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Written by John R. Vile, last updated on December 2, 2023

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Donald Trump was the 45th president of the United States. Trump championed First Amendment religious freedoms while being accused of religious discrimination for a travel ban aimed at Muslim countries. His actions and speech trying to overturn the 2020 election that he lost to President Joe Biden has resulted in several cases involving First Amendment issues. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Billionaire businessman Donald J. Trump (1946- ) was 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.

Nearly three years after he lost reelection in 2020 to Joe Biden, Trump was indicted in two separate federal cases and one state case in 2023. The most severe charges allege illegal actions to overturn the 2020 election results and include conspiracy to commit crimes and obstruction of an official proceeding connected with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The attack took place after a rally in which Trump urged supporters to “fight” to keep him in office. The other federal indictment is related to Trump taking classified documents after he left office and mishandling them. A third indictment by New York prosecutors involves falsifying business records by misclassifying campaign expenses as legal expenses in connection with making hush money payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels during the 2016 election. In total, as of August 2023, Trump was facing 78 charges across the three criminal cases.

Trump mastered Twitter to attack, belittle opponents

Trump’s road to the presidency began with tactics unconventionally aggressive even for heated political campaigns. His strong and stinging rhetoric was often communicated through the social network Twitter, an unfiltered method he continued throughout his presidency, sometimes distressing his aides.

He hit hard at Republican primary challengers, insulting them with nicknames (“Little Marco” for Marco Rubio and “Lyin’ Ted” for Ted Cruz) and similarly belittled the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, calling her “Crooked Hillary” and accusing her of committing crimes by using a private web server for email when she was secretary of state. Later, he would call Joe Biden “Sleepy Joe” to emphasize his age and, in the new presidential campaign in 2023, called potential Republican primary opponent Ron DeSantis, “Ron DeSanctimonious.”


During his 2016 campaign, Trump told voters that the U.S. was being overrun by illegal immigrants who committed crimes and promised to build a huge wall on America’s southern border to keep them out. Trump mustered support among Republicans by his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, which he promised to repeal. As president, he was successful in building at least parts of a border wall, but was not successful in repealing the Affordable Care Act.


Trump also 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 headquarters.


Trump was combative during the presidential debates, in one case launching a sharp attack against moderator and then-Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly, beginning a confrontational tactic with journalists that would last throughout his presidency.

Trump and his press secretary often made claims that appeared to be palpably false. For example, after being elected, he said more people showed up to his inauguration than any previous president  though photographs clearly suggested otherwise. Trump 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. No evidence substantiated this claim or similar fraudulent voting claims that he made about the election of 2020.  

Trump was combative during the 2015 presidential debates, including with the moderators. In one case, he attacked moderator Megyn Kelly, who was then a Fox News reporter. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Trump called the press ‘the enemy of the people’ 

It is doubtful that any national candidate since President Richard 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. He called the press “the enemy of the people” and often bypassed the media by refusing to be interviewed. He instead preferred to reach his followers directly through tweets, many of which were outrageous but nonetheless captured public attention and news media coverage.

Trump initially hired a number of people from the alt-right movement, including Steve Bannon of Breitbart News, to be in his inner circle. He and his defenders often accused the established media of manufacturing “fake news.”

Trump was criticized by some 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.

However, Trump continued to strike at the media. On July 25, 2018, White House officials Bill Shine and Sarah Sanders, barred CNN’s Kaitlin Collins, that day’s pool reporter for all the networks, from a presidential event in the Rose Garden. Collins had shouted a question and apparently offended Trump as he was meeting with the president of the European Commission.  Other members of the press, including Fox News that was usually friendly to Trump, protested the action against the reporter, which some associated with dictatorial regimes. 

In January 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. Pompeo had stopped the interview, then shouted and cursed at her after she had asked about his support for State Department personnel.  Pompeo subsequently removed another NPR reporter from a list of reporters allowed on his flight to Eastern Europe, an action that the State Department Correspondents’ Association condemned.

Trump has promised to “open up” libel laws after the publication of Michael Wolff’s highly critical book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, was published in 2018.. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that libel laws must comport with First Amendment standards. In this photo, Kathy Mallin, from Illinois, looks over a copy of the book in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Trump promised to “open up” libel laws

During his presidency, Trump promised to punish individuals who burned the American flag and to “open up” libel laws.

After excerpts from Michael Wolff’s highly critical book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” was released 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.” 

Wolff and his publisher, undoubtedly thankful for the additional publicity, instead expedited publication of the book, which became a bestseller. The Authors Guild issued a statement saying that “[i]t 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 state libel laws must comport with First Amendment standards and ruled in Texas v. Johnson (1989) that some flag-burning is a form of protected political speech.

Trump issued two orders banning immigration from certain countries, all with Muslim majorities. While a circuit court ruled that the ban improperly discriminated on the basis of religion, the Supreme Court upheld the President’s broad authority to impose restrictions on immigrants from foreign countries. In this photo, Izzy Berdan of Boston chants slogans with other demonstrators during a rally against Trump’s travel bans in 2017. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Courts examine Trump’s travel ban

Early in his campaign, Trump was endorsed by Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University. Trump convinced many evangelicals that he would secure their First Amendment free exercise rights and exempt them from government regulations, such as the requirement that health plans provide access to birth-control pills that they consider to be abortifacients. As president, Trump signed an executive order seeking protections for religious freedom.

Still, Trump received criticism about religious discrimination when he  issued two orders banning 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.

Brett Kavanaugh was one of three judges that Trump added to the Supreme Court. In this 2018 photo, Kavanaugh arrives at the Senate Judiciary Committee to begin his confirmation hearing. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Trump added 3 to Supreme Court 

One of Trump’s more lasting successes, and one praised particularly by Christian conservatives who had been concerned about the high court’s rulings on abortion and gay rights, was the appointment of three conservative judges to the Supreme Court. The were:

Indeed, with the new justices in place, the high court overturned Roe v. Wade, allowing states to regulate and bar abortions, which many have since done. In a case involving First Amendment free speech and religious rights (303 Creative LLC v. Elenis), the new court put limits on state anti-discrimination laws, saying that a wedding website creator did not have to serve a gay couple because it would have forced her to provide expressive speech services that went against her religious convictions. 

Trump investigated during his presidency

While the three criminal indictments came after Trump left the presidency, he fought accusations of inappropriate or illegal behavior throughout his years in office.

One of the first investigations involved possible ties between Trump and Russia during Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. After Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel to investigate. (Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey.) Mueller resigned in 2019 after saying the investigation was over. 

William Barr, the attorney general appointed by Trump to replace Sessions, claimed that the investigation, which on many points was inconclusive, had exonerated Trump. Trump called the whole affair a “witch hunt.”

This investigation, however, resulted in a number of pleas and indictments of members of the Trump team, as well as of Russian foreign agents, and continued along with independent congressional investigations on the topic. Some of Trump’s congressional supporters introduced resolutions for the impeachment of Rosenstein. Rosenstein resigned in May 2019.

The president also 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.

In 2018, his former attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to breaking campaign finance laws related to a payment to a former Playboy model — the case that later led to business fraud charges against Trump after he left office. The payment was designed to keep a story about an alleged affair between her and Trump out of the news during the presidential campaign. Cohen released a tape of a conversation with Trump that indicated that Trump was aware of plans to make a payment.

Trump’s first impeachment in 2019

When it was revealed that Trump had engaged in a phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he appeared to condition military aid to that nation unless and until it launched in an investigation into Joe Biden’s son who had received a salary as a board member of a Ukrainian energy company, the House in late 2019 impeached him on a party-line vote for abuse of power and failure to cooperate with congressional investigators.

The Republican-controlled Senate acquitted him.

2020 election takes place during COVID-19 epidemic

Not long after the impeachment and acquittal, another crisis captured the nation and, indeed, the world: the COVID-19 epidemic.

With another presidential election approaching, COVID-19, a virus that originated in China, began infecting an increasing number of Americans and taking an increasing number of lives. Trump downplayed the deaths, claiming that the virus would disappear. He refused to wear face masks and did not insist that supporters do so at his campaign rallies even after he was briefly hospitalized with the disease.

Largely as a result of the pandemic, many states liberalized voting so that more people could cast mail-in ballots in the upcoming election rather than physically go to a polling place.  Trump charged that this would lead to voting fraud.

Many states decided to count mail-in ballots after they finished counting votes cast in person on election day. Trump, who had urged his own supporters to vote in person on election day, was shown with an early lead as vote-counting began. This lead evaporated as more votes were counted. Although the election was held on Tuesday, it was not until that Friday that news outlets were comfortable in reporting that Biden had won both the popular vote and the majority of the Electoral College.

Trump refused to concede the election and launched a series of lawsuits in states where he lost, questioning the electoral results and calling for recounts. Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani was among those who continued to advance Trump’s case in public, often making exaggerated charges in public that he chose not to advance in court cases, which consistently went against Trump even as recounts confirmed initial results.

Trump continued to question electoral counts, even in states like Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin where Republican state officials affirmed that they were accurate. Trump called the Republican Attorney General of Georgia urging him to “find” sufficient votes for him to carry that state. The phone call was recorded and released through the news media for the public to hear and has become evidence in allegations against Trump that he took illegal actions to try to overturn election results.

Capitol attack on Jan. 6, 2021, sought to stop Electoral College certification

As the time came for Vice President Mike Pence to open the Electoral College votes before a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, Trump held out hope that Pence could, contrary to all historical precedent, convert this ministerial act into a discretionary one and declare him the winner. As Pence indicated that he would not do so, Trump supporters gathered for a rally at the White House.  Trump and his allies urged the crowd to continue to fight and to go to the Capitol Building. Trump told them that if they did not do so, they might not have a country left.

As the crowd approached the Capitol Building, they began scuffling with Capitol Hill police officers who they greatly outnumbered. In time, members of the mob not only broke through the barricades but also broke into the Capitol Building where they carried flags, broke into congressional offices and threatened to hang the vice president. Members of Congress took cover in fear for their lives. Trump did not intervene. But when order was restored, Congress reassembled and affirmed that Biden had won the presidential election. Five people, including a police officer, died in the riot.

In an extraordinary move, Twitter suspended Trump’s account “due to the risk of further incitement of violence” by the president. Despite criticism, this action did not violate the First Amendment because the site is not owned or maintained by the government.

Trump’s second impeachment

The House impeached Trump a second time, this one for inciting an insurrection at the Capitol Building. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delayed sending the indictment to the Senate until after Biden and Harris were inaugurated. Again, Trump broke with tradition in refusing to attend the inauguration although his vice president and former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama did so.

When the House delivered its indictment to the U.S. Senate, a majority of Republicans claimed that the Senate had no right to try an ex-president. If a two-thirds majority of the Senate had decided to convict Trump, they could have excluded him by majority vote from holding future governmental offices. However, the Senate again acquitted Trump in February 2021, after he had left office. Trump is now a presidential candidate in the 2024 election.

As Trump left office, he pardoned a number of individuals who had stood by him during his first impeachment hearings, although he did not seek to pardon either himself (something that many scholars believe he has no right to do) or his family members on the later chance that he would face charges connected to tax evasion and related financial dealings. Shortly after Trump left office, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed cases alleging that he had violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution by directing business to his enterprises during his presidency on the basis that they were moot.

After leaving office, Trump indicted on 78 criminal charges

Nearly three years after leaving office, Trump was indicted in three separate cases involving 78 criminal charges related to his presidency.

The most serious are conspiracy and obstruction charges that allege illegal actions by Trump to overturn the 2020 election. Another relates to classified documents Trump took with him to his home when he left the presidency and how he handled those documents. And the third, brought by a Manhattan attorney, relates to business fraud in how he classified hush money payments to an ex-porn star during the 2016 campaign as legal rather than campaign expenses.

In November 2023, a Denver district judge ruled that Colorado’s secretary of state could not under the power of an insurrection provision in the 14th Amendment remove Trump from the upcoming Republican primary balloting. But she did find that Trump actions and speech incited the violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Speech that incites violence is not protected speech.

The author of this article is John Vilea professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. The article was last updated Aug. 4,  2023 by encyclopedia staff.

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