2017 in politics: the biggest turning points during Trump’s first year as president

2017 was an astonishing, bizarre, and often troubling year in American politics.

It was a year filled with tumult — from the rocky start to Donald Trump’s administration, to the major legislative battles in Congress, to protests across the country, to the unfolding investigations into Trump and his associates.

So it’s worth looking back with at least a bit of hindsight and pulling out the biggest moments — those in which the political status quo really appeared to shift in a major way.

This year has of course been so jam-packed with news that I’ve left out many important events, particularly when their ultimate consequences aren’t yet clear.

For one, tensions with North Korea continue to rise, and they could eventually prove to be the most important story of all. For another, Democrats’ electoral victories in Virginia and Alabama could be harbingers of a 2018 romp — or they could be flukes.

For now, though, these appear to me to be the seven biggest political turning points of 2017. I’ve listed them in chronological order below.

1) The Women’s March was the first dramatic demonstration that the energy in American politics had shifted to the left

Teresa Kroeger/FilmMagic/Getty Images

The day after Donald Trump’s fans mostly failed to show up for his sparsely attended inauguration, his opponents took to the streets in what turned out to be the largest single-day demonstration in American history: the Women’s March.

An estimated 4 million or so people turned out in more than 600 cities across the US to signal their support of women’s rights and a broad array of other progressive concerns — and, perhaps most of all, disgust at the election of Trump (who’d been accused of sexual harassment, and was expected to support the GOP’s agenda).

The day after the march, Trump was still president. And in the months since, large-scale demonstrations against his administration have died down. But much organizing energy was later turned to protests against the GOP’s Obamacare repeal efforts and then toward elections. An astonishing number of Democrats have decided to run for office, and 2017’s election results suggest the party is mobilized.

So in retrospect, the march was the first unmistakable signal that something important had changed — that Democrats and liberals were no longer complacent or disengaged. Instead, they were deeply rattled by the election’s outcome and wanted to push back — because they felt that something had gone terribly wrong in the country.

2) The travel ban showed both the power and the limitations of anti-Trump protest

Protests at Dulles International Airport on January 28, 2017.
Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images

For many, the feeling that was confirmed just one week into Donald Trump’s presidency, on the afternoon of Friday, January 27, when, with no warning, he surprisingly signed his immigration and travel executive order — the “Muslim ban.”

Shaped by Trump’s most staunchly anti-immigration advisers with hardly any consultation from the agencies that would implement it or the lawyers who’d be tasked with defending it, the order was remarkably extreme in both substance and execution. It blocked everyone from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US for 90 days. It banned all refugee admissions for 120 days and all Syrian refugee admissions indefinitely.

Most shockingly of all, it applied even to people from those countries who had already been approved for US green cards, and it would go into effect immediately after it was signed — throwing airports all over the country into chaos and leading to the sudden detention of hundreds of people and many others being turned away from flights or sent back out of the US after landing there.

Many of the same people who had turned out to protest at the Women’s March just days earlier felt that what was going on was bigoted and un-American — so they mobilized again, spontaneously, at international airports all over the country. Condemnations even from Republican politicians rolled in, and by Saturday night, a federal judge in New York had already blocked part of the order. It only took a few more days for the courts to halt all its controversial elements, in a humiliating defeat for the new administration.

But the story didn’t end there — and what came next is instructive for understanding the consequences of Trump’s presidency so far.

Because the administration didn’t give up. The Justice Department pulled back its initial travel ban, but revised the policy so that it would better withstand legal scrutiny and provoke less public backlash. And it partially succeeded. A scaled-back version of the ban — one that prevents certain types of immigrants and visitors from six majority-Muslim countries (as well as North Korea and Venezuela) from entering the US — is now in effect. And while it hasn’t been officially declared constitutional by the courts, the Supreme Court has allowed it to go into effect while lawsuits over it move forward.

Now there’s no chaos at airports, and the ban doesn't affect people whose visas were already issued, or who have US green cards. But even if the ban is overturned, it's possible that some people (especially refugees) will have lost their opportunity to come to the US — and if it's upheld, the countries could be blacklisted indefinitely.

And as my colleague Dara Lind wrote, “Americans aren’t as exercised about it when it’s being implemented out of their sight.”

3) Conservatives ensured the Supreme Court will stay in their hands

Neil Gorsuch
ZACH GIBSON/AFP/Getty

When Justice Antonin Scalia died during the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency, it opened up a monumentally important seat that could tip the balance of the Supreme Court toward liberals for the first time in more than a generation. So Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took a risk, audaciously announcing that he’d refuse to even consider any Obama nominee for the seat, because the winner of the 2016 presidential election should get to fill it.

That gamble paid off spectacularly for Republicans after Trump won and the GOP held on to control of the Senate. And Trump made good on the promises he’d offered conservative activists back during the primary — once sworn in, he nominated appellate court judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the seat, defying fears that he’d nominate a personal crony or someone with dubious fealty to the conservative movement.

Gorsuch was conservative enough that the GOP base gushed over him, and he didn’t have sufficient land mines lurking in his record to drive moderate away Republican senators. (In fact, even three moderate Democratic senators voted for Gorsuch in the end — no mean feat in this polarized age.)

No, Gorsuch didn’t win sufficient Democratic support to overcome a filibuster. But that proved no obstacle when McConnell convinced Republicans to ram through a Senate rules change allowing his nomination to move forward with a simple majority. And since Gorsuch was just 49 years old at the time of his confirmation, he’ll likely remain a conservative vote on the Court for decades.

Gorsuch’s confirmation didn’t send the Court into some new or unprecedented territory: As a conservative replacing a conservative, he simply restored the Court’s status quo from before Scalia’s death. However, it averted the potential disaster for conservatives of liberals locking in a Court majority. The consequences in major decisions will be felt for years to come — and Democrats will surely agonize over what might have been for about that long.

4) Trump fired James Comey, and it backfired spectacularly — because it got him Robert Mueller

Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June, after his firing.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty

What, exactly, happened between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia during the 2016 election? Federal investigators began looking into the matter last year, ominous stories began leaking into the press in January, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from oversight of the case in early March, and then-FBI Director James Comey publicly confirmed that the Trump campaign was a focus of the investigation later that month.

But if there was one turning point in the Russia probe this year, it was President Trump’s decision to fire Comey in May.

The news — breaking late on a Tuesday afternoon — was a bombshell. A sudden presidential firing of a sitting FBI director was a shocking breach of American political norms, especially because Trump had already asked Comey to stay on in the job.

Furthermore, the justification Trump officials gave for the firing was transparently bogus — they criticized Comey for being too tough on Hillary Clinton in the email investigation, when everyone knew the president had the opposite view. Trump himself proved unable to stick to his administration’s story in a public interview two days later, when he outright admitted that the Russia investigation was on his mind when he fired Comey. Something was clearly going on here.

And indeed, in the coming days, a series of damning leaks poured into the press. The leaks were about events both old (Trump’s inappropriate request for Comey’s “loyalty” at a private meeting and his later request that Comey end the investigation into Michael Flynn) and new (Trump’s revelation of classified intelligence to Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting).

All this finally spurred Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint a special counsel to take charge of the investigation. And he didn’t choose just anybody — he chose Robert Mueller, himself a former FBI director.

Far from killing the Russia investigation, the switch from Comey to Mueller appeared to have strengthened it. The probe now had a heavyweight leader removed from the ordinary chain of command, who no longer had to juggle multiple White House demands or worry about losing Trump’s favor. In the coming months, Mueller assembled a team of all-star prosecutors to handle different parts of the sprawling investigation.

Furthermore, Mueller’s team isn’t just looking into what happened in 2016 — one major focus of their probe is also whether Trump attempted to obstruct investigations while in office, including by firing Comey. So Trump’s decision to get rid of the FBI director in fact opened up a whole new area of legal vulnerability for him. (It also just, well, made Trump look more guilty in the eyes of many in both the press and the public — his approval rating dropped a few points after the firing and never has never recovered to where it was before it.)

Mueller’s team has moved far more quickly than many expected. In recent months, four former Trump campaign officials have faced charges, with two of those — including the former national security adviser — becoming cooperating witnesses.

We don’t yet know what will happen next, or what the truth about “collusion” really is. But already we know enough to say that getting rid of Comey was a historic blunder on Trump’s part. Even Steve Bannon later said it might be the biggest mistake in “modern political history.” And despite the fears many have of Trump’s authoritarian instincts, and his allies’ effort to discredit the investigation, so far the pushback to Comey’s firing proves there are still many checks in the government limiting what the president can do.

5) Obamacare repeal got a thumbs down from John McCain

The Washington Post/Getty Images

Since President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law back in March 2010, Republicans have sworn that they’d do everything they could to repeal it. And with their victories in the 2016 election, they finally had a chance to make good on their campaign promises. Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Donald Trump all agreed that Obamacare repeal should be the first major item on the GOP’s legislative agenda in 2017.

What followed was a months-long, tumultuous, roller-coaster process full that exposed deep contradictions in the GOP that the “repeal and replace” campaign slogan had papered over.

First off, Republican members of Congress spiked their leaders’ initial plan to quickly pass a “repeal” bill and put off figuring out the “replace” part until later — they were fearful of depriving their constituents of the health law’s benefits. So Speaker Ryan shifted to a full “repeal and replace” plan — but he had to cancel his first attempt to pass a bill through the House in March, because of defections from both moderates and conservatives in his caucus.

House Republicans eventually got their act together and passed a bill in March, but it was clear all along that the real challenge would be in the Senate. To meet it, Majority Leader McConnell used heavy-handed, secretive tactics to try to pass the bill — skipping committees, writing the bill behind closed doors, ignoring its dramatic unpopularity, not even trying to reach out to Democrats, and trying to quickly ram a vote through on a party-line basis. Polls found the GOP’s efforts to be stunningly unpopular.

Despite all this, by late July it looked like the Senate might actually be able to pass ... well, something. McConnell had scaled back their ambitions to a “skinny repeal” bill that kept much of Obamacare in place but eliminated its individual and employer mandates.

Several GOP senators acknowledged they didn’t actually want this bill to become law. The goal, they said, was to keep the process alive, and set up a conference committee with the House of Representatives to draft the real final bill, which would be more expansive. And though Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) were expected to vote no, if the rest of the GOP stayed together, it could pass.

Then John McCain stepped in. When McConnell called a late-night vote on his skinny repeal, the Republican senator from Arizona stunned the political world by walking up and making a thumbs down gesture. His objection, he said, was to McConnell’s irregular and partisan process. And that was enough to tank the Republicans’ top legislative priority for 2017.

So long as Republicans hold power in Washington, Obamacare will never be entirely safe. The Trump administration can undermine the law administratively in many ways. There was a brief effort to revive repeal in the Senate in September that eventually failed. And the tax bill that Republicans pass eventually did repeal the individual mandate — about which more below.

Still, the Republican drive to repeal Obamacare in its entirety has ended in failure this year. The bill’s massive expansion of Medicaid remains in effect, and so do most of its reforms to the individual markets.

6) A sexual misconduct reckoning began in politics

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN).
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty

In October, the New York Times’s Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey and the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow published blockbuster reports alleging decades of sexual abuse by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. The story’s effects rippled outward, inspiring more women to come forward with their own stories of harassment, incentivizing more media outlets to try to land similar scoops, and forcing other high-profile industries to look more closely at suspected abusers in their own ranks.

And though the political world has only just begun to grapple with its own reckoning on the subject, there have already been major consequences.

Most dramatically, a special election for Jeff Sessions’s Senate seat in Alabama was expected to be an easy win for Republicans for most of the year. But already, the race looked closer than expected when controversial former judge Roy Moore, who has a history of fringe views, won the GOP primary.

Then about a month before the election, the Washington Post’s Stephanie McCrummen, Beth Reinhard, and Alice Crites published a story in which an Alabama woman said on the record that when she was 14 years old, in the late 1970s, Moore initiated a sexual encounter with her. Three other women also told the Post that Moore had pursued them romantically in the same period, when he was in his early 30s and they were between 16 and 18. In the wake of the report, other women came forward as well.

To many, what ensued looked at first like a replay of the 2016 presidential race, when Trump won despite the release of the Access Hollywood tape and subsequent sexual assault allegations against him. Moore denied misconduct, many leading conservative media figures closed ranks behind him, President Trump reiterated his endorsement of him, and Moore held a narrow lead in the polls. But this time, there was a different ending: Moore lost, meaning a Democrat would head to the Senate from Alabama for the first time in decades.

At the same time, Democrats were grappling with misconduct allegations against leading members in their own party. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) spent most of the year as a leading anti-Trump voice and even was discussed as a potential presidential contender in 2020. But over the course of three weeks this fall, eight women came forward to allege sexual misconduct by him.

Franken at first said he’d stay in office pending the outcome of an investigation into his behavior by the Senate Ethics Committee. But eventually, fellow senators from his own party concluded that that would be unacceptable. A group of women Democratic senators publicly called for him to step down, and were then joined by some of their male colleagues. He proved unable to withstand the pressure, and announced he’d resign.

And that’s not all. Already, two House members — Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) and Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) — have stepped down after misconduct allegations. Two others accused of misconduct — Reps. Blake Farenthold (R-TX) and Rubén Kihuen (D-NV) — have said they won’t run for reelection. A fund Congress has used to settle sexual harassment complaints has also come under scrutiny.

The allegations against President Trump that came out last year have been revived, with some Democrats calling for investigations into them and even for Trump to resign. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) even made waves by saying that Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky (a White House subordinate) was a resignation-worthy offense. The standards for how the political world should respond to misconduct allegations have clearly changed, and we’re only just beginning to see the consequences.

7) The tax bill (which also repeals part of Obamacare) passed

Republicans celebrated the tax bill’s passage outside the White House this month.
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty

It took until the back half of December, but the Republican Party finally managed to make good on its unified control of Washington by passing a major legislative achievement: their tax bill.

Initially pitched as “tax reform” that would eliminate deductions and loopholes to create a more rational system, the bill eventually evolved into something that looked much more like a simple tax cut. Specifically, it’s a massive permanent corporate tax cut, with temporary cuts for individuals, that would be especially good for the wealthiest Americans, while increasing the deficit.

But the bill also achieves two other long-held conservative policy priorities. First, it opens up more of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and natural gas drilling — a defeat for environmentalists, as this is a change Republicans have been trying and failing to push through for decades.

Second, the tax bill repeals Obamacare’s individual mandate — and that’s a really big deal. The mandate, which penalizes people who don’t have insurance, has long been thought central to making the individual insurance markets work. Without it, the population of people who choose to buy insurance there will likely be sicker on the whole, meaning premiums will be raised even further as a result.

It’s unclear just how much damage this could do. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that if the mandate is repealed, 13 million fewer Americans will be insured by 2027. Other analysts have somewhat lower estimates, but most agree that the impact will be significant. Some of the newly uninsured people, it’s true, would be healthy people willingly choosing not to buy insurance now that they don’t have to — but others would be pushed out because of rising costs. Sarah Kliff has warned that the tax bill could be “the start of Obamacare’s collapse.”

The tax bill is also the most prominent of many signs that President Trump has mostly abandoned the populist economic agenda he ran on during the campaign, in favor of embracing conventional Republican policies. Despite Trump’s occasional musings that he wouldn’t cut taxes on the rich and might want to raise them, this bill does the opposite. And despite his professed focus on the “forgotten men and women of our country,” this bill is mainly about delivering a bonanza for corporations.

All in all, though, as the political world looks back on 2017, the tax bill is the most prominent sign yet that despite frequent chaos and bungling, Republicans really are moving to implement a conservative agenda. The policy changes Trump, Ryan, and McConnell are enacting — on matters ranging from taxes to immigration to health care to the environment, and beyond — will ripple outward, affecting Americans’ lives for years to come.