The Impossible President

Despite Trumps mantra of change, as Commander-in-Chief it was business as usual with policy continuity
26th June 202426 min

In part one of this three part series we looked at how Donald Trump defeated the major Republican names in the primaries in 2015. In part 2, we look at how Trump was able to win the presidency in 2016, despite the Republican party working against him. We also analyse Trumps key policies as President and assess if he was any different from previous administrations. 

The Presidential Election of 2016, which ran from August to November and saw Donald Trump as the Republican candidate take on Hillary Clinton from the Democratic Party. Despite Trumps victory in the Republican primaries this did not change the attitude of the conventional, established Republican politicians towards him. Throughout the presidential campaign large numbers of prominent Republican politicians called for people not to vote for the Republican candidate for the American presidency, and instead vote for the candidate of the Democratic Party. In August of 2016 former Republican congressman John LeBoutillier told the BBC he believed many Republican politicians would support Clinton. “I think in private a lot of Republican congressmen are going to vote for Hillary, they can’t stand Trump”, he said. Among the Republican elites who at that time had already said they would not vote for Trump were Barbara Bush, the former first lady; Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor; Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina senator and 2016 presidential candidate; Larry Hogan, Maryland governor; John Kasich, Ohio governor; and Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and 2012 Republican presidential nominee.[1]

However, the media maintained its preference for Trump, giving him 15% more coverage than Clinton.[2] Trump’s coverage was more negative than that of Clinton. Clinton’s coverage was 64% negative while that of Trump was 77% negative. For Clinton this was largely a continuation of the kind of media coverage she had received earlier in 2015 and 2016. For Trump this was a change, as earlier his media coverage had been predominantly positive.

Clinton’s coverage during the general election was negative across CBS, Fox, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, but by varying degrees. The Los Angeles Times was 53% negative, while Fox was 81% negative. For Trump, coverage was significantly negative across all media outlets. Fox provided Trump his most favourable coverage, but it was still 73% negative.

After confirmation of the electoral result, the conventional, established Republican politicians manoeuvred to manage Trump’s cabinet decisions

As during the Pre-Primaries and the Primaries, media coverage was extremely light on policy and the characteristics that defined the candidates. By far most coverage, 42%, concerned the competitive race between the candidates. This coverage was overwhelmingly negative for Trump (78%), as he was presented as the “likely loser” throughout the period. For Clinton this coverage was 62% positive. Just 17% of media coverage discussed the policies proposed by the candidates or their suitability for the presidential office. In this area there was no difference between the candidates in the tone of the coverage, however. For both candidates the coverage was 87% negative and only 13% positive. A further 17% of media coverage was dedicated to controversies surrounding the candidates. In this area, coverage of Clinton focused on her use of a private email account for official email communications; the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which led to the death of the American ambassador in the country; and FBI investigations into her conduct. This coverage was 91% negative. For Trump the controversies were his verbal attack on the parents of an American soldier, Khizr and Ghazala Khan, after they had criticised him in a speech at the Democratic convention; the dealings of the Trump Foundation; his refusal to release his tax returns; his avoidance of paying federal taxes; his allegation that the election system was rigged against him; his refusal to say that he would accept the election outcome; the video that captured him bragging about groping women without their consent; and his alleged ties to Russia. Coverage of Trump’s controversies was 92% negative, a level similar to Clinton.

While media coverage of both candidates was negative throughout the period, a noticeable change occurred during the last two weeks of the election campaign. The media increased the amount of coverage of Clinton’s controversies, from around 7% on average throughout the campaign to almost 33%. Consequently, negative coverage of Clinton increased from the previously typical 50 – 60% to more than 70%. At the same time, negative coverage of Trump reduced, from the previously typical 70 – 90% to around 65%. This is explained by the fact that one of Clinton’s major scandals, her handling of confidential government emails, was escalated on the 28th of October, 2016, just 11 days before election day, when FBI Director James Comey announced a new investigation into the matter.[3] Although this investigation was mostly presented by the media as “damaging but not damaging enough to cost her the election”[4], and was officially closed on the 6th of November, 2016, 2 days before election day when it was announced Clinton had not done anything wrong, it was used by Trump to attack Clinton during the critical last days. This explains the sudden increase in negative coverage for Clinton during the last two weeks of the campaign.

President Trump

In the end, Donald Trump was elected as the 45th president of the United States. This did not happen because the Republican Party supported him – over 50 leading Republican politicians called upon the people not to vote for Trump.[5] It also didn’t happen because the media supported him– they were more negative about Trump than about Clinton even during most of the election period. And it wasn’t because Trump had the biggest support from the voters – in fact, 3 million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump.[6] What helped Trump win was a combination of events and decisions.

Firstly, the timing of the Comey Affair enabled Trump develop an edge over Clinton in the important states Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina and Arizona.[7]

Secondly, Trump’s so-called Electoral College strategy was better than that of Clinton. Trump did not focus on winning as many votes as possible. He also did not focus on winning as many states as possible. He focused his resources on the states in America where he could beat Clinton, and that would give him enough of the electoral votes that determine the president. This is why Trump focused on states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.[8]

Thirdly, the platform Trump chose to run his election on, his rallying against conventional, established politicians and orthodox policies, attracted the segment of the voting public that enabled him to beat Clinton in the critical states. This segment was the typically older, primarily working class, lower educated, white men.[9]

Fourthly, the techniques Trump chose to use to identify these voters and communicate with them.

Trump was able to perfect his messaging to his audience through his collaboration with a company named Cambridge Analytics. Cambridge Analytics had invented a way to create profiles of individuals by using Facebook data. The elections of 2016 were the first where this technology could play a role, as Facebook was founded only in 2006 and did not reach significant scale until late 2012-early 2013. For the Trump campaign Cambridge Analytics gathered data from over 50 million American voters, and processed this data to develop a deep understanding of both the thoughts and emotions of these people – what they thought was important, what made them angry, and so on. This then enabled Trump to send personalised messages to these people, using platforms such as Facebook, but also Google, Snapchat, Twitter, and YouTube, to convince these people to vote for him. It was a revolutionary new approach to campaigning, which took the Clinton campaign by surprise.[10]  


After confirmation of the electoral result, the conventional, established Republican politicians manoeuvred to manage Trump’s cabinet decisions. Trump chose to make Mike Pence, a long term Republican politician, his vice-president and the leader of his transition team. He further appointed Reince Priebus, who was the Republican National Committee chairman and a long term ally of Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republican members in the United States’ Senate who had been campaigning inside the Republican Party against Trump throughout 2016, as his chief of staff. Republican stalwarts also appointed Elaine Chao, the wife of McConnell, as Secretary of Transportation. Tom Price, who Trump appointed as Health Secretary, was a close friend of another of Trump’s main rivals in the Republican Party, Paul Ryan, the Republican speaker of the United States House of Representatives.

Further established, conventional Republicans in Trump’s cabinet were senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama who was appointed as attorney general; Mike Pompeo of Kansas who became CIA director; and Tom Price of Georgia who became secretary of health and human services. As Education Secretary Trump appointed Betsy DeVos, not a politician but a long term Republican donor who was much liked by and very close with the leadership of the Republican Party.[11]

Trump agreed to appoint Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of oil giant ExxonMobil, as Secretary of State, based on the advice of Republican foreign policy veterans Condoleezza Rice, who was Secretary of State under George W. Bush; Robert Gates, who served as Secretary of Defense under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama; Stephen Hadley, George W. Bush’s national security adviser; and James Baker, who served as White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan.[12]

Steve Mnuchin’s appointment as Secretary of the Treasury could be considered surprising, as he was not known as a long-time Republican. However, this appointment followed the long-standing tradition of American presidents to appoint Wall Street insiders to lead the Treasury. Mnuchin worked for Goldman Sachs for two decades, after which he founded his own hedge fund, Dune Capital.[13] Under Bill Clinton, from 1995 until 1999, Robert Rubin, a former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs, was Secretary of the Treasury. Under Barack Obama another former CEO of Goldman Sachs, Hank Paulson, had served as Secretary of the Treasury, from 2006 until 2009. Trump chose another former Goldman Sachs executive, Gary Cohn, to lead the National Economic Council.[14] By and large, therefore, Trump made the kind of appointments that would be expected of a conventional, established traditional Republican candidate.

The only people on Trump’s early team that were not either from, or closely associated with, the leadership of the Republican Party, were Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, and Michael Flynn, a former Lieutenant General. Bannon was Trump’s closest advisor and referred to as “the most dangerous political operative in America” by both Democratic and Republican establishment politicians who deeply resented him.[15] While Flynn was appointed national security adviser, Bannon was given a leadership position in the “principals committee” of the National Security Council, America’s principal forum for national security and foreign policy decision-making.[16] Not much later, however, Flynn was fired from his position, accused of lying to vice-president Pence.[17] He was replaced by General H.R. McMaster, a long term member from the military establishment, who almost immediately began work to ensure Bannon was sidelined.[18] That happened early April 2017, just 2 months into Trump’s presidency, and resulted in a Trump administration purely made up of “establishment insiders”. In other words, the man who had promoted himself as an “outsider”, ended up working with nothing but conventional “establishment insiders” in the critical positions in his government.

the man who had promoted himself as an “outsider”, ended up working with nothing but conventional “establishment insiders” in the critical positions in his government

Change the Trump Way

Consequently, the policies executed by president Trump were largely aligned with the preferences of the Republican Party’s leadership, or continuations of existing American strategies. Also, because in the rare instances where Trump threatened to interfere in the work of his cabinet members, and tried to push through his own unorthodox opinions, lower levels of the American state worked to block him. In 2018 a high-ranking civil servant wrote an article for the New York Times to explain how he and his colleagues worked to prevent Trump from having any influence over policy decisions. “We are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t”, he said. In 2020 the author was revealed to have been Miles Taylor, the chief of staff in the Department of Homeland Security.[19] In 2020 another leading civil servant, Jim Jeffrey, revealed that he and his fellow diplomats regularly lied to Trump to prevent him from influencing policy decisions.[20] 

For example the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement between 11 Asian countries and the United States, from which Trump withdrew. It was set to become the world’s largest free trade deal, covering 40% of the global economy. Negotiations were started during the presidency of George W. Bush, and were continued during the presidency of Barack Obama as part of his strategic pivot to Asia.[21] Trump’s withdrawal is therefore often presented as him cancelling out the policy of his predecessors. However, during the 2016 election campaigns, various Democratic and Republican politicians had already begun to argue against it. This included Hillary Clinton, who as Secretary of State under Obama had been tasked with organising it.[22] In reality, therefore, Trump’s cancellation of the TPP was less a “Trump aberration” and more an expression of broadly shared objections against it.

This is also the reality of Trump’s decision to cancel and then renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between America, Canada and Mexico. It was concluded in 1994 and had already come under attack by both Democratic and Republican politicians over the years preceding the Trump presidency. For example, in 2008 Obama had also promised to renegotiate NAFTA. Consequently, Trump’s renegotiated deal agreed in 2019 was supported by both the Democratic and Republican parties.[23]

Consequently, the policies executed by president Trump were largely aligned with the preferences of the Republican Party’s leadership, or continuations of existing American strategies

The tax reform implemented by Trump in 2017 was a continuation of Republican policy going back as far as 1981, when Republican president Ronald Reagan drastically reformed the American tax laws. In 2001 Republican president George W. Bush introduced a further tax reform.[24] Trump’s tax reform was also passed with full backing by the Republican Party, many of whom also personally benefited from the new rules.[25]

Trump has also been heavily criticised for his decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord and to cancel various forms of legislation designed to protect the environment. But as far the Paris Climate Accord is concerned, the Republican Party had always opposed it, even before Trump. In 2015 the leadership of the Republican Party even organised a global effort to try and cancel all the environmental policies implemented during the presidency of Barack Obama (2008 – 2016).[26] Even currently the Republican Party is challenging president Biden’s decision to re-enter the Paris Climate Accord. In other words, Trump’s environmental policy was in line with preferences of the established Republican politicians.

Foreign Policy Continuity 

As to foreign policy, Trump controversially cancelled the nuclear deal America had agreed with Iran during the Obama presidency,[27] increased tensions with Russia among other ways through cancelling the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) of 1987[28], and also increased tensions with China by launching a Trade War using the accusation China practised unfair trade practices[29], spying and currency manipulation. Additionally, Trump controversially moved the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, organised the so-called Abraham Accords under which the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco agreed to formally normalise relations with Israel, pressured Germany to abandon the Nord Stream 2 project to pipeline natural gas from Russia into Europe[30], and supported a coup in Venezuela.[31]

President Trump’s acts regarding Iran, Russia and China were all natural continuations of the foreign policies defined and implemented during the presidency of Barack Obama, according to George Friedman, the leading analyst of geopolitics and founder of geopolitical risk consultancy STRATFOR as well as the geopolitical forecasting agency Geopolitical Futures.[32]

The Obama policy consisted of reducing military forces in the Middle East and creating a new relationship with the Muslim world; adopting a more adversarial stance on Russia, including Moscow’s forays in its near abroad; and confronting China on trade relations and, specifically, Beijing’s manipulation of its currency. According to Friedman, Trump similarly sought to withdraw troops from the Middle East and to create a new relationship in the region. He was instrumental in formalising a coalition structure consisting of certain Arab nations and Israel against Iran, and made some unexpected troop withdrawals. He brought economic pressure on China. And finally, he continued to confront Russia, maintaining American forces in Poland, Romania and the Black Sea. During both Obama and Trump’s administrations, therefore, the key elements of foreign policy were the withdrawal and restructuring of the Middle East, containing Russia and confronting China. The language, gestures and general atmosphere were different, but the underlying reality was the same.

This analysis, that Trump continued the policies of his predecessors, rather than abandoned them, is confirmed by president Biden. From the very beginning, Biden announced he would not fundamentally change the policies Trump implemented on Iran and China. Regarding Iran Biden communicated that while he would reopen negotiations, he too would not return to the nuclear deal from the Obama era.[50] Biden also continued with Trump’s trade war with China.[33]

As to president Trump’s policies regarding Israel, the fact that these were in line with a longer term American policy, rather than specific Trump initiatives, is evidenced by the fact that president Biden has confirmed his administration would continue to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.[34] According to Ian Bremmer, another leading analyst of geopolitical affairs and founder of the geopolitical risk consultancy Eurasia group, the Abraham Accords were a major success for the Trump administration because they achieved what American policy had since long aimed to achieve, but which previous administration had failed to achieve.[35]

As a result of all this, the view among foreign policy analysts is that Biden’s foreign policy is nothing short of a continuation of Trump’s foreign policy.[36] This is a clear indication that during his presidency, Trump did not go against the policies preferred by America’s established politicians. Rather, as should have been expected after Trump’s appointment of establishment insiders to his cabinet, he faithfully executed them. Just as Biden is doing at present.


Trump forced himself upon the American political establishment. They did not want him, but in the end they were unable to stop him, because they had ignored him while they still could. In the end, however, they controlled him, by ensuring his cabinet consisted of “their people”, establishment politicians and civil servants. Thereby they ensured they limited the damage the “unwanted president” could do to the objectives, policies and plans of America, in the areas that are of critical importance to the country.

President Trump thereby revealed the reality of the American democratic system. The people get to vote for a president. But the objectives, policies and plans are decided not by the president. They are decided by people behind the scenes, the establishment politicians and civil servants who George Friedman refers to as America’s “deep state”.[37]

Nevertheless, during his presidency Trump greatly upset America’s establishment. This he did through his outbursts, which undermined the status and image of America across the world[38], and through his general impotence as a president, which was clearly articulated by Trump’s former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson[39] as well as by Trump’s former National Security Advisor John Bolton[40], and which was evidenced by his mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis.[41]

This explains why the American establishment went to great lengths to prevent Trump from achieving a second presidential term. The leadership of the Republican Party made sure it did not repeat its mistakes from 2016. It was organised in opposition to Trump. It established the Defending Democracy Together[42] organisations to convince Republican voters that Trump does not represent their views. It also established Project Lincoln[43] to actively campaign against Trump. And it united its leading members to form a front against Trump, in support of Joe Biden.[44] The American establishment also ensured the major social media companies prevented a repeat of 2016, when Trump used their platforms to establish an edge over Hillary Clinton. During October 2020 Twitter began tagging Trump’s messages with a warning label saying his claims were “unsubstantiated”.[45] That same month, Facebook removed all accounts linked to the QAnon conspiracy group which supports Trump[46], and in November it blocked the Stop the Steal group that was used to rally support for Trump.[47] From October onward Twitter and Facebook also prevented the sharing of news that was damaging to the Biden campaign[48] – in act of censorship that was left unchallenged by American media.[49] In January of 2021 these platform then took the unusual step of permanently removing Trump’s access to their platforms.[50]

Nevertheless, Trump is likely to have a lasting impact on America. Trump gave a voice to a large segment of American society that feels abandoned by the conventional, establishment politicians. This segment of society has been given confidence by Trump, and in return they gave him 74 million votes during the 2020 elections.

This has worsened polarisation in America. It has increased the level of division and animosity between the different segments of society, which is damaging for America as it undermines the willingness of these different groups to collaborate.[51] Trump also undermined trust in America’s democratic system, in particular through his claims the 2020 election was fraudulently won by Joe Biden, which undermines the legitimacy of the American government, the respect for its formal institutions, and consequently the stability of American society.[52]

In the final part of the series we look at the challenges Trump faces to become US president again, the response of the Republican party and what we can expect in terms of policy if Trump does indeed become US president again.

Part 1 – The Trump Phenomenon

Part 2 – The Impossible President

Part 3 – Trump 2.0



[1] US election 2016: Republican divisions grow over Trump – BBC News

[2] News Coverage of the 2016 General Election: How the Press Failed the Voters | Shorenstein Center

[3] FBI investigated over pre-election decisions on Clinton email | Reuters

[4] The Comey Letter Probably Cost Clinton The Election | FiveThirtyEight

[5] These Republican Leaders Say Trump Should Not Be President (

[6] 2016 Presidential Election Results – Election Results 2016 – The New York Times (

[7] The Comey Letter Probably Cost Clinton The Election | FiveThirtyEight

[8] Donald Trump Had A Superior Electoral College Strategy | FiveThirtyEight

[9] The demographic blowback that elected Donald Trump | Brookings , see also An examination of the 2016 electorate, based on validated voters | Pew Research Center

[10] How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions – The New York Times (

[11] Trump Taps Congress to Fill Posts in Cabinet – The Atlantic

[12] GOP heavyweights with ties to Exxon pushed Tillerson | CNN Politics

[13] Steven Mnuchin Businessweek Profile – Bloomberg

[14] Trump’s administration is filling up with wealth and power after populist campaign ( 

[15] Steve Bannon: The Trump-whisperer’s rapid fall from grace – BBC News

[16] Bannon Is Given Security Role Usually Held for Generals – The New York Times (

[17] Why Donald Trump let Michael Flynn go – POLITICO

[18] Steve Bannon removed from National Security Council; Rick Perry in (

[19] Opinion | I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration – The New York Times (

[20] Outgoing Syria Envoy Admits Hiding US Troop Numbers; Praises Trump’s Mideast Record – Defense One

[21] What’s Next for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)? | Council on Foreign Relations (

[22] Clinton raved about Trans-Pacific Partnership before she rejected it – POLITICO

[23] NAFTA and the USMCA: Weighing the Impact of North American Trade | Council on Foreign Relations (


[25] Republicans passed tax cuts — then profited – Center for Public Integrity

[26] Climate change: Republicans plan attack on pact – POLITICO

[27] Three reasons behind Trump ditching Iran deal – BBC News

[28] INF nuclear treaty: US pulls out of Cold War-era pact with Russia – BBC News

[29] China–United States trade war – Wikipedia

[30] Trump has long wanted to kill Russia-Germany natural gas pipeline Nord Stream 2. Navalny’s poisoning could do it for him | Fortune

[31] Trump Administration Discussed Coup Plans With Rebel Venezuelan Officers – The New York Times (

[32] Obama, Trump and Biden: Consistency in Foreign Policy – Geopolitical Futures

[33] Biden sets new demands for US return to Iran deal, lift sanctions: NYT (

[34] China trade war is one thing Joe Biden won’t be rushing to fix | CNN Business

[35] What has and hasn’t changed as Biden takes over U.S. foreign policy (

[36] Watch ‘Balance of Power’ Full Show (01/22/2021) – Bloomberg

[37] Opinion | Is Biden normalizing Trump’s foreign policy? – The Washington Post

[38] The Deep State Is A Very Real Thing | HuffPost Latest News

[39] U.S. Image Plummets Internationally as Most Say Country Has Handled Coronavirus Badly | Pew Research Center

[40] Tillerson on the Foreign-Policy Mess Trump Is Leaving Behind (

[41] John Bolton: Ten biggest claims in his Donald Trump book – BBC News

[42] The Trump Administration’s Response to Coronavirus – American Oversight

[43] Defending Democracy Together

[44] The Lincoln Project

[45] List of Republicans who opposed the Donald Trump 2020 presidential campaign – Wikipedia

[46] Twitter tags Trump tweet with fact-checking warning – BBC News

[47] Facebook bans QAnon across its platforms (

[48] Facebook removes pro-Trump Stop the Steal group over ‘calls for violence’ | US elections 2020 | The Guardian

[49] Facebook and Twitter Cross a Line in Censorship (

[50] Article on Joe and Hunter Biden Censored By The Intercept (

[51] Trump loses social media megaphone – DW – 01/07/2021

[52] The Impact of Increased Political Polarization (

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