How Trump’s presidency weakened US institutions

Donald Trump’s presidency was a tumultuous and unprecedented period in American history, marked by constant controversies, scandals, polarisation, and protests. Trump, who had no prior experience in government or the military, defied many norms and expectations of presidential behaviour and often clashed with the media, the judiciary, Congress, foreign allies, and even his administration. His unconventional and often erratic style of leadership raised serious questions about the resilience and integrity of US democratic institutions and traditions.

One of the most striking features of Trump’s presidency was his relentless assault on the legitimacy and credibility of various institutions that are supposed to act as checks and balances on presidential power. He repeatedly attacked the free press as “fake news” and “the enemy of the people”, undermining public trust in journalism and information.

He also frequently criticised and dismissed the findings of US intelligence agencies, especially regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election and his ties to Moscow. He fired or forced out several officials who were investigating or overseeing his actions, such as FBI Director James Comey, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and Inspector General Michael Atkinson.

He refused to cooperate with congressional inquiries and subpoenas, claiming executive privilege or absolute immunity. He challenged the authority and independence of federal judges who ruled against his policies or personal interests, calling them “so-called judges” or “Obama judges”. He pardoned or commuted the sentences of several of his associates who were convicted of crimes related to his campaign or administration, such as Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, and Steve Bannon.

 Trump’s disregard for institutional norms and rules also extended to his foreign policy. He withdrew from several multilateral agreements and organizations that he deemed unfair or ineffective, such as the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the World Health Organisation, and UNESCO.

He imposed tariffs and sanctions on various countries, including some of America’s closest allies, sparking trade wars and diplomatic tensions. He questioned the value and relevance of NATO and other security alliances, demanding that other members pay more for their defense or threatening to withdraw US troops. He embraced authoritarian leaders such as Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Rodrigo Duterte while alienating democratic partners such as Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, and Justin Trudeau.

He also undermined the credibility and consistency of US foreign policy by making impulsive and contradictory decisions, often without consulting or informing his advisers or allies, such as ordering the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, announcing the withdrawal of US forces from Syria and Afghanistan, or proposing to buy Greenland.

Trump’s presidency revealed the fragility and vulnerability of US institutions in the face of a leader who was willing to test their limits and challenge their legitimacy. While some institutions proved to be more resilient than others, such as the courts, the media, and civil society, others were more susceptible to erosion or capture, such as Congress, the executive branch, and the electoral system. The impact of Trump’s presidency on US institutions will likely have lasting consequences for American democracy and its role in the world.

Baba Abdullahi Machina,

Potiskum, Yobe state