ceremonial events not related to him. He was impatient for the memorials to end but expressed pride in himself for remaining publicly civil. People close to the president called it a course correction after his peevish reaction to Mr. McCain’s death.
Looking back to the funeral of Fred Trump in 1999, it may be for the best that the president limited his eulogy opportunities this year: In a speech about his father, Trump made it all about himself, even sneaking in a reference to a front-page article about one of his recently completed buildings.
10. Unwelcome Outreach
Not known for his personal warmth, Donald Trump feigned kindness toward the survivors of this year’s batch of mass shootings. More often than not, the condolences didn’t go over well.
Trump on the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, in which 17 people were killed: “My prayers and condolences to the families of the victims of the terrible Florida shooting.” Later, speaking to a meeting of the country’s governors on how to address school shootings, he added, “I got to watch some deputy sheriffs performing this weekend, they weren’t exactly Medal of Honor winners … I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon.”
Stoneman Douglas sophomore Sarah Chadwick: “I don’t want your condolences you fucking piece of shit, my friends and teachers were shot.”
Trump on the Santa Fe High School shooting outside of Houston, where 10 people were killed: “School shooting in Texas. Early reports not looking good. God bless all!”
Rhonda Hart, the mother of a 14-year-old girl killed in the shooting, after speaking to the president: “It was like talking to a toddler.”
Trump on the Capital Gazette shooting in Annapolis, Maryland, which left five dead: “My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.”
Capital Gazette reporter Selene San Felice, live on CNN’s AC360: “People will forget about us after a week … Thanks for your prayers, but I couldn’t give a fuck about them if there’s nothing else.”
Trump on the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh, which left 11 dead: “Through the centuries, the Jews have endured terrible persecution. You know that. We have all read it. We have studied it.” Later, he added, “If there was an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop him.”
When Trump announced a visit to Pittsburgh, 11 local Jewish leaders did not extend a welcome: “President Trump, you are not welcome in Pittsburgh until you fully denounce white nationalism.”
• The three government shutdowns in January, February, and December.
• This painting.
• The Trump–Kim–Kanye summits.
• Trump, discussing election interference at a joint press conference in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin: “I don’t see any reason why it would be Russia.” Trump, 24 hours later: “In a key sentence in my remarks I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t.’”
• The Times’ comprehensive report on his tax schemes and business failures.
• Space Force.