Twenty-nineteen may be remembered as the year when the United States and the world became inured to the presidency of Donald Trump, the mercurial businessman who upended political expectations when he won the 2016 US presidential election.
In November, America marked three years since Donald Trump's electoral victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton, and began to steel itself for next year's election campaign when the Republican president will seek a second term.
The past year began with a new political reality for Trump. After Democrats' success in the mid-term elections of November 2018, the party took control of the House of Representatives on January 1st, with Nancy Pelosi sworn in as House speaker for the second time. Donald Trump was now confronted with a divided government, with Republicans no longer in the majority in Congress's lower house.
First on the agenda was the government shutdown that began in late 2018 and left most of the federal government paralysed. In late January, Trump finally struck a deal with Pelosi, but only after he presided over a 35-day shutdown – the longest in American history.
There was vindication of sorts for the president with the publication of the long-awaited Mueller report
Trump's legal difficulties appeared to deepen in February when Michael Cohen, his long-term lawyer and fixer, turned on the president, dubbing him a "conman" and a "liar". Cohen ultimately went to jail for lying to investigators over campaign finance allegations involving porn star Stormy Daniels. Roger Stone, another Trump ally, was also arrested earlier in the year, raising uncomfortable questions for the US president.
But there was vindication of sorts for the president with the publication of the long-awaited Mueller report in late March. Trump claimed "complete and total exoneration" after US special counsel Robert Mueller concluded there was no conspiracy between the president or members of his circle and Russia in its effort to manipulate the 2016 presidential election after 22 months of investigations.
Obstruction of justice
The manner of the report's release was later criticised – attorney general William Barr first released his own summary of the report, which successfully framed the report as something of a victory for Trump. But Democrats seized on the fact that the report did not exonerate Trump on obstruction of justice charges.
Nonetheless, Mueller’s own testimony a few months later in July failed to live up to Democratic expectations, and the Mueller report – which overhung the first two years of Trump’s presidency – slowly began to recede from the news cycle.
On the foreign policy front, 2019 was again a busy year for the Trump administration. In February Trump travelled to Hanoi for his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. But despite predicting a “very tremendous summit”, he left Vietnam early and empty-handed.
Undeterred by the lack of progress, Trump made a conciliatory gesture when he became the first sitting US president to visit North Korea, crossing into the DMZ that separates North and South Korea after the G20 summit in Osaka in June.
Meanwhile, tensions between the US and Iran escalated over the summer when an unmanned US drone was shot down in the Straits of Hormuz. The United States was on the brink of attacking Iran, but Trump reversed course minutes before the mission was due to be launched, winning praise from unlikely quarters.
After an attack on key oil sites in Saudi Arabia a few months later – widely believed to have been perpetrated by Iran, Trump warned that the US was "locked and loaded" to respond, but ultimately it refrained from military action. Instead it imposed more sanctions on Tehran, including on its national bank, following punishing sanctions against key Iranian figures such as foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif earlier in the year.
An unexpected military decision in the early autumn was one of the most consequential of the year, as the US president ordered US troops to withdraw from northern Syria following a phone call with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkish forces quickly moved into northern Syria, securing its presence there through a peace deal with Russia that was effectively rubber-stamped by Washington. It marked a turning point in the Syrian civil war, swaying the conflict in favour of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
His relations with British prime minister Boris Johnson, however, continued to flourish
In October, US forces killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State, in a raid in Northern Syria. Trump described in detail how the victim was “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” to his death, though this account was not backed up by officials.
As Trump solidified alliances with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and, to an extent, Brazil in 2019, his relationship with traditional European allies continued to deteriorate, culminating in an acrimonious Nato summit in London in December which was billed as a 70th anniversary celebration.
His relations with British prime minister Boris Johnson, however, continued to flourish, with Trump commending Johnson as a "really good man" – despite the US president effectively forcing Britain's ambassador to Washington, Kim Darroch, to step down after diplomatic cables critical of the Trump administration were leaked to the Mail on Sunday.
Tensions also continued with Beijing, with the ongoing trade war between the world’s two largest economies showing no sign of abating. However, House Democrats and the White House struck an agreement on a revised deal governing trade between the US, Canada and Mexico in December, a development welcomed by markets.
But 2019 will ultimately be remembered as the year that led to Donald Trump becoming only the third president in US history to be impeached. The Ukraine scandal erupted in September following reports that an anonymous whistleblower had filed a complaint about a phone call between the president and a foreign leader.
The White House's decision to publish a version of a July 25th phone call between Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy proved ill-judged. Almost immediately, Nancy Pelosi, who had resisted moves to impeach the president, announced an impeachment inquiry, saying that Trump's conduct had "seriously violated the constitution".
The announcement prompted weeks of committee hearings on Capitol Hill, some of which were televised, prompting comparisons with the Senate committee hearings on the Watergate scandal that captivated America during the Nixon administration.
After the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment against the president, on December 18th the 435-member House of Representatives voted to impeach Mr Trump in a historic vote.
The process is now expected to move to the Senate for a trial. But with a two-third majority needed to convict the president, and Republicans controlling 53 of the 100-seat chamber, a conviction seems unlikely.
Nonetheless, the forthcoming trial is likely to overshadow the final year of Trump’s term as president and colour the forthcoming presidential election campaign.
As a leader who thrives on division, Trump and the White House are expected to put in a rigorous defence in the Senate, and cast Democrats as a party seeking to overturn the result of the 2016 election.
With polls showing Americans broadly split on party lines when it comes to impeaching the president, the forthcoming impeachment battle is unlikely to move many voters’ opinions on Donald Trump.
The main question for 2020 will be whether Trumpism is endorsed or rejected when voters go to the polls in the presidential elections on November 3rd. It is a question that will have profound implications for the future of the United States and the world, as America considers the very real prospect of a second Trump term in the White House.