Donald Trump arrives
Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport last month. Image Credit: AP

WASHINGTON: The American presidency opened 2018 with a big tease about mutual nuclear destruction from two leaders who then found “love” not war. It seems President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un were just playing hard to get.

The United States presidency ends the year saturated in tumult, with the government in partial shutdown and Trump tweeting a video of himself warbling a parody of the theme song from Green Acres, a television sitcom from the 1960s, to mark his signing of a farm bill. Throw in a very angry Supreme Court nominee, an unhappy departing defence secretary, Trump’s parallel universe of facts and his zillion tweets, and you can see that the president’s world this year was touched by the weird, the traumatic and the fantastical. Some serious and relatively conventional things got done in 2018.

There was a midterm election

There was a midterm election
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Many more Democrats are coming to Congress and not quite all of them plan to run for president. Divided government dawns next month when Democrats take control of the House and Republicans retain their grip on the Senate. An overhaul of the criminal justice system was accomplished, and in an unusually bipartisan way, though it took a dash of reality TV’s Kim Kardashian West to move it along. Gun control actually was tightened a bit, with Trump’s unilateral banning of bump stocks.

Syria, Iran nuclear deal and Mattis

Syria, Iran nuclear deal and Mattis
Image Credit: Washington Post

Trump shocked allies and lost Defence Secretary Jim Mattis over a presidential decision to pull American troops out of Syria, quickly following up with indications that up to half the troops in Afghanistan may be withdrawn, too.

Self-described “Tariff Man” started one trade war, with China, and headed off a second by tweaking the North American Free Trade Agreement and giving it an unpronounceable acronym, USMCA. He withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal, putting action behind his Twitter outburst.

The case for Kavanaugh

The case for Kavanaugh
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Trump placed his second justice on the Supreme Court in two years after Brett Kavanaugh, accused of alcohol-fuelled sexual assault in his youth, raged against the allegations at a congressional hearing: “I never sexually assaulted anyone.”

Mueller, border wall and migrants

There were frustrations and fulminations aplenty for the president, particularly about the steaming-ahead Russia-Trump campaign investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller (“special councel” in some Trump tweets). Nor did he make much progress on his promised border wall (“boarder wall”), which he renamed “artistically designed steel slats” this month in what he regarded as a concession to wall-despising, concrete-cursing Democrats. The concession did not work: Large parts of the government closed last Saturday over the wall-induced budget impasse.

He took heat for a zero-tolerance policy that forced migrant children from their parents until he backed off, inaccurately blaming Democrats for “Child Seperation”.

Great news in jobs

It was a very good year for jobs. It was a check-your-smartphone-right-now, pass-the-smelling-salts year for the stock market. Trump, who assailed the unemployment rate as a phony measure when he was a candidate, couldn’t speak of it enough as Barack Obama-era job growth continued on his watch. He went mum about the market, a prime subject for his boasting before it took a sustained dive. Trump’s approval rating in polls was one of the few constants on this swiftly tilting planet: 42 per cent approval and 56 per cent disapproval in AP-NORC’s latest poll and 38 per cent-57 per cent via Gallup, neither much different than what it was in January.

Hot-button issues

Hot-button issues
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Through it all, the mainstreaming of the bizarre proceeded apace and North Korea’s Kim set that tone right on New Year’s Day with his New Year cheer to Americans across the ocean: “It’s not a mere threat, but a reality that I have a nuclear button on the desk in my office. All of the mainland United States is within the range of our nuclear strike.” Trump responded the next day with a tweet about size and performance. “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

Real prospects for peace

Once they got that out of their system, things quickly improved, helped along by Kim’s letters to Trump, which the US president called “beautiful”. In June, they held history’s first meeting between a North Korean leader and a current US president. “We fell in love,” Trump later said at a West Virginia rally. Kim had previously vowed to visit “fire and fury” on the US but the “Fire and Fury” that made Trump livid early this year was the book of the same name, Michael Wolff’s insider account of the Trump White House. That was a different sort of missile. The president took particular exception to observations in the book by his former chief strategist, tweeting about “Sloppy Steve Bannon, who cried when he got fired and begged for his job. Now Sloppy Steve has been dumped like a dog by almost everyone. Too bad!”

They are said to be on better terms now.

Social media overdrive

Over the course of the year, Trump spoke at more than 40 campaign rallies, kept up his Twitter barrage (40,000 tweets since 2009 on his @realDonaldTrump account) and answered plenty of questions in infrequent but lengthy news conferences and sit-down interviews.

So what stands out in this blizzardy whiteout of unconventionality? How about his description of his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, as “scared stiff and Missing in Action”, before Sessions was finally out last month? Will history long remember that in 2018, the president (correctly) predicted Hurricane Florence would be “tremendously wet” or told the AP: “I have a natural instinct for science?”

In July, Trump appeared to side with Russian President Vladimir Putin when he stood by Putin’s side at a Helsinki summit news conference and gave weight to Putin’s denial that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, despite the firm conclusion of US intelligence agencies that it had. “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia, Trump said.

But while it’s been hardly noticed in a capital consumed by the shutdown drama, Mattis, Syria and market convulsions, 2018 draws to a close as it started — with warnings of a nuclear Armageddon, this time from Putin.