A photo op, World War III, and bleach injections: The wildest political moments in the US in 2020

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Griffin Connolly and John T. Bennett
·10 min read
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Donald Trump poses with a Bible that isn’t his outside St John’s Episcopal Church in Washington amid racial justice protests on 1 June. (AFP via Getty Images)
Donald Trump poses with a Bible that isn’t his outside St John’s Episcopal Church in Washington amid racial justice protests on 1 June. (AFP via Getty Images)

The final year of the this Trump administration has been full of tumult — from the third presidential impeachment in US history, to the president’s combative response to a reinvigorated racial justice movement, to his governing and personal trials with the coronavirus pandemic.

Few Americans who survived 2020 will forget the names George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, whose deaths from encounters with police reignited the conversation surrounding law enforcement and the treatment of Black Americans in this country. Millions will remember the more than 330,000 spouses, parents, children, siblings, and friends who died from the coronavirus pandemic.

These historic events unfolded in the middle of a presidential election year with a White House incumbent, Donald Trump, whose flair for the dramatic produced some of the most iconically absurd moments this country has witnessed.

Here are the wildest political moments in the US in 2020:

‘World War III’

On 3 January, Mr Trump authorised a drone strike on an Iraqi airport strip that killed Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, whose elite Quds force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been undermining — and in some cases terrorising — US and western operations in the Middle East for years.

The assassination of Soleimani, the second most powerful man in Iran behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ignited real-world and online furore.

Iran launched a missile strike on a joint Iraqi-US air base, killing no one, but giving hundreds of American troops concussion-like injuries.

Iran-backed Shia militiamen surrounded and attacked the US embassy in Iraq.

The ayatollah has vowed to avenge Mr Soleimani’s death in other ways. In September, Iran was reportedly weighing a plot to assassinate the US ambassador to South Africa.

The escalation of tensions between the US and Iran in January unleashed a flood of memes about an imminent “World War III” on Twitter, TikTok, and other social media platforms, searing the international crisis into the collective American memory.

A broader conflict has not materialised.

A president and his (?) Bible

More likely, the Christian Bible Mr Trump held up for the cameras before St John’s Episcopal Church in Washington on 1 June was not the president’s own.

“Is that your Bible?” a reporter at the photo op asked Mr Trump, who’d been handed the book by his daughter (and senior adviser), Ivanka Trump.

“It’s a Bible,” the president responded.

Minutes earlier, officers with the federal Park Police had deployed tear gas, flash grenades, sting ball grenades, rubber bullets, smoke canisters, and other anti-riot devices to disperse a crowd of thousands of peaceful demonstrators to clear a path for Mr Trump to walk to his photo op at the church.

The photo op lasted all of 10 minutes.

Several of the president’s advisers who appeared alongside him at the photo op later denounced it as a disaster, saying they had not known peaceful protesters would be cleared out through violent means.

The event has come to symbolise the Trump administration’s combative stance towards the racial justice protests that rocked the country this summer in the wake of the deaths of Mr Floyd in Minneapolis, Ms Taylor in Louisville, and several other people of colour who died in confrontations initiated by police officers.

The rip heard round the world

It was what happened behind Mr Trump’s back at what would be his final State of the Union address on 4 February 2020 that will be the enduring image of the evening.

As the president — who was in the middle of an impeachment trial in the Senate — concluded his speech, Speaker Nancy Pelosi stood up, took a copy of his prepared remarks, and ripped them in half.

“It was the courteous thing to do considering the alternative,” the speaker later told reporters.

Earlier in the night Ms Pelosi had extended her hand for the president to shake, but Mr Trump turned his back.

Mr Trump and Ms Pelosi, the two most powerful elected officials from their respective parties, went all of 2020 without speaking a single word to each other directly. In the middle, again, of an unprecedented global health crisis and a nationwide reckoning on police reform.

The mutual animus between Mr Trump and Ms Pelosi represents a deterioration of cross-party relations that defies history, and encapsulates the partisan dysfunction in Washington that the outgoing president is leaving as part of his legacy.

Romney makes his stand

Mitt Romney went where no other senator in US history has gone before, delivering a speech on the chamber floor on 5 February announcing his intention to vote to convict Donald Trump on the impeachment charge of abusing the power of his office.

The Utah Republican’s speech reduced several Democrats (and himself) to tears as he became the first senator ever to vote to convict a president of his own party during an impeachment trial.

“I am aware that there are people in my party and in my state who will strenuously disapprove of my decision, and, in some quarters, I will be vehemently denounced. I am sure to hear abuse from the president and his supporters,” Mr Romney said, all too presciently.

“Does anyone seriously believe I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me?” he said.

Mr Trump and his allies condemned Mr Romney as a Democrat (he is not) as the president breezed to a triumphant acquittal in the GOP-controlled Senate.

Shortly after that acquittal, a defiant and vindictive Mr Trump brandished a copy of the Washington Post with the headline “Trump acquitted” across the banner.

Donald Trump brandishes a copy of the Washington Post following his impeachment acquittalGetty Images
Donald Trump brandishes a copy of the Washington Post following his impeachment acquittalGetty Images

He accused Mr Romney of publicly leveraging his faith … in bad faith.

“I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,” Mr Trump said of Mr Romney’s decision to cast a vote of conviction.

The Woodward Tapes

Famed Washington Post political journalist Bob Woodward’s book on the back half of the Trump administration provided real-time insight into the president’s largely improvisational early strategy on the coronavirus crisis.

A series of tapes released through his home base newspaper exposed how Mr Trump had been telling the public one thing about the then-little-known virus and privately disclosing to Woodward a completely different set of facts.

In a phone call on 7 February, Trump told him: "This is deadly stuff, Bob," explaining how experts were saying the disease could spread through the air and not just by touch.

“You just breathe the air, and that's how it's passed. And so, that's a very tricky one. That's a very delicate one. It's also more deadly than even your strenuous flu,” the president told Woodward at the time.

But then, in the following weeks, in an apparent attempt to assuage Americans' apprehensions about the virus and let them think they had nothing to worry about, Mr Trump publicly compared Covid, on multiple occasions, to the very thing he knew it was more deadly than.

On 26 February: "This is a flu. This is like a flu. ... It's a little like a regular flu that we have flu shots for. And we'll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner."

On March 9: "So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life and the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of coronavirus with 22 deaths. Think about that!"

The Woodward tapes’ release coincided with a dip in Mr Trump’s polling numbers against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden that lasted through the balance of the campaign.

Mr Trump has never expressed regret for initially downplaying the virus.

When he began speaking more gravely about the disease’s threat in March, Woodward asked him about the sudden shift in rhetoric.

"To be honest with you, I always wanted to play it down. I still like playing it down because I don't want to create a panic," the president said in a follow-up interview on 19 March.

‘Will you shut up, man?’

CNN’s Dana Bash called it a “s***show” live on air.

“That was the worst presidential debate I’ve ever seen,” an ABC News panellist said.

The first debate of 2020 between Mr Trump and Mr Biden has already gone down as the worst in the 60-year history of televised presidential contests, with political commentators and TV pundits summarily panning it for Mr Trump’s constant interruptions and taunts of Mr Biden and the overall lack of substantive policy discourse.

“Will you shut up, man?” Mr Biden finally blurted out in exasperation as the president interrupted him while he was trying to answer a question about the Supreme Court.

While Mr Biden cut into Mr Trump’s answering time on a handful of occasions, it was mostly in response to the tactics deployed by the president.

But even moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News, fed up with the president’s antics, told Mr Trump amid an argument with the Republican candidate over the interruptions: “Frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting.”

‘Injection inside’

There was no one moment that cost Mr Trump the election. But 23 April, an otherwise tranquil Thursday night in Washington, might have been the beginning of the end for the president.

A businessman by training and trade, Mr Trump used a White House coronavirus briefing to float some outrageous trial balloons that were immediately rejected by medical experts. He repeatedly suggested disinfectant be injected into the bodies of humans to cure coronavirus patients – while also doubling down on his claims that sunlight kills the deadly virus.

“I see the disinfectant that knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning,” the president said.

Mr Trump was not finished.

“You see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number [on the] lungs, so it would be interesting to check that,” he said, appearing to refer to the disinfectant idea. “We’re going to have to use medical doctors, but it seems interesting to me.”

A senior administration health official, under questioning from the same reporters, later said federal laboratories are not considering or trying to develop such a treatment option. Mr Trump to this day claims he was joking, but his body language and tone that night suggested otherwise. Anchors on news programmes for days felt compelled to plead with their viewers to ignore the president’s advice.

Trump returns

Perhaps even more astonishing than Mr Trump coming down with coronavirus was how he carefully stagecrafted his trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Hospital.

His Friday late-afternoon departure – more on that below – was plenty dramatic and surreal. But it was his made-for-television Marine One flight back and landing outside the White House that was the defining moment of the president’s Covid-19 infection.

It was the mask-removal heard around the world.

The ever-defiant president landed on the White House’s South Lawn and headed for the Truman Balcony, where he removed his mask despite being contagious.

After a brief moment of time, having given the thumbs-up to the cameras, the still-infected president then turned and entered a room full of aides, still without his mask.

Trump departs

A few days before, on a mostly sunny afternoon, the ill Mr Trump, like so many other Covid-19 patients, developed a shortness of breath that disturbed his doctors. His oxygen levels also raised concerns among the White House medical team.

He eventually complied with their requests to move him to the Walter Reed hospital.

An admittedly weak Mr Trump strode to Marine One under his own power, though he did use both hands to steady himself on the rails attached to the stairs.

As the sun started to set, the executive helicopter – at this point a military medical aircraft – ferried the commander in chief over Washington’s still-green Rock Creek Park.

Television cameras were able to track the flight, the most gripping moments of a president being taken to a medical facility since Ronald Reagan was shot at a northwest Washington hotel then rushed to nearby George Washington University Hospital.

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