As Donald Trump heads out of the White House today with the jeers of opponents drowning out his final boasts about his toughness on China and avoidance of new wars, few people need much reminding of what he got wrong.
While the man who loves to boast that he’s the ultimate winner — ‘We revitalised our alliances and rallied the nations of the world to stand up to China like never before’, he claimed last night — is now being dismissed as one of the White House’s biggest losers, the idea that he got anything right sounds almost like heresy.
But The Donald did sometimes deliver. Granted, he was abrasive when his allies wanted him to be emollient and some of his key achievements could so easily have backfired badly, but Trump occasionally got results that might have eluded a more measured leader.
Which begs the question: might history remember Trump more kindly than his current critics?
US President Donald Trump addresses the Face-to-Face With Our Future event at the White House in Washington, DC, on June 27, 2018
CHINA: Relations with China will dominate U.S. foreign policy in the years ahead as the two countries compete for primacy on the world stage. Earlier presidents, awed by China’s industrial might, were accused of being led by the nose by Beijing.
When Trump bristled at the Chinese regime and refused to accept trading arrangements — he said they were skewed against the U.S. — he was accused of naked xenophobia and nationalism. The trade war he initiated has certainly hurt Americans economically, but the rest of the West is following in Trump’s steps as it wakes up to the risk of being too obliging to China.
Take 5G networks, the next big advance in telephone technology, as one example. Since the U.S. banned Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from its 5G networks over security concerns, Australia, Canada, Singapore, France and — after much foot-dragging — the UK followed suit.
WAR ON TERROR: He must share the credit with Barack Obama, who launched an international coalition to destroy Isis. However, Trump continued the policy and was in the captain’s chair when the alliance finally destroyed the ‘caliphate’ in Syria and Iraq.
It was his administration that launched the raid that killed the Isis supreme commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019. And Trump also ordered the killing of Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani, widely applauded as long overdue given his involvement in so many terror outrages. Iran’s threatened revenge backfired badly when last year it shot down — accidentally — a civilian airliner over Tehran (believing it was an Israeli plane), infuriating its own citizens with its initial lies and cover-up.
Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
US President Donald Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
ISRAEL: Many experts believed Trump would reignite bloody violence in the Middle East when he recognised Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, angering Palestinians who also lay claim to it. But yet again that scepticism has proved premature.
The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco have all opened diplomatic relations with Israel — a ‘normalisation’ that had long seemed impossible.
Trump had bullishly challenged entrenched assumptions — and it worked. Parts of the Arab world that have been off limits to Israelis for decades are suddenly open — tens of thousands of Israelis flew to Dubai last month for lockdown-free sun, sand and even glitzy Hebrew weddings following the U.S.-brokered deal.
NATO: The U.S. has been complaining for years that its European allies in Nato should be pulling their weight and paying more towards the West’s defence. In many cases the criticism was justified. However, nothing happened until Trump started throwing chairs around.
Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg gives Trump some credit for Canada and European allies adding $130 billion to their defence budgets, on the way to $400 billion by 2024.
Had he secured a second term, Trump may have planned to go further. Insiders say he has long talked of removing the U.S. completely from the alliance — a move that defence experts say would only be good for Russia.
Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg, US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson onstage during the annual NATO heads of government summit on December 4, 2019
HOME AFFAIRS: Trump has won praise from opponents for reforming the criminal justice system to reduce America’s huge prison population, for restoring crucial legal rights to male students accused of sex crimes on campus, and even for clamping down on flavoured ‘vaping’ cartridges to save teenagers from addiction.
SPACE FORCE: Trump established a new branch of the U.S. military to fight in space. It may sound like sci-fi wackiness but both Russia and China are expanding militarily into space, developing satellite-destroying weapons and hypersonic missiles that can travel so fast through near space as to be invulnerable to defences on Earth.
ECONOMY: Until Covid-19 hit, Trump was on course for re-election on the back of a buoyant economy. He and his opponents bicker over how much of this he inherited from Barack Obama but the economy certainly got stronger under unconventional Mr Trump.
His signature policy, $1.9 trillion in tax cuts, encouraged businesses to invest and consumers to spend, boosting the economy. Sceptics chorused that his refusal to make corresponding government budget cuts would end in disaster. Instead, he kept spending and the U.S. economy continued to grow.
… And the Worst of the Misses
CORONAVIRUS: With some 400,000 Americans so far dead and many millions out of work, Trump’s handling of Covid-19 is already being cited as one of the biggest disasters in U.S. history. The world’s richest country has been one of the worst affected and voters said the president’s lazy and chaotic response was their main reason for voting Democrat.
He dangerously downplayed the threat, promoted unproven medicines and publicly denigrated his chief scientific experts.
GLOBAL LEADERSHIP: Joe Biden has a mountain to climb to restore America’s tarnished international reputation. Trump’s ban on travel from Muslim countries, his aggressive ‘America First’ war cry, and his unabashed courting of authoritarian leaders — especially his mystifying chumminess towards Russian President Vladimir Putin — significantly undermined the America’s standing in the world.
While he had a point in attacking the World Health Organisation for being in thrall to China over coronavirus, this was outweighed by his decision to unilaterally pull the U.S. from both the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement.
US President Donald Trump participates in a ceremony commemorating the 200th mile of border wall at the international border with Mexico in San Luis, Arizona, June 23, 2020
A group of Central American migrants climb the border fence between Mexico and the United States, near El Chaparral border crossing, in Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, on November 25, 2018
KOWTOWING TO SICK EXTREMISTS: Trump’s response to a deadly neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — claiming there were ‘very fine people on both sides’ — remains one of the most controversial moments in his presidency.
His failure to condemn the white supremacists and sinister conspiracy theorists who support him led to the outrageous storming of the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob on January 6 which left five dead and dozens injured.
POLARISING AMERICA, DAMAGING DEMOCRACY: The U.S. was fiercely divided before he became president but Trump has done his best to exacerbate those divisions. He brought the office of president into disrepute by his shameless self-aggrandisement, mercurial temperament and — above all — by his endless lying, from the size of his inauguration crowd to claims of mass election fraud.
His refusal to admit defeat gracefully and continued insistence, against all evidence, that the election was ‘stolen’ from him, alienated even his most loyal allies. He limps pathetically from office, isolated and angry. He couldn’t have seen coronavirus coming, but for everything else he only has himself to blame.
THE WALL: Remember Trump’s ‘big, beautiful wall’? Plenty of his supporters do as it encapsulated how he would tackle the illegal immigration problem, and also violent crime, by keeping out the undesirables from Latin America.
Experts warned that building one along the entire 1,954 mile border with Mexico was both unfeasible and pointless (as most migrants came by road). Four years later, only 452 miles of wall have been completed, and only 40 miles of that is new build. Ironically, Trump achieved far more success by tightening up asylum rules.