The year’s end is naturally an opening for a new one, and it makes perfect sense to look back and sum up the domestic highs and lows in the US as we say goodbye to 2019: from the House vote on POTUS Donald Trump’s political fate to Kanye West’s existential re-birth and botched attempts for a close encounter with aliens in Nevada.
As part of Sputnik’s retrospective, here are this year’s top 12 milestones in US domestic politics and social life: despite the internal character, their impact and coverage extended well beyond the country’s borders.
1. Trump Impeachment
The Trump impeachment inquiry, which he has on multiple occasions branded “a new round of a witch hunt” in a reference to the finalised Robert Mueller investigation, has certainly dominated the American political landscape for the past three months, with the Republican caucus insisting the timing for the move is not accidental.
U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) bangs the gavel to adjourn the House of Representatives after representatives voted in favor of two counts of impeachment against U.S. President Donald Trump in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., December 18, 2019.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced proceedings into President Donald Trump in late September at the behest of an anonymous whistleblower, reportedly from the CIA’s ranks.
He filed a complaint ushering in a series of hearings at two – the Intelligence and the Judiciary – House Committees. Upon Republicans’ calls for greater transparency, the Dem-dominated House eventually moved on to public hearings instead of those held behind closed doors.
The full House floor held a vote on 18 December on two articles outlined in the final inquiry report, abuse of power and obstruction of justice. In a bitterly divisive vote, curiously just ahead of 2020 election campaigns, the House impeached Trump, with POTUS becoming just the third US head of state to bear this mark.
The Democrats that spearheaded the move allege Trump attempted to gain a personal political advantage when in an ill-fated July phone call he asked Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the family of Joe Biden, a 2020 Democratic hopeful, for corruption, and attempted to buy Ukraine with congressionally-approved military aid to Kiev.
Trump is also accused of obstructing the efforts of Congress to investigate that affair by refusing to cooperate with the investigators and ordering government officials to defy subpoenas.
The GOP showed unrivalled unity as the party unanimously voted “no” on both articles against POTUS. Among the Democrats, a majority gave their votes along the party lines, with three of them crossing the aisle.
Whether Trump will be removed from office is up to the Senate, where Republicans have a majority.
2. Robert Mueller Probe Grand Finale
Interestingly enough, the impeachment vote comes just months ahead of the 2020 election primaries, with the dust having hardly settled after the Mueller probe into the previous Trump campaign.
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, the special counsel probing Russian interference in the 2016 election, departs Capitol Hill following a closed door meeting in Washington. (File)
Special Counsel Robert Mueller unveiled the findings of his Dem-instigated two-year probe into the Trump campaign and Russia, stating there is no exact evidence of “collusion” between the two and specifying no “broader conspiracy” had affected the outcome of the 2016 elections that saw Trump grit out a victory.
The probe, which Trump has numerous times called a “witch hunt” was largely triggered by the controversial “Steele Dossier” drawn up by a former MI6 agent purportedly on the orders of Donald Trump’s 2016 rivals, and which the FBI appeared to base its surveillance on. Earlier in December, Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz testified about FBI malfeasance in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The newly unveiled unedited version of his report showed that the FBI used part of the Steele Dossier to more effectively acquire FISA surveillance warrants to spy on Trump aide, Carter Page, during the 2016 campaign. Horowitz also mentioned a separate probe run by the FBI into one of the dossier’s unnamed sources – someone dubbed Person 1 – without the agency having notified the surveillance court about the probe.
3. Migrant Caravan Trespass
Extremely polarising US policies have also made themselves felt in American society, with even the White House finding itself deadlocked on its Mexican border policies.
Migrants stand near Mexican police at the Mexico-U.S. border in Tijuana, Mexico, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018, as they try to reach the US.
Thousands-strong caravans of illegal migrants came close to the US-Mexican border beginning in February and March, triggering a debate on Trump’s major campaign promise to build a wall between the two neighbours.
Most of the migrants originated from Central America, mainly Honduras, and were aiming to illegally get over the US border in order to seek asylum in the country to escape violence and poverty in their home countries.
The US border control has since stopped about 811,000 people from illegal trespassing, handing over who Trump calls “aliens” to border detention centres. Many border detention centres were reported to be overcrowded and suffer from poor sanitary conditions. Acting US Customs and Border Protection Commissioner John Sanders earlier branded the situation at the Mexican border a “full-blown emergency”. Although the flow decreased during the summer, the number of illegal border crossings has leapt upward this year when compared to 2018, according to the agency.
To curb illegal migration and the drug and human trafficking that comes with it, the Trump administration earmarked $3.6 billion in Pentagon funds to build 175 miles (about 282 kilometres) of fencing along the border with Mexico. In September, Defence Secretary Mark Esper began notifying lawmakers that military construction projects would be cancelled in order to free up the funds.
4. Big Purge
Last year’s series of high-profile resignations continued well into 2019, which saw Kirsten Nielsen, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, resign in April after a meeting with President Trump. The move came amid reports of Trump’s dissatisfaction with Nielsen’s inability to close ports of entry along America’s southern border and to stop accepting asylum seekers trying to cross into the US from Mexico.
The White House instantly weighed in expressing concerns that this might be a precursor to an intensification of anti-immigrant policies in the run-up to the 2020 election. Trump proponents struck back saying this could hardly come as a surprise, since a war against illegal crossing was one of Trump’s key 2016 campaign promises.
In an arguably no less unexpected development, this September, Trump’s foreign policy advisor John Bolton stepped down, prompting talks about him having been at odds with President Trump over foreign policy issues, including on Iran.
National security adviser John Bolton
With newly-appointed aide, Robert C. O’Brien, there is, on the contrary, some “good chemistry” between them, Trump boasted.
5. Jeffrey Epstein’s Arrest and Mysterious Death
Although the ado around the MeToo movement has settled a bit, sex abuse and misconduct have remained in the spotlight this year, in connection with billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein.
Jeffrey Epstein, left, and his attorney Martin Weinberg listen during a bail hearing in federal court
Epstein hit the headlines in summer as he acquired a record for the second time – on sex trafficking charges – having been previously slapped with a term (which he partly served) for proven paedophilia. The convicted tycoon, who is known to have rubbed shoulders with the rich and powerful – from Bill Clinton to the British royal family – had been under investigation for nearly two years by the time he was found dead in his New York cell in August, with rumours having it that the death occurred under suspicious circumstances.
The story has provoked a whole media storm, with Epstein’s alleged victims continuing to come forward; one of them has even implicated the UK’s Prince Andrew, the Queen’s youngest son, in sexual misconduct. Although he has denied any wrongdoing, having secured support from his family, he recently stepped down from public duties.
Ivanka Trump, US First Daughter and White House senior aide, is meanwhile quite the opposite, doubling down on her public duties.
Ivanka Trump, President Donald Trump’s daughter and White House adviser, visits women-owned businesses in Jujuy, Argentina, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. Ivanka Trump is on the second stop of her South America trip aimed at promoting women’s empowerment.
Back in February, she announced in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal her much cherished brainchild, the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative, which has already seen her travel on business to Africa, the Middle East, and top international political gatherings.
Ivanka, who frequently ends up in netizens’ crosshairs being dubbed “nepotism Barbie” or “governmenting blondie”, announced plans to unite all US foreign assistance agencies, including the US State Department and US Agency for International Development (USAID) to give top priority to women’s economic empowerment.
More specifically, Ivanka’s initiative earmarked a $50 million fund for USAID to invest in respective programmes.
7. Facebook’s Eye-Watering Fine
The tech giant has over the past few years been embroiled in a spate of data breach scandals, despite it bragging about its top-notch data encryption mechanisms. A cherry on top came with a hefty fine Facebook was obliged to pay over the notorious Cambridge Analytica scandal.
April 4, 2013 file photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg walks at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.
The tech giant was obliged to pay $5 billion in fines to US authorities and is facing similar scrutiny in the EU after it was revealed the personal data of billions of users had been obtained by third parties and could have been used to influence US elections.
In a no less debated development, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg ardently defended political ads on his platform, saying he would never stand in the way of expressing free political will and ideological pluralism. He argued it is up to the audience to decide which approach to take. The stance was just the opposite from the one other tech companies took: both Twitter and Google earlier banned political ads on their platforms.
8. Bloomberg Enters 2020 Political Fray
As a saying goes, there is never too much of a good thing, but those who said this didn’t apparently know how many Dems (overall over two dozen make up the field of major Democratic candidates) would be fighting for the presidency in 2020. Yet, there is one force that might make them all pale in comparison – his name is Bloomberg, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg speaks about his gun policy agenda in Aurora, Colorado, U.S. December 5, 2019
A great deal has been written about the Democratic “puppet master”, as he financed his own political action committee, shooting to victory 21 of 24 candidates he backed. However, this time, he is placing bets on himself, despite entering the presidential race at the very last moment.
His campaign-to-date and planned spending on television, Facebook and Google ads has been on everyone’s lips of late, and is estimated to have reached $117.8 million from 25 November all to 22 December, according to the ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics.
9. Reaching for the Stars
High aspirations in politics apparently echo those in the military and technology, with President Trump announcing the build-up of the Space Force as the sixth US military branch as well sending a new crew to the Moon, in a nod to America’s successful Apollo lunar missions in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Space Force, in particular, is expected to coordinate Washington’s capabilities in space and conduct warfare from there – something critics say violate the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that prohibits the militarisation of space, specially pertaining to nuclear arms.
Whatever the case, Congress okayed the project, adding a respective clause to the final version of the annual defence bill this month.
10. How Do You Like This?
Privately-financed projects likewise enjoyed major breakthroughs. In November, Tesla creator Elon Musk unveiled the long-awaited cybertruck at a special Los Angeles gathering, and Twitter was immediately set alight.
Nov 21, 2019; Hawthorne, CA, U.S.A; The Tesla Cybertruck takes the stage at an unveiling of the long awaited pickup truck from the company at the TeslaDesign Studio in Hawthorne, Calif.
Although the strikingly angular electric vehicle won’t roll off the assembly lines until 2021 or even 2022, the famed Tesla and Falcon Heavy creator boasted that preorders are already coming in.
To describe public reaction as polarising would be a great understatement, with comments ranging from “absolutely amazing” to “absolutely hideous”.
Although it takes time to get used to the never-before-seen shape, as though borrowed from science fiction or video games, its functionality is inspiring: the bullet-proof cybertruck boasts up to 14,000 pounds of towing capacity, 120- and 240-volt outlets that can be used to supply power tools without the use of a generator and many more. And then, there’s the ability to go from 0 to 60 mph in less than 2.9 seconds (in a tri-motor version).
11. Area-51 Craze
The outgoing year was not all about politics and tech advances, as it lent some space to cheers…and even the all-human infatuation with extra-terrestrial reality.
People enter and exit the Alien Research Center in Hiko, Nev. No one knows what to expect, but lots of people are preparing for “Storm Area 51” on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, in the Nevada desert
A specially created Facebook page suggested over this past summer that 20 September could see an epic get-together, with page moderators inviting crowds to storm the famed US air base in the Nevada desert commonly referred to as “area-51”. What appeared to be a satirical get-together aiming to catch a glimpse of aliens allegedly inhabiting the top-guarded military zone, never happened, but the media splash was there for quite a while.
12. Kanye’s ‘Spiritual Awakening’
While last year, Kanye West intrigued audiences famously rapping about his “bromance” with POTUS, 2019 had also something exceptional in store for him, what he himself referred to as a “spiritual awakening”.
Over the year, Kanye not only converted to Christianity and released a hit album “Jesus is King”, but organised numerous star-studded “Sunday services” frequented by his family and friends among showbiz A-listers.