Impeachment. Is there anything else to say about America in 2019? Actually, it was a political roller coaster of a year even before the gavels of December. The year began with the Democratic takeover of the House and the end of one-party rule in Washington — "and not a moment too soon," as we stated editorially at the start of the year.
President Donald Trump and the GOP had used their two years of unfettered power to pass a deficit-exploding tax cut for the rich, to endanger the health care of millions of Americans by undermining the Affordable Care Act, and to manufacture an exaggerated immigration crisis at the southern border.
Trump's obsession with funding construction of a border wall led him to force a government shutdown in late 2018. The newly Democrat-controlled House, bolstered by a few Republicans who'd had enough, prevented Congress from caving, and Trump finally agreed to a negotiated end to the shutdown in late January.
The early part of the year was consumed by anticipation of the report on Russian election meddling to be released by special counsel Robert Mueller in March. But before the 448-page report was released, Attorney General William Barr sent Congress a four-page letter that purported to be a summary of it. Whitewash would be a better word for what Barr offered. He fostered the public impression that Mueller's report exonerated Trump's campaign of colluding with Russia, and that it drew no conclusion about whether Trump obstructed justice. Neither was true.
When the full report was finally made public, it was clear that, while it didn't find solid evidence of collusion, it specifically didn't exonerate the campaign. It made a convincing case that Trump obstructed justice multiple times. A Justice Department opinion that sitting presidents can't be indicted was the only reason Trump wasn't.
Nonetheless, Barr's running of interference worked. For the rest of the year, Trump's backers in Congress and across the nation would, whenever it served their purposes, repeat the fiction that Mueller's report had exonerated Trump.
This year, as always in recent years, America was rocked again and again by mass shootings. They included six killed in an Aurora, Ill., factory in February; 13 killed in a Virginia Beach, Va., public works building in May; 22 killed at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart; and 10 killed outside a bar in Dayton, Ohio. Those last two mass-killing events happened within hours of each other on Aug. 3 and Aug. 4.
House Democrats in February passed the most significant gun-safety legislation in years to require universal background checks for all gun purchases. Trump vacillated repeatedly throughout the year on whether he was open to taking action — giving Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell the excuse he needed to refuse to take up any gun legislation. The bottom line: For this administration, protecting guns is more important than protecting human life.
Climate change indicators got alarmingly worse in 2019, with several new studies finding global warming is proceeding even faster than the most dire predictions of a few years ago. The Trump administration continued its response of non-response. In November, Trump formally served notice that America is pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, under which all the nations of the world were going to work together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The administration's steps to relax emissions standards here, meanwhile, have been so extreme that even the auto and oil industries have resisted, drawing Trump's ire.
Some of the year's big stories weren't directly centered on Trump at all — yet even on those, he often managed to become part of the news.
The global anti-vaccination movement spawned dangerous measles outbreaks in the U.S. and other countries. Despite Trump's long history of promoting false beliefs like the thoroughly disproven link between vaccines and autism, he changed course in the current crisis and encouraged people to get their shots.
And Trump's prime cultural stomping ground — social media — was front and center in the news this year, as the big tech companies struggled to deal with the growing controversy over use of their platforms to spread misinformation. Facebook took a particularly indefensible position, saying it had no responsibility to ensure that political postings were factual. The lunacy of that policy became apparent when the platform left up a video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that had been doctored to make her appear drunk. "We think it's important for people to make their own informed choice for what to believe," explained a Facebook spokesperson.
The economic expansion that began under President Barack Obama continued in 2019, following virtually the same trajectory it's been on for almost a decade. Trump and his party nonetheless continued claiming credit for it, while downplaying their unique creation: the 2017 Republican tax cut for the rich, which was supposed to "pay for itself" in growth. Instead, the government's own deficit forecasters reported it will cost the taxpayers upwards of $2 trillion.
As happens in the age of Trump, other controversies came and went with dizzying speed. Trump made the bizarre suggestion the U.S. might buy Greenland. He also suggested hosting the 2020 G-7 global economic summit at one of his own properties — such a brazen violation of the constitutional prohibition on presidents profiting from foreign nations that even congressional Republicans balked. Trump had to back down. His pardons of several U.S. soldiers convicted of war crimes created a rift with military leaders.
But every other controversy swirling around this innately controversial president will be dwarfed in the history books by what came toward the end of 2019.
In August, a government whistleblower alerted federal officials that Trump had suspended military aid to Ukraine and pressed President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to announce an investigation into the business dealings of Hunter Biden, son of former Vice President Joe Biden. After learning of the whistleblower's complaint, the administration released the aid and Zelenskiy cancelled a planned CNN interview in which he was going to announce the Biden investigation.
The whistleblower's allegation became public in September. The White House responded by releasing a summary of a July phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy that, to the surprise of many, confirmed the essence of the whistleblower's complaint. "I would like you to do us a favor, though," Trump told Zelenskiy when asked about the aid, then Trump pressed for the Biden investigation and a probe of the debunked right-wing talking point that Ukraine had meddled in the 2016 election to benefit Democrats.
The House began its formal impeachment inquiry Sept. 24. With little dispute about the basic facts of the case, Republicans disputed them anyway, claiming Trump released the aid before the alleged scheme was exposed (he didn't), that there was some validity to the Ukrainian election-meddling claim (there wasn't), and that Trump was only trying to battle corruption in general. In fact, he only pressed for Zelenskiy to announce the two politically advantageous investigations, and (according to testimony) didn't care whether the investigations actually happened, as long as they were publicly announced.
On Dec. 18, for only the third time in history, the House voted to impeach the president, on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The vote was almost party-line, with all but three Democrats voting for both articles and every Republican voting against.
This endlessly surprising year closes with predictability: The Senate trial to determine whether to remove Trump from office will almost certainly end in his acquittal, with large numbers of Republican senators already having announced a decision to vote against conviction even before the first hearing.
The oath the senators will have to take before the trial reads: "I solemnly swear ... that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of Donald J. Trump, now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws: So help me God."
McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has already made clear how seriously he intends to take that oath. "I'm not an impartial juror," he said Dec. 17. "This is a political process."
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