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Plot twists – 2019 in review: United States | United States

Another year of political drama ends with a cliffhanger—an impeached president awaiting trial in the Senate


THE ECONOMIST’S first cover of 2019 compared the presidency of Donald Trump to a television series. That was apt. This year’s instalment of “The Trump Show” churned out more plot twists, sudden departures and cliffhangers than most primetime-drama writers would dare attempt in a single season. The year has culminated in a dramatic impeachment episode, in which the president is accused of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

Rewinding back to January, this was not necessarily a predictable ending to the 2019 season. The year began with the longest government shutdown on record. It was tied to Mr Trump’s insistence on $5bn to build a wall on the southern border (the one that Mexico was supposed to pay for in the first place). Roughly 800,000 federal employees were furloughed or compelled to work without pay while daily reports told of coast-guards visiting food banks, IRS desertions and FBI indictments postponed for want of cash. As a manifestation of America’s political dysfunction, the shutdown foreshadowed partisan battles to come.

Such a battle soon erupted over the Mueller report. For two years, Robert Mueller, a former federal prosecutor and director of the FBI, toiled over an investigation into links between the Russian government and Mr Trump’s campaign. Pre-empting the report’s public release, in March the new attorney-general, William Barr, published a four-page summary of it. Mr Barr’s document stated that the Mueller report did not establish that anyone involved with Mr Trump’s campaign “conspired or co-ordinated with Russia” in its election-interference efforts, nor did it establish that Mr Trump committed obstruction of justice. The president treated that summary as dispositive. No collusion, no obstruction: “Complete and Total EXONERATION”, as he tweeted.

Yet when the full 448-page report was published in April, it painted a different picture. The report did not turn up proof of a conspiracy with Russia, although close associates of the president were charged with crimes over the course of the investigation. The first 170 pages concern Russia, laying out the scope of the country’s influence operation on America’s presidential election in 2016. Mr Mueller went on to describe a level of presidential misbehaviour that would be shocking were it not for the frog-boiling nature of living through the Trump presidency. The final sentence of the report notes that “while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” Yet even into July—when Robert Mueller blandly testified before Congress—the prospect of Mr Trump’s impeachment seemed unlikely.

That changed in late September. News broke that Mr Trump had allegedly abused his power by encouraging Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, to investigate Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy firm, and his father Joe, a front-runner in the Democratic primaries. In response, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House—who had long attempted to resist calls for impeachment by the left flank of her party—formally announced an impeachment inquiry. The House voted in favour of impeachment on December 18th. The process, marked by partisanship and rancour, has left Republicans unswayed and voters divided and is very likely to leave Mr Trump in office. That is bad for America.

Yet America extends beyond the Beltway. Lexington profiled the sexual conservatism of millennials—the portion of Americans aged 18 to 29 who claim to have had no sex for 12 months has more than doubled in a decade—and chronicled the continued importance of baseball as America’s pastime. Other pieces took readers into a decaying union resort in Michigan, a former fundamentalist Mormon theocracy in the south-west and to the top of a small radio station in remote Alaska. Readers learned why America’s future will be written in the two mega-states of Texas and California and about a surprising small town that serves as a mecca of modernist design. Politics in America may look increasingly black and white. But life in America continues in full colour.

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