Washington, DC – This year was full of a lot of surprises from US President Donald Trump and his administration.
From a number of high-level departures to his recent decision to pull US troops out of Syria, despite opposition from many within his own party and inner circle, Trump never ceased to abruptly interrupt the news cycle with a new development or announcement.
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But it’s also the things that didn’t make the front page or the top story that may also have you surprised.
Here are 10 things the Trump administration did this year that you may have missed:
1. Fewer Refugees
In 2018, fewer refugees made it into the US than any time during the previous 40 years. That’s because the Trump administration followed a campaign promise to cap the number of people coming to the United States.
In September, the Trump administration reduced that limit again from 45,000 to 30,000. The year 2019 could see the lowest number of refugee admissions in US history.
The move follows remarks the president made throughout 2018 aimed at immigrants and refugees. In one closed-door White House meeting, according to the Washington Post and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, Trump referred to Haiti, African countries and some Latin American countries as “s***holes” and wondered aloud why the US was letting anyone in from those regions.
His administration has also sought to put limits on who can request asylum. This month, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to the Trump, refusing to allow the administration to implement new rules prohibiting asylum for people who cross the US border between official ports of entry. A lower court has also blocked policies put in place by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this year that made it harder for individuals fleeing domestic violence and gang violence to claim asylum.
2. Trump cuts Pakistan aid
In a New Year’s Day tweet, Trump took aim at Pakistan arguing, “the United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years.” He vowed that would end. And, it did. In September, during the Labor Day holiday, military assistance to Pakistan ended. The $300m, according to a Pentagon spokesperson, would be “reprogrammed” for “other urgent priorities”.
The US military has accused Pakistan of giving safe haven to groups that target US soldiers in Afghanistan. Islamabad has persistently denied the charges even though al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces in Abbottabad in 2011, less than a mile from a Pakistani military training academy.
3. Possible sexual assault rule change
In November, while Washington, DC, was distracted with Jim Acosta’s White House credentials and the Russia investigation, Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued a Friday proposal to alter the rules when it comes to how sexual assaults and harassment are handled on school campuses.
Although DeVos said the changes were designed to make reporting “more transparent, consistent, and reliable in their processes and outcomes,” groups advocating on behalf of sexual assault survivors decried it as an attempt to give more power to the accused and lessen the legal burden on schools.
One controversial provision allows the person who is accused to cross-examine the accuser through representatives.
“If these draft rules become law,” said Sage Carson, manager for Know Your Title IX, “more survivors will be forced out of school by harassment, assault, and their schools’ indifference to their complaints.”
4. Climate change report buried
Normally, US administrations use the day after the Thanksgiving holiday (a Friday) to bury uncomfortable news.
In 2018, that news came in the form of an annual government report on climate change. Since his election to office, Trump has repeatedly questioned whether climate change is real.
“Whatever happened to Global Warming?” he tweeted in November after a spate of cold weather hit the US. That thinking may have guided the decision to bury the report, released the day after Thanksgiving when most Americans weren’t paying attention, by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It not only declares climate change is real but it is getting worse, threatening coastal communities in the US.
“The severity of future impacts will depend largely on actions taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the changes that will occur,” the report states. In 2017, Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord, a historic international agreement on climate change aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
5. The election was rigged … or not
Just three days into 2018, Trump quietly got rid of a commission ending a taxpayer-funded venture that many people considered a waste of time and money. The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity was formed in May 2017 to investigate one of Trump’s main claims about the 2016 Presidential contest: it was rigged.
Although Trump won the election, his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, earned nearly three million more votes. Under the American electoral college system, the popular vote does not guarantee victory. Nevertheless, Trump disliked the idea that more people wanted Clinton to be president. The commission’s official mandate was to “study vulnerabilities in voting systems used for federal elections that could lead to improper voter registrations, improper voting, fraudulent voter registrations, and fraudulent voting”. It was created around Trump’s unfounded claim that millions of people voted illegally for Clinton in 2016.
However, the commission was marred with infighting and legal battles and, in the end, found zero evidence of voter fraud. After it disbanded, the commission’s vice-chair, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, was found in contempt of court by a federal judge in a voter suppression case.
6. National debt soars
As a businessman-candidate, Trump ran for president on the premise he knows how to save money and cut waste. More importantly, he promised to get rid of the US national debt, a sore spot for many Republican legislators for many years.
As president, the debt has continued to inflate under Trump. As of mid-December, US national debt was roughly $21.8 trillion. When Trump took office in January, 2017, it was $19.9 trillion. Spending on the military and programmes like social security and Medicare increased in 2018 and there is no indication Trump will take any significant action to reduce it. According to the Congressional Budget Office, interest on the debt is one of the fastest growing payments in the annual budget. They also project overall spending to increase by 5.5 percent a year over the next 10 years.
Ironically, Trump’s Republican Party made spending controls its signature issue throughout the administration of President Barack Obama and orchestrated a partial government down in 2013 as a result of it.
7. Endangered species under attack?
Ever since Trump took over, environmentalists and animal-rights activists have warned that protections for wildlife are on his target list. The president has persistently criticised government regulations that get in the way of big business. In July, the administration announced a proposal to strip the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of some key provisions.
While only a proposal, the request has set off alarm bells within some of the biggest environmental organisations. The Sierra Club, which boasts 3.5 million members, bluntly warned the law is “under attack”. If implemented, the Sierra Club argues, the regulation changes would loosen protections for certain animals and fish like the gray wolf, right whale and sage-grouse. In a Washington Post op-ed in August, Interior deputy secretary David Bernhardt called aspects of the ESA an “unnecessary regulatory burden”.
8. Trump boosts overseas military spending
In August, Trump signed off on one of the largest budgets for the US military in history. At a whopping $717bn, the 2019 American defence budget is bigger than that of China, India, the UK, France and Russia combined. “We are going to strengthen our military like never ever before,” the president boasted after authorising the spending during a ceremony at Fort Drum in New York. Within that budget is money for the same overseas military spending Trump once criticised his predecessors. Trump has consistently wondered aloud why Presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama spent trillions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In his 2019 budget, Trump increased military spending in both countries.
9. Calls to end chain migration … except for Trump family
Trump hates chain migration. He has said it many times. “Under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives,” Trump told Americans in his annual state of the union address in January. “Under our plan, we focus on the immediate family by limiting sponsorships to spouses and minor children.”
This apparent distaste, however, did not apply to his own family. In August, Amalja and Viktor Knav, the parents of First Lady Melania Trump, walked into a New York government building and took their oath to become American citizens. They are both from Slovenia. How did they get their citizenship? Through their daughter’s marriage to Trump or, put another way, chain migration. When asked whether the Knavs’ case was a textbook example of the practice, their own lawyer replied, “I suppose so.”
10. Trump poses in photo with conspiracy theorist
There’s no doubt the current occupant of the White House sometimes traffics in falsehoods. He has claimed, then retracted, his belief former US President Barack Obama wiretapped him, said people were rioting in California over sanctuary cities and suggested midterm election voters put on disguises so they could cast ballots multiple times. All those claims are incorrect.
So, in August, when Trump posed for a photo in the Oval Office with the proponent of a conspiracy theory, he seemed to be taking his false assertions to a new level. The visitor, Lionel Lebron, is one of the biggest advocates for a theory that gained significant traction in 2018.
Known as “QAnon” or “Q”, it’s a conspiracy pushed primarily by pro-Trump social media stars and makes all sorts of unfounded claims about the president’s opponents, centring around a fictitious belief that prominent Democrats are running a paedophile ring. In August, “Q” posters and t-shirts followed the president everywhere. Lebron later tweeted that he never brought up QAnon with Trump.