The top 10 stories of 2016
In a year of unprecedented drama and unexpected turns, these 10 stories dominated the political scene.
It was the seismic event that almost no one saw coming.
When Donald Trump announced his bid for the White House in June 2015, the effort was widely dismissed as a self-promotional gambit by the New York property developer. Instead, Trump vanquished a huge Republican primary field that included big names such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas).
Trump’s detractors were sure he would come unstuck in the general election against Hillary Clinton — right up until he won on Nov. 8, demolishing the “blue wall” that Democrats claimed to have in the Rust Belt and Upper Midwest.
Trump campaigned in a style that defied political norms and survived controversies that would have doomed other candidacies. A large swath of the population appears implacably opposed to him, which will create challenges from the moment he is inaugurated on Jan. 20.
Still, Trump won the biggest prize in American politics on his first try. He is not to be underestimated.
The revelation that the CIA believed Russia had intervened in the presidential election with the express purpose of helping Trump win caused a massive furor in December.
In one sense, the CIA’s assessment was not much of a surprise. Russia had long been believed to be behind hacks of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the private email account of Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. The Obama administration had publicly stated in October that it was confident the Russian government had directed the hacking.
The DNC hack led to the resignation of its chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) when it became apparent that staff members had favored Clinton over her left-wing primary challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
The Podesta hack caused further embarrassment, including to Wasserman Schultz’s temporary replacement, Donna Brazile. A leaked email showed that Brazile, who was then a CNN contributor, had given the Clinton campaign advance notice of a question the frontrunner might be asked at a townhall meeting in Flint, Mich.
Trump, meanwhile, has been deeply skeptical of the idea that Russian hackers sought to swing the election toward him. He called that narrative “ridiculous” in a Dec. 11 “Fox News Sunday” interview. His aides argued that Trump’s critics were trying to delegitimize his election win.
In the year’s closing days, President Obama announced the expulsion of 35 Russian operatives from the U.S, as well as a number of other measures in response to the alleged hacking.
Hillary Clinton’s emails and the FBI
Much to the chagrin of Clinton’s supporters, her use of a private email address and server while secretary of State made big headlines right up until Election Day.
Clinton’s use of the server had first been revealed by The New York Times in March 2015. The story picked up pace in the first half of this year as an FBI investigation into the matter proceeded. In July, FBI director James Comey announced that no criminal charges would be brought against the Democrat, even as he criticized her and her aides for being “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”
Clinton aides hoped they had put the matter to rest, but they got an unwelcome surprise 11 days before Election Day. Comey went public with details that more emails had been discovered that “appear to be pertinent” to the new investigation.
Those emails were apparently found during an unrelated investigation into Anthony Weiner, the disgraced former New York Congressman and estranged husband of one of Clinton’s closest aides, Huma Abedin.
Comey emerged again just two days before the election to say that the new emails had not changed his mind regarding charges against Clinton.
The effect of the late Comey disclosures will be discussed for years to come. Clinton told donors on a call days after her loss that his October intervention “stopped our momentum.”
Violence and the police
Even amid the tumult of the presidential election, the vexing issue of shootings involving police officers remained at the forefront of the national debate.
Some cases rose to particular prominence, but it was a cascade of tragic events in early July that raised fears that the U.S. could be on the brink of serious disorder.
First, Alton Sterling was shot dead at close range while being held on the ground by police in Baton Rouge, La. on July 5. Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in a suburb of St. Paul, Minn., the following evening. Both Sterling and Castile were African-American.
Just one night later, at the end of an otherwise peaceful protest against police violence in Dallas, a man ambushed and shot at police officers, killing five and wounding nine. The shooter, Micah Xavier Johnson, had reportedly expressed hatred of police, and of white officers in particular.
In December, a mistrial was declared in the case of Michael Slager, the police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, in North Charleston, S.C. Scott was running away from Slager at the time.
As of Dec. 30, according to a database maintained by The Washington Post, 957 people have been shot and killed by police in the United States in 2016. Preliminary figures from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund indicate that 64 police officers were killed in firearms-related incidents in the line of duty.
A vacancy on the Supreme Court
The sudden death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia in February kicked off a political fight that has yet to be resolved.
The loss of Scalia, a conservative and an “originalist” in his interpretation of the Constitution, could have altered the ideological complexion of the court.
The prospect of President Obama being able to give the court a liberal majority excited progressives — and horrified conservatives, for whom the fate of the court remained a rallying cry all the way to Election Day.
Obama nominated Merrick Garland the month after Scalia’s death. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had already asserted that he would not act on any nomination from Obama, stating that it was for the incoming president to fill the vacancy.
Liberals and Obama protested that this was pure obstructionism from McConnell. But the majority leader’s gamble paid off. Trump’s election made certain that a more conservative justice would be nominated to replace Scalia.
The rise of fake news
The fake news phenomenon hit a nadir in early December, when an armed man made his way to a popular Washington pizzeria. According to police, Edgar Welch was intent on investigating a fictitious conspiracy theory that the pizzeria was at the center of a child abuse ring linked to Clinton.
Welch allegedly fired two shots before being arrested. No one was injured, but the incident was serious enough to intensify worries about the fake news phenomenon.
The label has been applied both to conspiracy theories, such as the Clinton “pizzagate” fantasy, and to “news” that is produced by people, often based overseas, who know it is fictitious but seek to profit from it. Late in the year, Google and Facebook sought to crack down on purveyors of fake news from using their technology to sell ads.
Still, with Americans deeply distrustful of traditional media and increasingly reliant on social networks that often reinforce their existing views, it seems unlikely that “fake news” will disappear anytime soon.
In an end-of-year staff memo obtained by Business Insider, Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith predicted that, in 2017, “fake news will become more sophisticated, and fake, ambiguous and spun-up stories will spread widely.”
Massacre in Orlando
Even amid a year that had more than its fair share of violence and tragedy, the atrocity that unfolded at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando in June was at a different level.
The nightclub, which catered to a gay clientele, was attacked by Omar Matteen, a 29-year old armed with a semi-automatic rifle and a semi-automatic pistol.
Matteen killed 49 people, the worst mass shooting in recent America history. Shortly after the shooting began, Matteen made a 911 call in which he swore allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He was eventually killed at the scene by law enforcement.
President Obama described the attack as an “act of terror and an act of hate.” Donald Trump was widely criticized for a tweet in the immediate aftermath that began, “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.” The sheer horror of what happened in Orlando will be remembered long after the political back-and-forth is forgotten.
Republicans hold the Senate
At the start of the year, Democrats had high hopes of seizing back control of the Senate, where they have been in the minority since the 2014 elections.
It was not to be.
The Democrats netted two seats, three short of the five they needed to win the majority if a Republican won the White House. (Had Clinton won, the Democrats would have needed to gain only four seats).
Trump proved to have much more significant coattails than most Democrats believed. Endangered GOP incumbents such as Sens. Pat Toomey and Ron Johnson held on in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, respectively.
The only Democratic gains came in New Hampshire and Illinois, and the party now has to face a brutal 2018 calendar, where it will have to defend seats in 10 states that were won by Trump.
Bernie empowers the left
It was already apparent as 2016 dawned that Beltway pundits had underestimated Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the veteran left-winger who challenged Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
In the end, Sanders won 23 contests and more than 13 million votes. In the first battle, the Iowa caucuses, Sanders missed out by just a whisker on handing Clinton the kind of shock defeat that could have derailed her march to the nomination.
Sanders’s eventual loss to Clinton could not disguise the intensity of his appeal, especially to the Democratic grassroots.
His platform focused on income inequality and the broader idea that the system is rigged against working Americans. He promised a far more fundamental shift in politics than did Clinton — and the fact that millions of Democrats rallied to that flag is a lesson that the party establishment will ignore at its peril.
The war in Syria
The Syrian civil war ground on through its fifth full year, with the overall death toll now estimated at anywhere between 300,000 and 500,000 people.
The government of Bashar al-Assad was aided by continued splintering among the forces opposed to him, which comprise hard-line Islamists, including ISIS, more moderate forces backed by the U.S., and Kurds in the north of the country.
The fact that Assad is backed by Russia and Iran has had times seemed to bring the situation to the brink of a full-scale proxy war. President Obama has resisted calls for full-on U.S. involvement, however.
That has drawn criticism from some Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who in October accused the Obama administration of having “no strategy” on the conflict.
Assad scored a major victory in December, when his forces defeated the rebels in eastern Aleppo, previously a rebel stronghold.
At year’s end, a tentative ceasefire was in place between pro-Assad forces and some of the rebel groups, though Islamist forces were not party of that agreement. The U.S. had not been involved in the negotiation of that ceasefire, which was brokered primarily by Russia and Turkey.
In mid-December, as evacuations were readied from Aleppo, Trump told a rally in Pennsylvania that his administration would create “safe zones” in Syria. Such an effort would be politically and logistically complicated.