Billionaire businessman Donald J. Trump (1946- ) is the 45th president of the United States. He was elected in 2016 after one of the most unconventional, and populist, campaigns in U.S. history. Trump has championed First Amendment religious freedoms, while being accused of religious discrimination for a travel ban aimed at Muslim countries. Image of Trump at a New Hampshire Town Hall on August 19, 2015. (Photo by Michael Vadon via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Billionaire businessman Donald J. Trump (1946- ) is the 45th president of the United States. He was elected in 2016 after one of the most unconventional, and populist, campaigns in U.S. history.
Trump distanced himself from Republican contenders through rhetoric
He distinguished himself from a very large field of Republican contenders, who included Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Ted Cruz, with strong rhetoric, often communicated through internet tweets. He employed similar rhetoric against Hillary Clinton, whom he accused of having committed crimes by using a private server as secretary of state for e-mail correspondence.
Trump began his campaign by claiming that the U.S. was being overrun by illegal immigrants who committed crimes, and by promising to build a huge wall on America’s southern border to keep them out. Trump mustered strong support among Republicans by his opposition to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), which he promised to repeal.
He questioned U.S. trade policies, said that America’s allies needed to contribute more to their own defense, opposed governmental regulations (particularly environmental) that he thought were interfering with economic growth, and was far friendlier to Russian leader Vladimir Putin and other foreign strongmen than his predecessor was.
Trump, who had never before held elective office, was arguably aided by the perception that he offered an alternative to politics as it was (Clinton had been both a U.S. senator and secretary of state) and by leaks from the Democratic National Campaign quarters.
Trump was particularly combative during the presidential debates, in one case launching a particularly sharp attack against then Fox news reporter Megyn Kelly.
Trump attacked establishment news media
It is doubtful that any national candidate since President Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, has been more negative toward the established media than Trump. He frequently called members of the media dishonest and singled them out for ridicule at his rallies. At one point calling the press “the enemy of the people,” Trump often bypassed the media through internet tweets, many of which appeared outrageous but nonetheless captured public attention.
Trump initially hired a number of people including Steve Bannon of Breitbart News, which is part of the alt-right, to be in his inner circle, and he and his defenders continue to accuse the media of manufacturing “fake news,” and, on occasion, he has refused to answer questions from “fake-news” media outlets.
Trump has faced criticism for his attacks on the news media. Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake gave a speech on the Senate floor on Jan. 17, 2018, in which he said that Trump's characterization of the press as “The enemy of the people” echoed the words of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
Trump said he would work for First Amendment free exercise rights
Fairly early in his campaign, Trump was endorsed by Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, and Trump convinced a number of Evangelicals that he would work to secure their First Amendment free exercise rights and exempt them from government regulations, such as the provision of birth-control pills that they consider to be abortifacients. As president, Trump has, in fact, signed an executive order seeking protections for religious freedom (Campbell 2015).
Trump promised to "open up" libel laws
Trump has further promised to seek punishment for individuals who burned the American flag and to “open up” libel laws (Cole 2017). After excerpts from Michael Wolff’s highly critical book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, appeared in January 2018, Trump’s attorneys sent an 11-page letter to Wolff and to his publisher, Henry Holt & Co., asking them to “cease and desist from any further publication, release or dissemination of the book, the article, or any excerpts or summaries of either of them, to any person or entity, and that you issue a full and complete retraction and apology to my client as to all statements made about him in the book and article that lack competent evidentiary support” (Quoted in Nichols 2018).
Wolff and his publisher, undoubtedly thankful for the additional publicity, instead expedited publication of the book, which became an instant best seller. The Authors Guild issued a statement saying that “It is one thing for a private citizen to use libel laws to quash speech. It is unheard of for a sitting President to do so."
The U.S. Supreme Court held in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964) that libel laws must comport with First Amendment standards, and ruled in Texas v. Johnson (1989) that some flag-burning is a form of political speech.
Trump has made claims that appear to be false
As president, Trump and his press secretary have often made claims that appeared to be palpably false, as, for example, in saying that more people showed up to his inauguration than any previous president (photographs strongly suggested otherwise). Trump has also claimed that the only reason that he lost the popular vote (he clearly won the Electoral College) was because millions of immigrants illegally voted; evidence has not substantiated this claim.
Media has had troublesome relationship with Trump
As president, Trump has been frequently parodied by the media, and especially by programs like "Saturday Night Live." In June 2017, another comedian, Kathy Griffin, crossed the line of good taste when she held up what looked like Trump’s severed head. Although her right to do so was unquestioned, it did not stop a number of media sources from firing her.
On July 25, 2018, White House officials Bill Shine and Sarah Sanders, barred Kaitlin Collins of CNN, that day’s pool reporter for all the networks, from a presidential event in the Rose Garden after she shouted a question as Trump was meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, which apparently offended the President. Other members of the press, including Fox News, which is usually friendly to the President, joined in protest against this action, which some associated with dictatorial regimes.
In January of 2020, President Trump praised Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for doing “a good job” on National Public Radio (NPR) reporter Mary Louise Kelly, after she reported that Pompeo shut down an interview with her after she asked about his support for State Department personnel and then shouted and cursed at her in a private meeting. Pompeo subsequently removed another NPR reporter from a list of reporters allowed on his plane flight to Eastern Europe, an action that the State Department Correspondents’ Association condemned.
Lower courts alleged Trump orders were religiously discriminatory
As a candidate, Trump referred constantly to “radical Islamic terrorists.” As president, Trump has issued two orders banning to immigration from a select number of countries, all with Muslim majorities. After a number of federal courts enjoined the first order, Trump issued a second.
In International Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump (2017), the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law improperly discriminated on the basis of religion, largely using Trump’s own campaign statements and tweets as evidence of what the Court considered to be the order’s discriminatory purpose. In Trump v. Hawaii, 585 U.S. ____ (2018), however, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the President’s broad authority to impose restrictions on immigrants from foreign countries, when he thought they posed special security dangers.
Trump nominated two justices
Although Republicans have a majority in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, Trump’s administration has had a rocky start. Although he succeeded in getting Neil Gorsuch confirmed as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court (replacing Antonin Scalia), initial efforts to repeal Obamacare did not succeed, and continuing controversy over both the president’s actions and tweets have arguably taken attention and energy away from his plans for major improvements in America’s infrastructure and tax reform, the latter of which Republicans were able to pass in December 2017.
At the end of the Court’s 2017-2018 term in June, Trump was given an additional opportunity, when Justice Anthony Kennedy, who had often case a decisive “swing” vote in close cases, announced his retirement. Trump responded by nominating Brett Kavanaugh (b. 1965) a former Kennedy clerk, who serves on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and is thought to be much more conservative than Kennedy. Kavanaugh was confirmed on Oct. 6, 2018, after highly contentious Senate Judiciary Committee hearings.
Trump investigated for Russia relations
After Trump fired FBI Director James Comey and Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from investigations into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel to investigate. Mueller resigned in 2019 after saying the investigation was over.
This investigation, which has resulted in a number of pleas and indictments of members of the Trump team, as well as of Russian foreign agents, continued into the new year, as did independent congressional investigations. Some of Trump’s congressional supporters introduced resolutions for the impeachment of Rosenstein. Rosenstein resigned in May of 2019.
The President has received considerable criticism for meeting in Helsinki, Finland with Russian president Vladimir Putin without another American official other than a translator in the room. Some members of Congress had called for the translator to testify about the content of the conversations.
Trump attorney payments violated campaign finance laws
Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen, whose records have been seized by government prosecutors, has released a tape of a conversation with Trump that indicates that Trump was aware of plans to make a payment designed to keep a story about an alleged affair with a former Playboy model Karen McDougal out of the news. Cohen pleaded guilty to breaking campaign finance laws with the payments in 2018.
John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.Send Feedback on this article