2018: Trump's year of disruption -- and danger ahead

Sebastian Smith
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US President Donald Trump says he could intervene in the US case against Meng Wanzhou if it helps seal a trade deal with China -- statements that displeased Canada

He came, he disrupted, he declared victory. Ask Donald Trump and he'll tell you 2018 was a roaring success.

"Nobody's ever done a better job than I'm doing as president," Trump told Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward.

Classic Trump.

Best ever or not, there's no denying this most unusual White House resident left quite a mark in the second year of his administration.

From trampling near-sacred allies like Canada to trying to make good with rival Russia and enemy North Korea, Trump's foreign policy shook up the world.

And at home, he stoked populist fires with "Make America Great Again" rallies that made it seem his 2016 election campaign had never ended -- or that his 2020 reelection campaign had already begun.

Trump's 2018 on the international stage was "a very important year in terms of the disruptive nature," Georgetown professor Mark Rom says.

For all the drama, though, his domestic accomplishments were slender and he ends the year with approval percentage ratings in the low 40s.

Now with signs of economic wobbles, Democrats taking over the lower house of Congress in January, the Russia collusion investigation peaking, and his former lawyer going to prison, uncertainties are mounting.

The one easy prediction for 2019, though, is that whatever happens "Trump's going to be Trump," Rom said.

And in 2018, at least, this is what Trump being Trump looked like:

- G7 mayhem -

Annual G7 summits, which group the world's seven richest democracies, are usually cozy affairs.

But the June G7 summit in Quebec, Canada, ended in unprecedented acrimony after Trump attacked allies for using the US as a "piggy bank," defended his imposition of tariffs against western trading partners, and got in a name-calling spat with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

With a final flourish, Trump torpedoed the traditional joint communique -- usually a dull document reaffirming common values, suddenly turned into the hottest controversy around.

A photograph showing the president sitting grumpily in front of other G7 leaders came to epitomize what some saw as an unraveling of western unity.

- Nukes and love -

Days later, Trump flew to Singapore for a far more upbeat summit with... North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Kim's country technically remains at war with the United States and his rule has been characterized by executions of disloyal relatives and mass repression of the population.

The mold-breaking US president reckoned his charm and business instincts could get Kim to give up his country's nukes and make peace.

Many ridiculed Trump, pointing to the absence of concrete steps afterward by Kim.

But after decades of unproductive US saber rattling and military standoffs, Trump also won plaudits for trying something new.

Certainly he thinks his gamble will work.

"We fell in love," Trump said later, waxing lyrical over an exchange of letters with his unlikely new friend Kim.

- Kremlin controversy -

Another month, another diplomatic bombshell.

This time, it was a July meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki where Trump publicly accepted the Kremlin leader's denial of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.

"President Putin says it's not Russia. I don't see any reason why it would be," Trump told a press conference.

No reason at all, except for the awkward matter of Trump's own intelligence experts having declared that Russia was guilty.

Trump's siding with Putin sparked uproar on both sides of the political aisle back home. And it worried European allies already nervous about the Kremlin's multi-layered efforts to infiltrate western democracies.

The episode was only the latest example of Trump's personal refusal to take on Putin -- all the more mysterious given his government's often tough line over Ukraine and other flashpoints.

- Court of Donald Trump? -

Trump won few legislative victories in 2018, despite his Republicans controlling both houses of Congress. For example, his endlessly trumpeted "wall" with Mexico has yet to find funding.

But Trump did score big in getting approval for his nominees to fill two Supreme Court seats, as well as dozens of federal judge vacancies.

Justices and federal judges are for life, so Trump's conservative picks will influence US society and politics for a long time.

The stakes became dramatically clear in the fight over the second Supreme Court candidate, Brett Kavanaugh, who was almost derailed by unproven, decades-old sex assault allegations.

As public concern fueled by the #MeToo movement mounted, Trump wavered. Not for long, though, before he came out fighting to belittle the woman accuser.

The Senate's tense approval vote of 50-48 marked a massive victory for Trump, but also yet another deepening of partisan divisions.

- 'The witch hunt' -

Given Trump's in-your-face style, it's ironic that his potential nemesis is Washington's quietest man, special counsel Robert Mueller.

Mueller heads the probe into alleged improper links between Trump, his 2016 election campaign and the Kremlin.

And as 2018 winds down, the signs are that the ultra-discreet Mueller is gearing up for big revelations.

"Phony Russia Witch Hunt" and "conflicted prosecutor gone rogue" are just two snippets from the president's recent torrent of anti-Mueller tweets.

But if Trump used to believe himself untouchable -- once boasting that he could get away with shooting someone in public -- that confidence has to be slipping.

On Wednesday, his longtime former lawyer Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to crimes that included paying hush money to a porn actress and Playboy model who said they had had affairs with Trump.

Prosecutors are clear that they believe the president was involved, while Cohen warns he has much more dirt to dish on his former employer.

Current legal understanding is that a sitting president cannot be indicted. But that's a debate which is sure to light up 2019.