Trump, Donald John

Trump, Donald John, 1946–, 45th president of the United States (2017–), b. New York City. Prior to his election as president in 2016, he was a business executive and television personality rather than a political leader. After attending Fordham Univ. and the Wharton business school (B.Sc., 1968), he joined the family real estate business. A self-promoting and flamboyant dealmaker who became widely known as simply the Donald, he was able to secure loans with minimal collateral in the free-wheeling 1980s and created an empire in real estate, casinos, sports, and transportation. He also established (1988) the Donald J. Trump Foundation. By 1990, however, the effects of a recession had left him unable to meet loan payments. Although he shored up his businesses with additional loans and postponed interest payments, mounting debt brought Trump to business bankruptcy and the brink of personal bankruptcy. Banks and bondholders lost hundreds of millions of dollars but opted to restructure his debt to avoid risking losing even more in a court fight.

By 1994, Trump had eliminated a huge portion of his $900 million personal debt and reduced substantially his nearly $3.5 billion in business debt. Forced to relinquish the Trump Shuttle (bought in 1989), he retained Trump Tower in New York City and control of his three casinos in Atlantic City. In 1999, Trump toyed with running for president on the Reform party ticket. From 2004 to 2014, Trump starred in his own business-themed reality television show. He also cofounded a for-profit educational company, best known as Trump University, that offered real-estate and other courses, mainly from 2005 to 2010; several lawsuits that accused the company of fraud were settled in 2016.

Crippling debt payments forced his casinos into bankruptcy again in 2004. Trump's stake in the company was greatly reduced when it emerged from bankruptcy in 2005; he also was no longer its CEO. In 2009 the casino company again declared bankruptcy, and Trump agreed to reduce his stake to 10%. The Atlantic City casinos subsequently closed or were sold, and Trump sold his stake in them. He continues to have significant real estate and hotel holdings including golf courses, but many real estate projects bearing his name are only licensing deals. Among his other holdings are a television production company; from 1996 to 2015, he owned several beauty pageants. The Trump Foundation, accused in a lawsuit by New York state of having been misused to promote Trump's businesses and 2016 presidential campaign, agreed in 2018 to dissolve and distribute its assets under judicial supervision.

Trump was again a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2011, and notoriously and repeatedly questioned President Obama's citizenship, but he chose not to run. In 2015 he became a candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. He subsequently became the front-runner—and a controversial figure—during the primaries and secured the Republican nod, choosing Indiana's governor, Mike Pence, as his running mate. Trump was hurt in the divisive general election campaign by his tendency to verbally abuse critics (which had also alienated Republicans in the primaries) and by accusations of sexual misconduct, but the Republican ticket defeated Democrats Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine (although, for a winning ticket, it lost the popular vote by the largest percentage since 1876).

In office, Trump moved to limit the impact of Obama's 2010 health-care legislation, though he was unable to win passage of legislation to replace it. He later took other actions, including ending insurance company subsidies for health insurance plans, designed to undermine it, and in 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, his administration sought to have the Supreme Court overturn the law. Revelations that Russia had meddled in the U.S. election, hoping to influence it in Trump's favor, became a recurring issue during his presidency. Michael Flynn, his national security adviser, was forced to resign after less than a month in office when it was learned Flynn had lied about post-election contacts with Russian officials. After the president fired FBI director James Comey over the investigation into Russian interference, a special counsel (former FBI director Robert Mueller) was named to lead it. Subsequently it was learned that Trump's son, son-in-law, and campaign manager had met (2016) with a lawyer who claimed to have information from the Russian government on Hillary Clinton, and it was later learned that the Trump organization had continued to pursue a Moscow high-rise deal during the campaign. Flynn and other campaign personnel, as well as Russians and Russian companies, were indicted by Mueller beginning in late 2017, and the Justice Dept., FBI, and Mueller's investigation became the object of denunciations by Trump and some Republicans. Flynn, Michael Cohen (a lawyer for Trump), and a number of other indictees subsequently pleaded guilty to various charges. Ultimately, Mueller's investigation found (Mar., 2019) insufficient evidence of conspiracy or coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia but did detail contacts between the campaign and Russia and the campaign's hope to benefit from Russian interference in the election. It did not exonerate the president from obstruction of justice (though the attorney general did) and noted that there had been lying to investigators by some parties and that some of Trump's aides refused to carry out his orders relating to the investigation when their actions could have constituted obstruction. Subsequent federal investigations in aspects of the investigation questioned some of the FBI's procedures (in this and unrelated cases), but found no evidence of political bias. The administration subsequently mounted a further investigation, and Trump especially attacked the credibility of the FBI. A bipartisan Senate report affirmed the finding of Russian interference in favor of Trump and the integrity of the U.S. intelligence investigations into the interference. In 2020, Attorney General Barr ended federal prosecution of Flynn (who had been convicted) and Trump commuted the sentence of Roger Stone, a campaign adviser.

In 2017 the administration suffered several controversies of its own making, including travel restrictions on several largely Muslim nations (later expanded to a few other nations) that faced court challenges because remarks by Trump and other administration figures concerning Muslims raised religious bias issues (the final version of the ban was upheld in 2018); Trump's accusation, despite a lack of evidence, that Obama's administration had wiretapped him; and many other of his comments, some public, some reported, that led many to regard the president as racially prejudiced. The Trump administration's most significant legislative success in its first year was the passage of an income tax overhaul in Dec., 2017; a budget with significant spending increases was adopted in Mar., 2017.

Internationally, President Trump quickly withdrew the country from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a Pacific Rim trade pact. Continued missile and nuclear weapons testing by North Korea in 2017 led to tensions with the new administration that did not ease until 2018, and Syrian government poison gas attacks in 2017–18 provoked retaliatory U.S. missile strikes and created tensions between the United States and Russia. Trump also withdrew the United States from the 2015 Paris climate accord; decided to increase U.S. forces in Afghanistan and not set a timetable for withdrawal, and also to maintain a U.S. force in Syria after Islamic State was largely defeated there and in Iraq; and stopped certifying Iran's compliance with the multinational nuclear agreement and then (2018) withdrew from it, prompting criticism from U.S. allies who were also party to the accord. In 2018, his administration announced that it would reduce U.S. funding of UN peacekeeping forces and end funding the UN's agency for Palestinian refugees; it also moved to hamstring dispute settlement by the World Trade Organization, and announced it would withdraw from the the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty over Russia's alleged noncompliance (formalized in 2019).

Beginning in 2018, tariffs were imposed or proposed by the Trump administration on some imported products. Many nations affected by the tariffs were U.S. allies., but many tariffs were aimed at China, which (like most other nations affected by the tariffs) retaliated with tariffs on U.S. products, leading to concerns about a possible trade war. Increased tariffs, primarily on Chinese goods, were imposed or threatened into 2019. In Jan., 2020, an interim agreement eased some U.S. tariffs and called for increased Chinese purchases of U.S. goods and services, but further progress stalled, stymied in part by Trump's blaming China for the spread of COVID-19 and by his ending of Hong Kong's special trade privileges after China imposed security legislation on the territory.

Tensions over the tariffs were paralleled by tensions within the G7 and NATO between other member nations and the Trump administration, which emphasized rectifying perceived trade and financial inequities, with Trump often denouncing or denigrating leaders of allied nations. Trump at times took a friendlier approach with traditional foes of the United States, as in his 2018 meetings with North Korea's Kim Jung Un and Russia's Putin, but he also restored economic sanctions on Iran. In the second half of 2018 his administration secured agreements with Mexico and Canada to modify some aspects of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and with some additional modifications it won approval from Congress in Jan., 2020. Trump's unexpected order in Dec., 2018, to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria led to the resignation of his defense secretary and drew concern from Republicans in Congress and from U.S. allies.

During 2018 Trump's relationship with members of the press whose coverage was not supportive grew increasingly acrimonious, and his denunciation of some journalists and companies as enemies of the people was widely criticized. In the 2018 congressional and state elections, Trump campaigned actively for a number of Republican candidates, and notably denounced groups of migrants from Latin America, many of whom were seeking asylum, as a threat to the United States. During the campaign he ordered U.S. troops to the border with Mexico, and after the election he ordered that illegal immigrants be denied the right to apply for asylum, as was permitted under U.S. law. His party retained control of the Senate, where many races were in states he carried in 2016, but lost control of the House and a number of governorships. Latin American immigration and asylum continued to be a focus in 2019, and Trump threatened to cut off aid to several Central American nations over the issue, threatened tariffs against Mexico if the number of migrants passing through it were not reduced, and sought to restrict further who might apply for immigrant, asylum, and refugee status.

Trump, having agreed to continuing funding for the government but also having previously threatened to shut down the government over funding for a wall on the Mexican border, demanded in late 2018 Congress provide several billion dollars for the wall and forced a partial government shutdown, which became the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. After the shutdown ended without providing significant funding for the wall, Trump declared (Feb., 2019) a national emergency in a move bypass Congress and transfer government funds to wall construction, with much of it eventually coming from the Defense Dept. Trump met with North Korea's Kim again in Feb., 2019, but this followup meeting and a brief one in Korea in June failed to produce any agreement on North Korea's denuclearization.

Increasing tensions with Iran culminated in June in the shooting down of a U.S. drone, and Trump ordered retaliation but reversed his order at the last minute. In October, Trump abruptly ordered U.S. forces allied with the Kurds to be pulled from areas of Syria bordering Turkey (and later from Syria, though subsequently that order was in large part reversed over concerns about the Islamic State); the U.S. move allowed Turkey and its Syrian Arab allies to invade Kurdish-held territory. The sudden disengagement sparked sharp Congressional criticism, and raised questions about U.S. commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Trump's move that same month to schedule the 2020 Group of Seven meeting at a Trump resort led to accusations that he was using the presidency to enrich himself, and was soon reversed. Conflict in late 2019 between Iranian-supported Iraqi militias and U.S. forces led in Jan., 2020, to the killing in Iraq of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani in a drone attack. In response, Iran launched missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq, and Iraq's parliament demanded that U.S. forces be withdrawn from the country. A Middle East peace plan proposed by the administration in January was widely regarded as favoring the Israelis and was quickly rejected by Palestinians; Trump had previously stated that the United States would no longer regard Israeli West Bank settlements as illegal under international law.

Meanwhile, revelations that Trump and administration officials had sought to pressure Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, a potential Democratic opponent in 2020, with respect to unsubstantiated corruption allegations concerning him and his son and to investigate a discredited conspiracy theory that Ukraine colluded with the Democrats in 2016 led the House of Representatives to initiate an impeachment investigation in Sept., 2019. Trump ordered U.S. officials not to testify, and though most political appointees did not, many career officials did. In December, Trump was impeached on a party-line vote, and the articles of impeachment, accusing the president of abuse of power and obstruction of justice, were sent to the Senate, when in Feb., 2020, he was acquitted on a party-line vote. Unlike in the House, no witnesses were heard. In Jan., 2020, the GAO ruled that withholding aid from Ukraine had broken U.S. law. After the acquittal, the administration removed several officials who had testified against Trump or acted to refer the Ukraine allegations as required under law.

In 2020, Trump faced the most significant national crisis of his presidency when the COVID-19 pandemic spread to the United States. Although he appointed Vice President Pence to lead the federal response in late Feb., 2020, Trump downplayed the significance of the disease until mid-March, and was many times at odds with governors of states dealing with large outbreaks over the use of federal powers to aid the states and other matters. Often he gave advice contrary to that of top federal medical officials and, despite the fact that states were following federal health advice, supported protestors demanding states end stay-at-home restrictions. At the same time, his administration negotiated with Congress for legislation appropriating trillions of dollars in aid to mitigate the economic effects of the crisis, but it also cut off aid and moved to withdraw from the World Health Organization, which Trump blamed (with China) for allowing the disease to spread. As disease cases increased toward midyear, Trump continued to emphasize reopening businesses and schools (unemployment rose to 14.7% in April, before beginning to drop).

The death in Minneapolis, in May, 2020, of George Floyd, an African American who suffocated while a white police officer pressed a knee on his neck, provoked outrage and widespread protests. Calls for police reform and an end to racism also focused on symbols of the Confederacy; some protests turned violent, and some police were accused of brutality. Denouncing the protests as violent and defending the Confederate flag and statues attacked by protestors, Trump became stridently critical of the protests and controversially sought to use federal forces to suppress them.

See his autobiographies (1987, 1991, 1997; their accuracy has been questioned); biography by T. L. O'Brien (2005); studies by W. Barrett (1991), G. Blair (2000), M. D'Antonio (2015), D. C. Johnston (2016), M. Kranish and M. Fisher (2016), M. Singer (2016), J. Green (2017), B. Woodward (2018), S. Hennessey and B. Wittes (2020), and P. Rucker and C. Leonnig (2020).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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