BY NIALL STANAGE – 12/24/17
President Trump’s first year in office has produced a relentless stream of controversies.
Trump’s willingness to flout political norms has outraged his critics, even while it has delighted his supporters.
In a sign of just how tumultuous 2017 has been, some stormy episodes that would have been enormous stories under other recent presidents do not even crack the Top 10 list below.
We found no space on the list for a Trump speech to the Boy Scouts in July that drew widespread criticism for its overtly political nature; nor for his suggestion that TV anchor Mika Brzezinski was bleeding from the face due to cosmetic surgery; nor for his jab at Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as “Pocahontas” during an event honoring Native American veterans.
Here are the ten biggest Trump controversies of the year.
- The Firing of James Comey
The decision to fire the FBI director was the biggest self-inflicted wound of Trump’s first year.
It led directly to the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — and to a world of pain for the president.
Top aides have been indicted, the Russia probe has hung over his first year in the White House and the president himself faces questions about whether he obstructed justice.
Comey delivered dramatic testimony to Congress after the firing. His words were carried live nationwide by at least one dozen TV networks.
The widespread suspicion — though Comey did not explicitly say this — is that the FBI director was fired because he refused to back off an investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn.
“It’s my judgment I was fired because of the Russia investigation,” Comey said.
Trump was reportedly advised against firing Comey even by some of his most stalwart aides, including then-chief strategist Stephen Bannon. He went ahead, and the reverberations dominated the rest of the year.
They will echo into 2018.
Trump’s reaction to a rally by far-right activists in this Virginia city dominated August, and led to some of the strongest criticism of him from within his own party.
The “Unite the Right” rally stretched over the weekend of August 11 and 12. Among those attending were unabashed white supremacists, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites. They had come to the city to protest the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a park.
Predictably, there were clashes between those attending the rally and left-leaning groups opposed to them. A protestor, Heather Heyer, was struck and killed by a vehicle driven by a man reported to have far-right sympathies. According to police, the ramming was an intentional attack.
Trump initially said that there had been “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” The response, suggesting a moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and those who protested against them, caused a furor.
The controversy deepened further when, at a subsequent appearance, Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides.”
In addition to a blizzard of Democratic and liberal criticism, Republicans including former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney all publicly dissented from Trump’s position.
- Travel ban
Trump had been in office for just a week when he signed an executive order that led to protests in streets and at airports.
The first version of the travel ban that the administration tried to enact banned most travelers to the United States from seven nations with majority-Muslim populations.
Trump and the administration argued such a move was necessary to protect the United States from the threat of terrorism. But it ran into immediate legal challenges. Lawyers argued there was clear religious animus and discrimination, a point that they reinforced by highlighting Trump’s campaign-trail promise to enact a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States.
The first version of the ban became bogged down in the courts, as did a second iteration.
But the White House finally got a victory in early December, when the Supreme Court allowed a third version of the ban to go into effect while legal challenges to it are ongoing.
- Taking a knee in the NFL
Trump has had a contentious relationship with the National Football League dating back to the 1980s, when he was a prominent investor in the rival United States Football League.
But he kicked things into a completely different gear this year, hammering players who opted to drop to a knee during the playing of the national anthem in protest at racial injustice.
Trump put himself squarely in the middle of the issue during a speech in Alabama in September. Campaigning for incumbent Sen. Luther Strange(R-Ala.), who would go on to lose the GOP primary, Trump said people would “love” if NFL owners reacted to a player taking a knee by saying, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired!”
The outburst initially produced a greater degree of solidarity among the players. Trump, though, was loath as ever to back down, and hit the players and owners several more times, especially via Twitter.
It was not clear who won the fight politically, though Trump has repeatedly noted a decline in TV ratings for the NFL.
- “Little Rocket Man”
Trump’s unorthodox approach extended to the international arena.
His supporters see his disregard for diplomatic niceties as a long overdue move toward American assertiveness. His detractors regard it as reckless and dangerous.
The most vivid example came in Trump’s ongoing feud with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. In a speech to the United Nations in September, Trump called Kim “Rocket Man” — a simultaneous reference to North Korea’s missile program and the Elton John hit often played at Trump rallies during the 2016 campaign.
During the same speech, Trump said that the United States would “totally destroy North Korea” if it felt it had to do so.
In response, Kim called Trump “the mentally deranged U.S. dotard” and threatened to make him “pay dearly” for his rhetoric.
Trump called Kim “a sick puppy”— and modified his nickname to “Little Rocket Man” — on subsequent occasions.
- A controversial condolence call
Trump had already shown during the 2016 campaign that he had no compunction about tangling with the relatives of U.S. troops killed in combat, if they criticized him.
Last year, it was Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of a U.S. Army officer killed in Iraq in 2004. The Khans appeared at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in support of Hillary Clinton.
This October, it was the family of Army Sergeant La David Johnson, one of four U.S servicemen killed in an ambush in Niger.
The row began when Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), a friend of the Johnson family, told a local NBC News affiliate in Miami that Trump had told Johnson’s widow, “you must have known what he signed up for.”
Wilson accused the president of having been insensitive and said that Johnson’s widow, Myeshia, had said that Trump did not seem to recall her husband’s name.
On Twitter, Trump insisted that Wilson had “totally fabricated” what he had said. Members of Johnson’s family, however, stood by Wilson’s account.
The controversy followed on the heels of a related Trump flap, when he claimed, inaccurately, that President Obama and other past presidents “didn’t make calls” to bereaved relatives.
The Russian probe led by Mueller began delivering its most serious problems for Trump in late October, when former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his associate Richard Gates were indicted on charges related to money-laundering.
A lower-level campaign advisor, George Papadopoulos, was also indicted. The bigger threat for Team Trump in that instance was the revelation that Papadopoulos was cooperating with prosecutors.
The biggest news of all came in December, when Flynn, the former national security advisor, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
Flynn, too, struck a deal with Mueller’s team.
Flynn’s flip is the single most dangerous element so far for Trump and his closest confidants.
- Kirsten Gillibrand “would have done anything”
The president reacted explosively after Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said he should resign in light of the accusations of sexual assault and other misconduct that have been leveled against him by more than a dozen women.
“Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a total flunky for Charles E. Schumer and someone who would come to my office ‘begging’ for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them), is now in the ring fighting against Trump,” he wrote on Twitter.
The suggestion that Gillibrand “would do anything” for campaign cash was widely seen as a sexual innuendo.
But White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the president, arguing at a media briefing that“ only if your mind is in the gutter would you have read it that way.”
Other female Democrats, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) came to Gillibrand’s defense, as did a number of media figures.
Gillibrand herself accused Trump of “a sexist smear attempting to silence my voice.”
- Sean Spicer and the inauguration crowd
White House press secretary Sean Spicer set the tone for much of what was to come on the first full day of the Trump presidency, lambasting the media for their coverage of the previous day’s inauguration.
Among his criticisms was that the media had not recognized that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.”
The in-person crowd at Trump’s inauguration was significantly smaller than the audience for Obama’s equivalent event in January 2009, as photographic evidence made clear.
Spicer also got several other facts wrong in his broadside, but he continued to stand by it as long as he served in the White House.
After he left, he was asked by the New York Times if he regretted the episode.
“Of course I do, absolutely,” he replied.
- The Mooch is loose
There has never been a White House Communications Director quite like Anthony Scaramucci.
The financier and Trump friend — “The Mooch” to fans and foes alike — was appointed by Trump on July 21, and fired 10 days later.
Spicer resigned as White House Press Secretary on the same day as Scaramucci was tapped by Trump. Spicer was soon followed to the exits by his friend and ally Reince Priebus, Trump’s first chief of staff.
There had not been any time for that tumult to settle down before Scaramucci gave a profane on-the-record interview to The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, in which he attacked Priebus and Bannon in crude terms.
There was no way back from there. The arrival of retired Marines general John Kelly as chief of staff spelled the end of Scaramucci’s short and tempestuous tenure.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.