2017 Yearender/Leaders in the West

Trump: America's disruptive President

As his first year in office is nearly over, President Donald Trump is finding it hard to shake off an FBI probe, risks a stumble into war and faces mid-term congressional elections in November.
As his first year in office is nearly over, President Donald Trump is finding it hard to shake off an FBI probe, risks a stumble into war and faces mid-term congressional elections in November. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

In the last of a series on key figures in the headlines this year, we look at US President Donald Trump and three European leaders.

As his first year in office draws to a close, President Donald Trump can ride on good economic figures, which should persist into next year.

The world's largest economy grew 3.2 per cent in the third quarter, the stock market hit record highs and unemployment is at a 17-year low, although the positive trend began before he took office.

But Mr Trump, 71, is finding it hard to shake off a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) probe, risks a dangerous stumble into war and faces mid-term congressional elections in November that will be tantamount to a referendum on him. His job approval ratings have been consistently at record lows nationally, though they remain robust in his own support base.

The stakes are high: losing just a few seats will give the advantage to the Democrats, who can then effectively stall the President - or worse, try to impeach him.

Mr Trump's biggest fight at home will be the FBI's investigation into potential links with Russia, and of key people in his campaign and transition teams. He calls the probe a witch hunt by Democrats to destroy the credibility of his election win.

The focus of a counter-attack has shifted recently to Mr Robert Mueller, the powerful independent counsel overseeing the probe. And Mr Trump will continue to fight back and undermine a largely hostile, liberal media.

The issue of North Korea, with the clear and present danger of an escalation into war that Mr Trump's own generals note would be unimaginably catastrophic, is his biggest foreign policy challenge. In the past year, he went out on a limb with threats of unleashing "fire and fury" on the communist state, and with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un defiant, war is not as remote a possibility as a year ago.

Meanwhile, Mr Trump is rebuilding and modernising the military, including ballistic missile defences. While conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan continue and tensions with Iran simmer, homeland security will remain a major challenge.

Mr Trump is no working-class hero. But he channels the issues and the language of the average conservative, largely blue-collar and mostly rural white Americans, pro-life evangelicals, and business owners.

In the White House, his unapologetic take-no-prisoners approach has done little to bridge America's toxic political divide or put to rest ghosts of the past - like the white ethno-nationalism that has re-emerged since the 2016 election.

The US will remain beset with internal tensions, and Mr Trump will stay disruptive, triggering outrage, keeping critics at home off balance - and making the world uneasy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2017, with the headline 'Trump: America's disruptive President'. Print Edition | Subscribe