What might have been, if Trump had not acted as his own worst enemy

As Donald Trump departed Washington on Air Force One in the final hours of his presidency, I was struck with many conflicting thoughts, impressions and memories. Unfortunately, the lasting and most indelible memory will be the disgraceful attack of our nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6. This followed the president’s incendiary speech outside the White House that morning and his two-month campaign since Election Day refusing to accept Joe Biden’s victory and loudly claiming that the election was stolen and rigged, despite repeated court rulings against him.

There are, though, other memories of the achievements of the Trump years:

  • Crushing the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its self-declared “Caliphate.”
  • Creating the strongest economy in more than a half-century and reducing minority unemployment to record lows.
  • Making America energy-independent.
  • Negotiating the historic “Abraham Accords” between Israel and four of its Arab neighbors.
  • Nominating outstanding federal judges including three superb Supreme Court justices.
  • Particularly significant to me were Trump’s two visits to my congressional district to mobilize federal law enforcement against the MS-13 criminal gang, which had carried out 25 brutal murders in my district from the fall of 2015 to April 2017. Since his personal intervention, there has not been one murder.

In my dealings with President Trump — whether in the Oval Office, on Air Force One, at official and political events, or sitting ringside at UFC bouts in Madison Square Garden — he was always gracious and friendly. He was so casual and easy-going, I had to remind myself that he was not one of the guys I grew up with from Queens or Brooklyn. And when he learned that my daughter, Erin, was diagnosed with breast cancer, he called her directly and spoke with her at length, and he would often ask me how she was doing. (Thankfully, she since has gotten a clean bill of health.)

We had our disagreements on issues: I voted against his cherished tax cut legislation because of how it decimated the state and local taxes deduction, and I was very critical of his defense of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. But he never seemed to take it personally.

Sure, President Trump went too far in his rhetoric and wasn’t always presidential — but his overall record was solid, and I strongly supported his reelection.

It was after the election, though, that he went off the rails in terms of politically (and, especially, presidentially) acceptable behavior, in my opinion, forever tarnishing his legacy. He did so in several respects:

  • Denying the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election as president.
  • Denouncing House and Senate Republicans for voting in late December for the COVID-19 and stimulus legislation that his own administration helped to negotiate.
  • Dividing the Republican Party in the lead-up to the Georgia special elections on Jan. 5, causing Republicans to lose two Senate seats and the majority control of the Senate.
  • The constant use of inflammatory language, culminating in the Jan. 6 disaster.

Since Nov. 3, President Trump made it all about him rather than about the presidency and the nation, and the tragic events of Jan. 6 and their impact on America are on him. It did not have to be that way. These were self-inflicted wounds.

Yes, Donald Trump had ruthless enemies. But, in the end, he gave his enemies the sword they needed to use against him. That is the tragedy for the country and for the legacy of the Trump presidency which, in many ways, achieved so much against the odds and the zeitgeist. I will always try to look at the full picture and think what might have been.

Peter King retired Jan. 3 as the U.S. representative of New York’s 2nd Congressional District. He served 28 years in Congress, including as chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.