A summary of 2018
The ‘bomb cyclone’
The new year is only hours old when a massive “bomb cyclone” dumps historic snowfalls across the eastern U.S. Extreme weather events have become a new normal in the U.S., and so have the daily tweetstorms and other provocations by President Donald J. Trump, who begins the second year of an administration more polarizing than any in recent history. With approval ratings hovering around 40 percent, Trump is loathed by Democrats, who see him as incompetent, narcissistic, and corrupt, with undisguised authoritarian leanings. But Trump comes into the year with a gaudy 80 percent approval rating among Republicans, for whom Trump is proving to be the president they were promised: a hard-charging partisan warrior defending America’s “forgotten men and women” against elitist liberals, dishonest journalists, and—in particular—immigrants. Mid-month, a report from Trump’s leak-prone White House reveals that the president asked his Cabinet why the U.S. accepts so many immigrants from what he calls “shithole countries.” In his first State of the Union address, Trump doubles down on his signature issue, reiterating his demand for “a great wall along the southern border.”
Republicans and Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee release dueling memos concerning the FBI’s surveillance of Carter Page, an adviser to then-candidate Trump during the 2016 campaign who had close ties to Russia. Republicans on the committee, particularly chairman Devin Nunes, try to buttress the president’s claims of a sprawling “Deep State” conspiracy to surveil Page and other members of the campaign. As if in response, special counsel Robert Mueller indicts 13 Russian nationals who used fake social media accounts to promote Trump’s candidacy in the 2016 election. Also indicted, on 32 counts of tax evasion and bank fraud, is Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman. In Parkland, Fla., a former student armed with an AR-15 enters Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and kills 17 people—14 students and three staff members. Survivors of the massacre take to the airwaves and the streets of the state capital and Washington, D.C., to demand tougher gun laws. “They say no laws could have prevented the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred,” said student Emma Gonzalez. “We call BS.”
The White House is in turmoil, as Trump forces out economic adviser Gary Cohn, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, all of whom were less than enthusiastic about the president’s policies and pronouncements. Trump abruptly accepts an offer from dictator Kim Jong Un for face-to-face talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. The GOP-led House Intelligence Committee wraps up its own probe of Russia’s election meddling. Over withering Democratic dissent, the committee concludes that the Trump campaign did not in fact collude with Russia, and even disputes the consensus of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia favored Trump in the election. An emboldened Trump attacks Mueller by name for the first time, calling his Russia probe a “total witch hunt” that “should never have been started.”
The blue-collar sitcom Roseanne returns to TV screens after a 21-year hiatus. The title character, played by Roseanne Barr, is now portrayed as a die-hard Trump supporter, and Trump takes the show’s strong ratings—more than 27 million viewers in its first week of release—as a vote of confidence in his presidency, telling a crowd of supporters, “Look at her ratings! It was about us!” Less cheering to the president is an FBI raid on the New York offices of Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal attorney and self-described “fixer” for many years. In the waning days of the 2016 campaign, Cohen is alleged to have organized “hush money” payments to women Trump had affairs with, including porn star Stormy Daniels. Barbara Bush—the wife of the 41st president and the mother of the 43rd—dies at home in Houston at the age of 92.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions approves a set of “zero tolerance” guidelines that call for illegal immigrant families caught crossing the border to be broken up, with the children housed in jail-like shelters. Sessions warns prospective immigrants that if they want to keep their families intact, “then don’t smuggle children over our border.” Trump sends a U.S. delegation that includes evangelical ministers to dedicate a new embassy in Jerusalem, making the U.S. the first nation to site its Israeli embassy in the disputed city. In England, Prince Harry marries U.S. actress Meghan Markle in a fairy-tale wedding. ABC abruptly cancels Roseanne when Barr—a conspiracy-theorist Trump supporter in real life—tweets that Valerie Jarrett, an African-American former adviser to President Obama, is what might result if “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby.” In Santa Fe, Texas, another troubled student opens fire and kills eight classmates and two teachers. “It’s been happening everywhere,” one survivor tells reporters. “I always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here too.”
The Supreme Court upholds the latest version of Trump’s controversial “travel ban”—which bars travelers from five Muslim nations, as well as Venezuela and North Korea. Perennial swing-vote Justice Anthony Kennedy comes down in favor of Trump’s ban, and then triggers a political earthquake by announcing his retirement. In Singapore, Trump meets with Kim and touts his “great chemistry” with the North Korean dictator, declaring, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” Kim, however, makes no detailed promise to surrender his arsenal and continues nuclear development. Back home, Trump bows to bipartisan pressure and signs an executive order formally ending the family separation policy—though reuniting children with their parents proves harder than anticipated, since no attempt was made to keep track of the parents. In Thailand, 12 members of a youth soccer team and their coach are trapped by heavy rains inside a network of caves, and searchers are unable to get them out.
After more than a week of searching, divers finally find the missing Thai soccer team and, over two nail-biting days, escort them one by one underwater to safety. President Trump nominates Judge Brett Kavanaugh, 53, to fill the empty seat on the Supreme Court, and flies to Helsinki for a summit meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. In a jaw-dropping post-summit press conference, Trump appears to side with Putin over U.S. intelligence services, calling Putin “extremely strong and powerful in his denial” of having meddled in the 2016 election. Meanwhile, much of the Northern Hemisphere swelters in the grip of a record-breaking heat wave. Scientists blame climate change, which has slowed the global jet-stream winds and thus prolonged weather patterns such as droughts, elevated temperatures, and cold snaps.
In Pennsylvania, the state attorney general releases a horrifying grand jury report detailing the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children by at least 300 priests across the state. In New York, Cohen pleads guilty to campaign finance violations, admitting he made illegal payments to various women at Trump’s direction. The same day, a Virginia jury convicts Manafort of tax evasion and bank fraud. Sen. John McCain dies at home in Cornville, Ariz., at the age of 81. In his farewell letter, McCain takes a veiled jab at Trumpism, calling the U.S. “a nation of ideals, not blood and soil” and asking Americans not to “confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries.” Initially, Trump refuses to lower the White House flag to honor the decorated Vietnam War hero; after a public backlash, Trump relents. At McCain’s funeral, which McCain asked that Trump not attend, a parade of speakers that includes former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama implicitly draws a sharp contrast between McCain and Trump. “John detested the abuse of power, could not abide bigots and swaggering despots,” Bush says.
The New York Times publishes an anonymous op-ed by a “senior official in the Trump administration,” who assures anxious Americans that “there are adults in the room” close to Trump, working covertly “to frustrate parts of his agenda” and his “anti-democratic” impulses. Trump says the author is guilty of “treason” and should be hunted down. In the Senate, just days before the final vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a high school contemporary of Kavanaugh’s, comes forward to accuse him of sexually assaulting her while drunk at a party in 1982. The Senate Judiciary Committee schedules a special one-day hearing, and the nation watches agog as first Ford, then Kavanaugh, give impassioned testimony. The soft-spoken Ford is widely judged credible, but Kavanaugh, choked with emotion, mounts an angry defense, ripping into Democrats and “left-wing opposition groups” for what he calls an “orchestrated political hit” fueled by “pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election.” The judge also famously declares, “I liked beer, I still like beer.”
Amid bitter partisan division, the Senate approves Kavanaugh, 50-48, giving the court a solid, 5-4 conservative majority. In Istanbul, Saudi-born Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi enters the Saudi Consulate to obtain some paperwork for his upcoming wedding…and never emerges. The Saudis claim no knowledge of his whereabouts. The United Nations issues a dire report on climate change, warning that humanity has only 12 years to take drastic action on carbon emissions to avoid catastrophic and irreversible changes to the environment. Hurricane Michael kills 60 people across the Caribbean and the Americas, including 45 in the U.S. In Florida, a disturbed man who has images of Trump plastered all over his van is charged with mailing pipe bombs to CNN, Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Democratic donor George Soros, and other Trump critics. In Pittsburgh, a gunman with an AR-15 shouting “All Jews must die!” kills 11 members of the Tree of Life synagogue; in his online rantings, the killer cites a caravan of Central Americans heading north and says Jews are bringing in foreign “invaders.” The massacre is the most deadly anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.
On Election Day, voters flock to the polls in numbers not seen for a midterm election since 1914. Republicans hold the Senate and expand their majority to 53-47, while Democrats take back the House of Representatives, with a net gain of 40 seats. At a press conference the next day, Trump bitterly mocks several defeated Republican House candidates by name for having declined his “embrace.” Attorney General Sessions resigns after two years of public humiliation by Trump, who is furious Sessions recused himself from oversight of the Russia investigation. Trump appoints Matthew Whitaker, Sessions’ chief of staff, as his interim replacement. In California, wildfires kill at least 88 people, destroy thousands of homes, and force mass evacuations of regions near Sacramento and Los Angeles. Trump blames Californians’ failure to allow more logging and regularly “rake out” their forests. After weeks of shifting denials, Saudi officials admit that Khashoggi was killed and dismembered in what they call a “rogue operation.” U.S. intelligence services conclude that Khashoggi was murdered on the orders of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. President George H.W. Bush dies at age 94 at his home in Houston.
Mueller: Closing in
At Bush’s funeral in Washington, D.C., Trump sits in sullen silence as speaker after speaker praises Bush’s civility, decency, and commitment to causes larger than himself. The cloud of the Mueller investigation grows darker, as the special counsel asks for leniency for Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, who has pleaded guilty to deceiving investigators about his contacts with Russia during the presidential transition. Flynn, Mueller’s team informs the court, has provided prosecutors with “substantial assistance” in three ongoing criminal investigations. As Mueller’s investigation closes in on his inner circle, a furious Trump complains via Twitter: “Without the phony Russia Witch Hunt, and with all that we have accomplished in the last almost two years (Tax & Regulation Cuts, Judge’s [sic], Military, Vets, etc.) my approval rating would be at 75%.”