Donald J. Trump’s presidency marked a profound departure from U.S. leadership in areas such as trade and diplomacy, as well as an across-the-board toughening of immigration policies.
In his inaugural address, President Donald J. Trump announces an America First approach to foreign policy and trade, which centers on reducing U.S. trade deficits and rebalancing burden sharing within alliances. Trump promises to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism” and emphasizes that “it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”
Trump directs the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a twelve-country, Asia-focused trade agreement the United States had championed under the Barack Obama administration.
The president signs an executive order banning nationals of six Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the United States for ninety days. The order, later amended to include an additional two countries, also indefinitely freezes refugee intake from Syria. Days later, a federal judge in Washington State blocks part of the order, beginning a series of judicial challenges. That same week, Trump signs two other executive orders concerning immigration. One directs federal funds to the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the other bars so-called sanctuary cities from receiving federal grants.
In retaliation for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of the chemical weapon sarin in an attack against civilians, Trump authorizes a limited cruise missile strike on the regime-controlled Shayrat Air Base. U.S.-sponsored measures against the regime at the UN Security Council are blocked by Russia, part of a long-running trend.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer notifies Congress [PDF] of the White House’s intent to “modernize” the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The administration seeks to renegotiate the agreement, whose other parties are Canada and Mexico, to address the U.S. trade deficit in goods, eliminate subsidies it sees as unfair, restore manufacturing jobs, and ease intellectual property restrictions.
Trump makes his first trip abroad as president, traveling to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank, Italy, Vatican City, Belgium, and Italy. He attends a summit in Riyadh with leaders from more than fifty Arab- and Muslim-majority nations, where he delivers a speech calling on the Muslim world to unite against terrorism. In Brussels, Trump addresses North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) heads of state and government, calling on each of them to “finally contribute their fair share” to the alliance. He does not, however, explicitly state his support for NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense clause. In Italy, Trump participates in the Group of Seven (G7) meeting, where the United States joins a joint declaration on fighting protectionism but withholds its support from one reaffirming the Paris climate accord.
In a speech, Trump announces that the United States will withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accord, another agreement negotiated by Obama. Trump criticizes the 195-country agreement, under which the United States would have voluntarily limited its carbon emissions, for constricting U.S. sovereignty, harming American workers, and disadvantaging the United States economically.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt sever diplomatic relations with Qatar, alleging it supports terrorism and Iranian adventurism. Trump initially welcomes the move even as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis work to reinforce the U.S. relationship with Qatar, which hosts the al-Udeid Air Base, the regional headquarters of U.S. Central Command.
Trump announces a partial rollback of the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Cuba. Under the newly announced guidelines, the United States will reinstate restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba without severing diplomatic ties. In September 2017, the Trump administration reduces the U.S. embassy staff in Havana by half.
In a visit to Warsaw, Trump delivers an address in which he emphasizes a civilizational struggle for the West and, for the first time, explicitly references NATO’s mutual defense clause. In Germany, Trump attends the Group of Twenty leaders’ meeting, where he meets for the first time as president with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The meeting is highly anticipated amid ongoing investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.
After Pyongyang threatens to launch ballistic missiles into the waters around Guam, Trump warns that North Korea will be met with “fire and fury” if it continues to threaten launches. The remark initiates hostile rhetorical exchanges that culminate with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un insulting Trump.
Trump, in a speech, announces a counterterrorism-focused approach to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. He announces that he will deploy more U.S. troops there and loosen their rules of engagement. He avoids mentioning deployment timetables.
Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions announce that the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program will begin winding down in six months, leaving approximately eight hundred thousand beneficiaries vulnerable to deportation. Trump encourages Congress to legislate a successor to DACA.
Trump, addressing the UN General Assembly for the first time, threatens to “totally destroy” North Korea if the United States is “forced to defend itself or its allies.” Echoing his inaugural address, Trump emphasizes sovereignty and tells the gathered world leaders that the United States does “not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to watch.”
After months of deliberation, Trump announces that he will not recertify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to Congress (JCPOA), saying that Iran’s behavior violates the spirit of the agreement. Trump does not take steps to abrogate the JCPOA; instead, he asks Congress to deliberate on reimposing sanctions.
Trump travels to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines on his longest trip yet. In addition to introducing a new vision for U.S. involvement in the “Indo-Pacific,” North Korea and trade dominate the agenda. In Vietnam, Trump attends the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and delivers an address reinforcing his America First vision on trade. In Manila, on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summits, officials from the United States, Japan, Australia, and India convene a quadrilateral meeting of like-minded democracies with concerns about China’s rise.
Trump breaks with decades of U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He justifies the move as a recognition of the reality that Jerusalem is the seat of Israel’s government.
The administration releases a series of strategy documents, including ones on national security and defense, both of which highlight China and Russia as major strategic competitors. Soon after, it releases its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which calls for the creation of two new nuclear missiles for submarines. The NPR also broadens the circumstances under which the United States may use nuclear weapons to encompass cyberattacks.
Citing national security concerns, the president announces on March 1 that the United States will impose tariffs on foreign-made steel and aluminum. The administration imposes the restrictions on China but exempts Canada and other U.S.-aligned states, as well as the European Union, as trade negotiations continue.
Trump accepts an invitation from Kim to meet for what would be the first summit between a sitting U.S. president and his North Korean counterpart. South Korean National Security Advisor Chun Eui-yong, in Washington, D.C., announces Trump’s decision to accept the invitation. The Trump administration says the summit will be an opportunity to discuss the denuclearization of North Korea.
In early April, China imposes retaliatory tariffs on U.S. products worth about $3 billion, escalating a trade war between the world’s two largest economies. By November, the United States has levied tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods, while China has imposed tariffs on $110 billion worth of U.S. products. At the Group of Twenty summit in Buenos Aires in early December, Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agree to a cease-fire, as well as to strike a broader trade agreement within ninety days.
Trump orders the U.S. military to strike three facilities in Syria linked to the Bashar al-Assad regime’s chemical weapons program. The air strikes, a response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians, are carried out in coordination with forces from France and the United Kingdom.
The president institutes a blanket “zero tolerance” policy in May that results in the U.S. Border Patrol separating more than 2,600 children from their parents, before reversing the policy in August. In response to a spike in Central American asylum seekers, Trump sends five thousand troops to “harden the southern border.”
The president announces the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Trump says it did not sufficiently curb the country’s civilian nuclear program or its regional aggression. Without citing any material Iranian violations, Trump announces that the United States will reinstate two sets of sanctions on Iran that had been waived with the deal’s implementation; they will take effect in August and November and range from aircraft imports to oil and petroleum product exports.
After recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017, the Trump administration moves the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The move upsets Arab and Western allies, and brings Washington’s neutrality as a broker in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process into question.
Trump and Kim meet in Singapore. Their joint declaration steers the U.S.-North Korea relationship from confrontation to cooperation, but it establishes few means to enforce its ambitious commitments, which include the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula.
Ambassador Nikki Haley announces that the United States will withdraw from the Human Rights Council, citing “a chronic bias against Israel” and the human rights abuses of various sitting members, which include China and Venezuela.
Trump and Putin meet in Helsinki for a two-hour meeting behind closed doors, accompanied only by two interpreters. Though the leaders claim to discuss the Syrian civil war, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and Russia’s encroachment on Ukraine, the substance of their discussion remains largely unknown. The meeting culminates in a press conference during which Trump casts doubt on U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
The United States, Canada, and Mexico settle on a number of changes to NAFTA, renaming it the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. The trade deal contains new labor stipulations, stronger protections for U.S. intellectual property, and higher standards for the auto industry, including rules of origin and minimum wage hikes that benefit American manufacturers.
In early October, Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist, is assassinated inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. As evidence incriminating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman mounts, Trump expresses support for the Saudi leadership, touting Saudi Arabia as a major U.S. regional partner, oil supplier, and purchaser of U.S. arms. The decision draws backlash from U.S. allies and Congress.
Trump announces the United States will withdraw all of its more than two thousand troops from Syria, though he doesn’t specify a timeline. He asks the Pentagon to come up with a plan to withdraw half of those serving in Afghanistan as well. Many Democrats and Republicans in Congress call the decision precipitous, and Mattis offers his resignation the next day, saying the president deserves a secretary “better aligned” with his views.
The White House recognizes Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the nation’s interim president, joining more than fifty other countries that consider the 2018 reelection of Nicolas Maduro illegitimate. As Venezuela continues to struggle with hyperinflation, shortages of basic goods, and a refugee crisis, Washington’s attempts to send humanitarian aid are blocked at the border. Trump refuses to rule out military action against Maduro and later imposes sanctions.
A fight with Congress over Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion for a wall along the southern U.S. border ends after a thirty-five-day shutdown of the federal government, the longest ever. When Congress rejects the funding request, the president declares a national emergency in February, allowing him to divert funding from other sources, including the military. Trump issues his first veto to block a congressional resolution that would have prevented the move.
As trade talks break down, the United States raises tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods from 10 to 25 percent, leading China to retaliate in kind. In the following months, the Trump administration also imposes new restrictions on Chinese telecom firms, labels China a currency manipulator, and threatens to halt all private U.S. investment in China. Trump’s plan to raise tariffs on an additional $300 billion worth of Chinese goods is, however, put on hold.
In the wake of an Iranian downing of a U.S. drone, Trump authorizes military action on Iranian targets, but calls off the operation at the last moment. The incident comes after months of rising tensions, including increased U.S. sanctions on Iran for violating the terms of a 2015 nuclear deal and Iranian threats to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial global shipping lane.
Trump becomes the first sitting U.S. president to set foot in North Korea, crossing the Demilitarized Zone for a brief meeting with Kim. Coming months after a February summit in Vietnam collapsed almost as soon as it began, neither side offers concrete concessions and North Korea soon resumes missile tests.
Trump announces a “safe third country” agreement with Guatemala that would require asylum seekers to remain there, rather than wait in the United States while their claims are processed, or face deportation. The deal is challenged in Guatemalan court, but similar arrangements with El Salvador and Honduras are soon announced. The moves come after Trump issues new rules that asylum seekers in Mexico must remain there and uses the threat of tariffs to pressure Mexico to step up its own border security efforts.
Trump declares an end to Afghan peace talks, calling off a planned meeting of warring parties, including Taliban representatives, at Camp David. A preliminary agreement had reportedly revolved around a pledge by the Taliban to keep terrorists out of Afghanistan in exchange for a cease-fire and full withdrawal of Western military forces. In October, the Pentagon says two thousand U.S. troops have already been withdrawn, leaving some twelve thousand remaining.
The U.S. House of Representatives begins a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump over allegations that he withheld military aid to Ukraine to pressure it to investigate his political rival, Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump denies there was a “quid pro quo” with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
In the wake of a call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump abruptly decides to withdraw all remaining U.S. troops from Kurdish-controlled northern Syria. Two days later, Turkish troops invade Syria to combat Kurdish groups, which Ankara labels terrorists, and the Kurds seek protection from Assad’s regime and his Russian allies. The Trump administration responds with sanctions on Turkey, a NATO ally, leading to talks for a permanent cease-fire. The deal allows the Syrian Kurds to evacuate and divides control of the territory along the Syria-Turkey border among Turkish, Russian, and Syrian government forces.
In the wake of a September attack on Saudi oil facilities that Riyadh blames on Iran, Trump reinforces the kingdom with three thousand U.S. troops as well as fighter jets and missile technology. The show of support comes several months after bipartisan efforts in Congress to end Washington’s backing of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen forced Trump to veto bills that would have ended U.S. involvement in the war and blocked U.S. arms sales to Riyadh.
Trump announces that the leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been killed by U.S. forces. His immediate successor is also killed in a separate raid. Baghdadi, who once controlled thousands of square miles of territory across the Middle East, was in hiding in northern Syria, eight months after the Islamic State lost the last remnant of its caliphate in Syria.
A U.S. drone strike kills Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, in Baghdad. The Pentagon links Soleimani to violent demonstrations at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, as well as the deaths of hundreds of American and allied troops in the region. Though Trump says he ordered the strike “to stop a war,” Soleimani’s killing raises fears of further escalation. Tehran retaliates by firing missiles at two Iraqi bases hosting U.S. soldiers, prompting Washington to impose new sanctions on Iran.
In a joint White House appearance, Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announce a new plan to end decades of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Analysts say the deal, developed without Palestinian input, favors Israel by awarding it large portions of the West Bank and Jerusalem, and by weakening long-standing U.S. support for a fully autonomous Palestinian state. Palestinian leaders roundly reject the proposal, which is opposed by most Arab states and received ambivalently by European countries.
In a 52–48 vote, the U.S. Senate acquits Trump of a charge of abuse of power centered on allegations he pressured the Ukrainian government to investigate his political opponents. The Senate also finds him not guilty of obstructing the congressional investigation into the matter. The vote comes less than a month after the House of Representatives impeached Trump, the third presidential impeachment in the nation’s history. While U.S. military aid for Ukraine continues, many Ukrainians worry that the impeachment weakens bilateral ties as a Russia-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine persists.
U.S. and Taliban officials ink a deal to begin reducing hostilities, heralded as a major step in the long-drawn-out effort to end Afghanistan’s eighteen-year war. In exchange for a withdrawal of U.S. troops within fourteen months, the Taliban agrees to open talks with the Afghan government and prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan to attack the United States or its allies. The agreement also calls for a permanent cease-fire to be worked out during intra-Afghan negotiations. Some experts see the deal as one-sided and question whether the Taliban will follow through on its ill-defined commitments.
After initially downplaying the risk of a new coronavirus disease, COVID-19, Trump declares a national emergency as cases balloon. The move unlocks roughly $50 billion in federal funding and allows the loosening of some regulations on health-care providers. Trump also announces new efforts to boost coronavirus testing, after what many see as an anemic federal response, and later signs more than $2 trillion in economic stimulus legislation. Trump increasingly blames China, where the virus originated, for misleading the world and threatens retaliation.
The coronavirus pandemic disrupts U.S. diplomacy, including by causing the postponement of the G7 summit, which the United States was set to host. U.S. programs such as the Peace Corps are forced to halt global operations. Geopolitical competition, including U.S.-China tensions, hamstrings a multilateral coronavirus response, experts say. At the UN General Assembly annual debate, held virtually for the first time, due to the coronavirus, Trump again blames China for the pandemic and accuses it of environmental pollution and trade abuses.
The Trump administration formally notifies the United Nations that the United States will cut ties with the World Health Organization (WHO), which it helped found, effective July 2021. Trump previously accused the UN agency of misleading the world about the threat of COVID-19 under pressure from China; he had also announced the redirection of U.S. funding, the WHO’s largest source of financial support. In September, the United States refuses to join a WHO-led global initiative, known as the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX Facility), to develop, manufacture, and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper says the United States plans to withdraw nearly twelve thousand troops stationed in Germany—about one-third of the total U.S. force there—and the head of U.S. European Command announces that force’s headquarters will be relocated from Stuttgart to Mons, Belgium. Esper says the moves will strengthen NATO, enhance efforts to deter Russia, and boost strategic flexibility; Trump says it is a response to Germany not upholding its financial commitments to NATO.
In a September ceremony at the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signs U.S.-brokered agreements to normalize relations with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Trump heralds the event as the “dawn of a new Middle East.” Experts say the deals further unite Israel and Arab Gulf states against Iran, while Palestinian leaders decry them as a betrayal. In the following months, Trump announces that Sudan and Morocco will also begin rapprochements with Israel. In exchange, the United States grants Sudan financial assistance and delists it as a state sponsor of terrorism. It also recognizes Morocco’s claim to the disputed region of Western Sahara.
The State Department announces a plan to slash refugee admissions to a maximum of fifteen thousand people in the 2021 fiscal year, the lowest level in the four-decade history of modern U.S. refugee resettlement. It cites prioritizing Americans’ safety and well-being amid the pandemic, among other factors, as a reason for the move. Trump’s response to the novel coronavirus reinforces his restrictive immigration policy. Since March, the administration has temporarily halted refugee resettlement, effectively shuttered the asylum system, and blocked many foreign worker visas and green cards.
Days after losing reelection to Biden, Trump announces Esper’s termination as defense secretary on Twitter. Several other top Pentagon officials resign following Esper’s removal and are replaced by perceived White House loyalists. The reshuffle raises alarm among Democrats about security risks amid a presidential transition. Christopher C. Miller, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, is named acting defense secretary. Meanwhile, Trump’s refusal to recognize Biden’s victory stymies information sharing and other coordination on national security issues with the Biden transition team.
The United States formally exits the Treaty on Open Skies, which experts see as a setback to international arms control efforts. The withdrawal, which faced domestic and international opposition, comes six months after Pompeo announced it, citing Russian noncompliance. In force since 2002, the treaty allows member countries to surveil each other’s military installations and activities on short notice via flyovers by unarmed aircraft. Signatories also share the information they gather with other states party to the deal. Weeks after the U.S. exit, Russia announces it will also withdraw from the treaty.
A pro-Trump mob, egged on by the president, storms the Capitol Building and disrupts legislators meeting to certify President-Elect Biden’s victory. The breach of the Capitol leaves five people dead and forces lawmakers to take cover for hours. While continuing to claim electoral victory, Trump calls his pre-insurrection remarks “totally appropriate,” and he criticizes efforts to impeach him a second time as a “continuation of the greatest witch hunt in the history of politics.” Many world leaders condemn the uprising as an attack on democracy, affirm their support for Biden’s presidency, and urge an orderly transition of power. Some governments also point to the insurrection as evidence of hypocrisy in the United States’ portrayal of itself as a standard-bearer for democracy.