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Trump leaves office with little to show of his major promises, and a legacy of violent divisiveness

Analysis: Donald Trump promised to end "American carnage" and "Make America Great Again." Four years later, he leaves with those goals far from reach.
President Donald J. Trump
President Donald Trump speaks during an interview in the Oval Office on Nov. 27, 2018.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump did not build a wall or end American carnage or finish his term with a robust economy. His slogan was "Make America Great Again," but the lasting image of his term — rioters assaulting the U.S. Capitol and the country's republican form of governance, in his name — was anything but great.

The failed coup — if it was organized enough to call it that — concluded a presidency that often used Orwellian tools of Newspeak and Doublethink to communicate.

"This mob was fed lies," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Tuesday. "They were provoked by the president and other powerful people."

Trump's lies, told up until the end in service of accumulating and maintaining power, were so conspicuous and dangerous that he was booted from the very social media sites that had built his base.

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said Trump shook the foundations of the country over four years.

"He proudly led a radicalized Republican Party and exposed just how extreme the party had become in pursuit of partisan power," Zelizer said by email. "In doing so, he stressed and strained our democratic institutions unlike any other president in recent history, breaking crucial norms of governance and giving legitimacy to extremist voices in our polity."

Trump aides have circulated lists of what they say are his achievements in recent days, and the soon-to-be-former president will surely declare his presidency the greatest of all time for years to come. Most Americans say they disagree.

A PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll released Tuesday found that only 16 percent of all adults, and 33 percent of Republicans, think Trump will be remembered as one of the best presidents of all time. Forty-seven percent of adults said his would be seen as one of the worst presidencies ever, including 13 percent of Republicans.

For most Americans — even in an era of deep and angry partisan division — the human effects of Trump's actions have been too obvious to ignore despite his use of the bully pulpit to distract from his struggles. More than 400,000 people have died of the coronavirus in the U.S. on his watch — after he said the disease would kill only tens of thousands and then just disappear — and medical experts say quicker and more effective leadership from the White House could have done more to contain the spread of the pandemic.

Like most presidents, Trump promised to unify the country. But he proved unable to work across the aisle in Congress. Aside from emergency spending to counter the catastrophic economic and public health effects of the disease — and the trade deal with Mexico and Canada — his policy achievements were limited to actions he could take without Congress' cooperation. That was particularly true after Democrats took control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections, creating a roadblock for his most extreme proposals.

It may be hard to remember, but he shut down the government for a record 35 days at the end of 2018 and the start of 2019. Trump said he was "proud" to "take the mantle" of closing large parts of the federal government as he tried unsuccessfully to force Congress to give him money to build his proposed wall on the Mexico border.

Until his supporters laid siege to the Capitol, that was the clearest evidence of his inability and unwillingness to work with Congress.

Still, as Zelizer noted, Trump was able to put in place stringent immigration restrictions, pass a tax cut when Republicans held both chambers of Congress early in his term, roll back regulations on industry and fill the federal judiciary with conservatives.

"He advanced core conservative goals," Zelizer said.

From a historical perspective, Trump's legacy will be marked by a record he set at the end of his term: He was the only president ever impeached twice by the House, and he lost the highest number of his own party's members ever in the second impeachment vote. Ten House Republicans voted to ask the Senate to ban him from holding federal office in the future.

His first impeachment, which ended in acquittal by the Senate in February, revolved around his withholding of $400 million in congressionally appropriated aid to Ukraine as he tried to get the country to announce an investigation into Joe Biden and Biden's son Hunter. In other words, he was impeached once for using the power of his office to try to help his re-election campaign and a second time for sending a mob to the Capitol to prevent his defeat at the ballot box.

He will relinquish power against his will, in a cloud of disgrace uncommon to presidents, having failed to deliver on his most often repeated and loudly pronounced promises and in an ongoing state of denial about the nature of the pandemic and his legitimate defeat at the ballot box.

"He, in every respect, was unworthy to be president," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told MSNBC's Joy Reid in an interview broadcast Tuesday.

"It's not 'lessons learned,'" Pelosi said of Trump, "because it was so evident all along what a disgrace he was."