The Worst Days (So Far) of the Trump Presidency

Was the Helsinki summit his lowest moment? There's some competition.

President Trump re-reads a statement he made regarding the events in Charlottesville, Va., while addressing members of the media in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York on Aug. 15, 2017. Standing behind Trump is Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
July 20, 2018, 2:08 p.m.

From his first full day in the White House, which featured presidential pique, communication-strategy malpractice, and inappropriate rhetoric, President Trump has had to stew while critics compiled lists of his worst moments, worst days, and worst weeks. The lists have been unrelenting, broken only by occasional bursts of praise for those few good days when he saw a Supreme Court justice confirmed or tax cuts approved. His preferred form of response to the negative judgments has been tweets boldly trumpeting victories and triumphs where others saw setbacks and defeats. That pattern held during the just-concluded week, a particularly brutal one in which his actions and behavior were all found wanting during a NATO summit, a visit to England, and a summit with Vladimir Putin.

It is tough to narrow those worst days to only 10, but this National Journal compilation would make anyone’s list:

1. July 16, 2018—Press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki

It would be hard for any moment of any presidency to be more disastrous than one that triggered serious discussions of whether the president is guilty of treason and whether a foreign leader “has something” on him to force him to be servile, meek, and weak in his presence. All that—and more—flowed from Trump’s extraordinary joint press conference with Putin at the end of a summit in Helsinki that was poorly conceived, hastily prepared, and amateurishly executed. The negative reviews were almost universal across the political spectrum. A week later, repeated efforts at damage control have yet to take, with still more criticisms rising amid concern of secret deals that suggest that Putin may have dominated the less-experienced president.

2. Aug. 12, 2017—Reaction to Charlottesville

Seeming to side with Nazi sympathizers and white supremacists is not a good way to build your popularity. That is what the president was seen as doing when protests in Charlottesville, Virginia turned deadly. The president could not bring himself to condemn those to blame. Instead, he inexplicably failed on the day of the protest to fault the haters, instead blaming “many sides” as if those opposing racism were equally culpable. Two days later, he tried to clean up the mess but proved unable to stick with the cleanup.

3. March 2, 2017—Attorney General Jeff Sessions recuses himself/May 17—Robert Mueller appointed special counsel

These two days are inextricably linked forever in Trump’s fury. He was enraged March 2 when his attorney general recused himself from any investigation of charges that Russia meddled in 2016 to boost Trump’s election. He had little choice because of his role in the campaign, but the president did not see it that way. Trump’s anger was heightened May 17 when Mueller, a former FBI director, was named the special counsel to run the investigation. Trump has never recovered from the fallout from Sessions’s recusal, something he repeatedly grumbles about to his staff.

4. June 9, 2018—Ugly spat with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and backing out of signing the G-7 communique after agreeing to it.

In June, the president learned that picking on the United States’ neighbor to the north and close ally Canada does not get you good press. His fury was triggered aboard Air Force One as he watched Trudeau’s summit-closing press conference. Trudeau didn’t say anything he hadn’t told Trump to his face, but his attack on U.S. tariffs was too much for the president. He erupted when the prime minister called the tariffs “kind of insulting” and said Canada will “not be pushed around.” Trump attacked Trudeau on Twitter as “very dishonest & weak” and backed out of the communique to punish him.

5. July 12-13, 2018—Provocative tabloid interview breaks as Trump meets with British Prime Minister Theresa May after being disruptive at NATO summit in Brussels earlier in the week.

Only a month after the Canada snub, the president learned a similar lesson. This time, it was that picking a fight and insulting the closest U.S. ally, Great Britain, is, unsurprisingly, problematic. After repeatedly disrupting the NATO summit, he went to England, where May was determined to make nice despite her disagreements with the president. Trump repaid for the hospitality by giving a blunt tabloid interview disparaging her, questioning her judgment, and praising her leading rival, suggesting he “would be a great prime minister.” When the story broke before he expected, the president had to issue a rare apology—sort of, in a very tentative way that suggested it was all the fault of the newspaper that printed the tape-recorded interview.

6. Jan. 21, 2017—His first full day in office spent fighting over crowd size and giving inappropriate speech at CIA

Less than 24 hours after taking the oath of office, the president attended a prayer service at the National Cathedral. He should have called it a day at “Amen.” Instead, he fumed privately at reports that his Inaugural Address crowd was small and ordered his press secretary to bawl out reporters and declare his crowd the largest inaugural gathering ever. Then Trump went to the CIA and, in front of the Memorial Wall commemorating the agency’s fallen, gave an unusually partisan and angry speech, boasting that “probably almost everybody in this room voted for me.” He also blasted reporters as “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”

7. Jan. 27, 2017—First rollout of travel ban is botched, causes confusion at airports

The new president was in a hurry to keep a campaign promise for “extreme vetting” of Muslims entering the country. So, without going through the normal interagency process or consulting the relevant officials in the Justice Department or informing those who would be enforcing it, he issued his first travel ban before his first week was up. He wanted the country to see a promise kept; instead, it saw chaos and confusion at airports across the country. While the president claimed only 109 people were affected, newspapers found at least 60,000 had their visas revoked in the first 24 hours. Buffeted by bad headlines and court rulings against him, the president had to back down and have his aides write an order that could pass judicial review.

8. July 27, 2017—Loses Senate vote on repeal-and-replace of Obamacare

For six years, Republicans had pledged to “repeal and replace” Obamacare if they ever gained control. Even with Trump in the White House, though, that turned out to be not that easy. The president sent conflicting signals to Congress and proved clumsy at dealmaking. To his embarrassment, he had to watch Sen. John McCain turn thumbs down and provide a dramatic and decisive vote to doom even a scaled-down repeal plan. The 49-51 vote infuriated the president and, once again, made him look weak.

9. June 21, 2018—Has to back down after days of furor over his policy to separate families at the border

Few stories in his presidency provided more dramatic pictures to horrify the public, inflame world sensibilities, and turn public opinion against a major Trump initiative than his decision to implement a “zero-tolerance” policy on the border, forcing the separation of children from their asylum-seeking parents. Trump initially dug in, blaming Democrats for his policy. But he could not take the pressure and showily signed an order to halt the separations.

10. May 9 and 11, 2017—James Comey fired; Trump interview with Lester Holt

It is a familiar Trump routine now. But in May of 2017, Washington was not yet accustomed to the president’s penchant for offering a rationale one day only to backtrack and undo the work of his aides the next day. In this case, he fired Comey as FBI director, claiming he did so because of Justice Department recommendations. Two days later, though, he told NBC’s Lester Holt he did it “regardless of recommendation” from the DOJ, leaving no doubt it was an effort to end the FBI’s investigation of his campaign.

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