Trump, Donald John

Trump, Donald John, 1946–, 45th President of the United States (2017–21), b. New York City. Prior to his election as president in 2016, Trump 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 “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 airline (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 casino company was greatly reduced when it emerged from bankruptcy in 2005; he also was no longer its CEO. In 2009 the 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. Among his other holdings are a television production company; he owned several beauty pageants from 1996 to 2015. The Trump Foundation, sued for 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, although 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. 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 (Feb., 2017) for lying about post-election contacts with Russian officials. After Trump fired FBI director James Comey over the Russian investigation, former FBI director Robert Mueller was named to lead it. Subsequently it was learned that Trump associates had met (2016) with a lawyer who claimed to have information from the Russian government on Hillary Clinton, and that the Trump organization had pursued a Moscow high-rise deal during the campaign. Flynn and campaign officials, as well as Russians and Russian companies, were indicted by Mueller beginning in late 2017, and the Justice Dept., FBI, and Mueller became the target of denunciations by Trump and some Republicans. Flynn and some other indictees pleaded guilty to various charges, and others were convicted. Mueller's investigation found (Mar., 2019) insufficient evidence of coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, but detailed contacts between the campaign and Russia and the campaign's hope to benefit from Russian election interference. It did not exonerate the president from obstruction of justice (though Attorney General William Barr did). As Trump continued to attack the FBI's credibility, federal investigations questioned some of the FBI's procedures (in this and unrelated cases), but found no evidence of political bias. A bipartisan Senate report affirmed the finding of Russian interference in favor of Trump. Trump later pardoned Flynn and others involved in the affair.

In 2017, the Trump administration suffered several controversies of its own making, something that was an ongoing problem for it. Travel restrictions on several largely Muslim nations (later expanded to a few other nations) were challenged in court because remarks by Trump and administration figures concerning Muslims raised religious bias issues (the final version of the ban was upheld in 2018). Trump accused the Obama administration, despite a lack of evidence, of wiretapping, and remarks by Trump led many to regard him as racially prejudiced. The administration's most significant success in its first year was an income tax overhaul enacted in Dec., 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 (effective 2020); decided to increase U.S. forces in Afghanistan and not set a timetable for withdrawal, and to maintain a U.S. force in Syria after the 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. (Trump's subsequent order in Dec., 2018, to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria led his defense secretary to resign, and by 2020 he had ordered nearly all U.S. forces from Afghanistan.) In 2018, his administration announced that it would reduce U.S. funding of UN peacekeeping forces and end funding of 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, in an attempt to reduce the trade deficit and win new trade agreements, a range of tariffs were imposed or threatened by the administration on some imported products. Many nations affected by the tariffs were U.S. allies, but many tariffs were aimed at China; most nations retaliated with tariffs on U.S. products. In the second half of 2018, Mexico and Canada agreed to modify some aspects of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and with additional changes the agreement won approval from Congress in Jan., 2020. Also in Jan., 2020, an interim agreement with China eased some tariffs and called for increased Chinese purchases of U.S. goods and services, but further progress stalled, stymied in part by increased U.S.-China political tensions.

Tensions over the tariffs were part of broader tensions within the G7 and NATO between other member nations and the Trump administration, which emphasized rectifying perceived trade and financial inequities. Trump often denounced or denigrated leaders of allied nations, and relations with many allies were strained throughout his presidency. 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 and imposed additional ones in subsequent years. 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.

In the 2018 congressional and state elections, Trump campaigned actively, and notably denounced Latin American migrants, 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, though that was permitted under U.S. law. Republicans retained control of the Senate but lost control of the House and some governorships. Latin American immigration and asylum continued to be a focus in 2019, and Trump threatened to end aid to several Central American nations over the issue, threatened tariffs on Mexico unless it reduced the flow of migrants passing through it, and sought to restrict further who might apply for immigrant, asylum, and refugee status. Trump demanded in late 2018 Congress provide several billion dollars for a Mexican border wall and forced a partial government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history. With significant funding for the wall still not enacted, Trump declared (Feb., 2019) a national emergency and transfered government funds to wall construction.

Tensions with Iran culminated in June, 2019, in the shooting down of a U.S. drone; Trump ordered retaliation but reversed his order at the last minute. In October, he ordered U.S. forces allied with the Kurds to be pulled from areas of Syria bordering Turkey (and later from Syria, though that order was largely reversed over concerns about the Islamic State); Turkey and its Syrian Arab allies then invaded Kurdish-held territory. Trump's move the same month to hold the 2020 G7 meeting at a Trump resort led to accusations that he was seeking 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 Iran's Gen. Qasem Soleimani in a drone attack. Iran then launched missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq, and Iraq's parliament demanded that U.S. forces be withdrawn.

A Middle East peace plan proposed by the administration in Jan., 2020, was widely regarded as favoring the Israelis and was quickly rejected by Palestinians. Trump, who was the most pro-Israel president in many years, had previously moved (2018) the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and stated (2019) that the United States would no longer regard Israeli West Bank settlements as illegal under international law. In late 2020 and early 2021, Trump assisted in winning pledges of diplomatic recognition of Israel from several Arab nations by offering incentives from the United States as an inducement.

Meanwhile, revelations that Trump and administration officials had sought to pressure Ukraine to investigate Joseph 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, which Trump sought to frustrate. Trump, accused of abuse of power and obstruction of justice, was impeached on a party-line vote in December; the Senate later acquitted him on a party-line vote. Officials who had raised the allegations or testified against Trump were removed after the aquittal.

In 2020 Trump faced the most significant national crisis of his presidency when the COVID-19 pandemic reached the country. He appointed Pence to lead the federal response in late Feb., 2020, but he also downplayed the disease until mid-March and subsequently was often at odds with federal and state officials concerning how to control the disease, sometimes encouraging protestors resisting state efforts. He signed legislation appropriating trillions of dollars in aid to mitigate the economic effects of the pandemic in the United States, and the administration worked to speed U.S. vaccine development, but he also cut off aid and moved to withdraw from the World Health Organization, which Trump blamed (with China) for allowing the disease to spread. The administration also rejected an international effort to develop and distribute a vaccine because of WHO's and China's involvement. As disease cases surged later in 2020, Trump himself was treated (October) for COVID-19. By the end of his term, vaccination had begun, but U.S. cases and deaths were the highest in the world.

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.

In the 2020 election, Trump and Pence faced Democrats Biden and Kamala Harris. Trump's policies and personality and the effects and handling of the COVID-19 pandemic were prominent issues. Trump sought to undermine voter confidence in mail-in voting, which increased due to the pandemic, and even in the election in general during the campaign. His oppoents easily won the popular vote but narrowly won a few states essential to electoral college victory. Trump repeatedly claimed fraud without evidence, and refused to concede even after Republicans had failed multiple times to challenge several state results in the courts. His calls to fight the result on the day (Jan. 6, 2021) that the Congress counted electoral votes provoked a mob to storm the Capitol and threaten legislators in an attempt to undo the election. That and revelations that he had attempted to subvert Georgia officials to undo Biden's win in the state led, shortly before his term ended, to his second impeachment by the House. After leaving the white house, Trump moved to his estate in Palm Beach, Fl., where he continued to assert that the election was "rigged" while speaking at major Republican gatherings.

See his autobiographies (1987, 1991, 1997; their accuracy has been questioned); biography by T. L. O'Brien (2005); M. L. Trump, his niece, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man (2020); 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, 2020), S. Hennessey and B. Wittes (2020), and P. Rucker and C. Leonnig (2020).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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