12 top political stories of 2016

FILE - In this Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016, file photo, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

In a year when Merriam-Webster declared “surreal” the word of the year, few events were more bizarre than the presidential campaign that ended with a billionaire reality TV host with no governing experience bound for the White House.

It was a year in which many of the accepted rules of politics and campaigning were flagrantly violated, faith in institutions vital to democracy was tested, and many who thought they knew everything about politics learned that they, in fact, know nothing.

The election itself was the destination, but the journey toward it produced many big stories of its own.

Endless primaries

The presidential primary campaign kicked into high gear in February. After months of debates and controversies, voters finally went to the polls and proved that support for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders was real.

By the morning of the Iowa caucus, five of the 17 Republican candidates had already dropped out, leaving Trump with 11 more to fight. Many experts had predicted that as candidates withdrew, the anti-Trump vote would coalesce behind an establishment candidate like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio.

That never happened. Many ideas to stop Trump were floated, including a Marco Rubio/Ted Cruz unity ticket and a potential coordinated effort by multiple candidates to keep him from securing a majority of delegates.

That never happened either. Instead, Trump brushed off most of the competition, narrowing the race to him, Cruz, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich before the May 3 primaries. After Trump won most of those contests, they also suspended their campaigns.

By the start of the convention in July, most of the Republican opposition to Trump had been silenced.

Before Iowa, the Democratic field had thinned from five candidates to three, with former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley trailing far behind Clinton and Sanders. O’Malley would drop out after Iowa, but Sanders held on until the convention, defeating Clinton in 23 states.

Some Sanders supporters remained angry, attempting to disrupt speeches at the convention.

Anti-Trump protests

Donald Trump’s campaign ended in November much as it began: with his words and actions setting off protests.

Throughout the spring, Trump rallies in major cities were greeted by large crowds of supporters and large crowds of protesters. The two groups at times clashed violently in the streets outside the events. One rally in Chicago was cancelled after Trump claimed it was too dangerous to proceed.

The city of Cleveland braced itself for violence during the Republican National Convention, but aside from one flag-burning incident, protests there largely remained peaceful.

Following the election, protests were organized in cities across America to make clear that Trump’s victory did not represent the views of all Americans. Protests continued for several nights. In Portland, one descended into a riot and more than 100 people were arrested.

There have been no reports of major incidents outside Trump’s “thank you” rallies, but protests are planned for his inauguration.


An already contentious year in North Carolina politics got even uglier in November.

Controversial legislation passed in March, House Bill 2, prohibited local governments from making their own rules against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender. This was in response to a Charlotte law that would have allowed transgender people to use bathrooms based on gender identity instead of biology.

Opposition to HB2, including high-profile boycotts of the state by businesses, helped sink Gov. Pat McCrory’s reelection campaign, but he refused to concede to Democrat Roy Cooper after the election. McCrory sought recounts, alleging widespread fraud without evidence, before finally accepting the results.

The fight was not over, though. Republicans called a special session of the legislature in December, passing bills to restrict Cooper’s power regarding appointments and staffing. There was an agreement to repeal HB2 if Charlotte repealed its municipal ordinance, but that deal was in flux on Wednesday.

Emails (FBI)

Hillary Clinton’s campaign has increasingly pointed its finger at the director of the FBI in its effort to explain how she failed to defeat Trump. In July, Director Comey made an unusual on-camera statement explaining why he was not recommending charges for Clinton over the handling of classified information on her private email server.

While the decision itself was a relief to the campaign, the 10 minutes he spent excoriating Clinton for her “extremely careless” behavior was not. Nor were the congressional hearings and public release of investigative documents that followed.

By mid-October, it seemed over. But on Oct. 28, Comey sent a vague letter to members of Congress informing them that more emails had been found that could be related to the investigation. Clinton supporters blasted him for breaking with Justice Department policy of not releasing such information close to an election, while Trump supporters pointed to the revelation as proof of Clinton’s corruption.

Two days before the election, Comey sent another letter announcing that nothing in the new emails changed his conclusion that criminal charges were not warranted in the case.

Clinton critics argue that her own behavior is what necessitated the FBI investigation in the first place, and that Comey only had to announce the charging decision because Bill Clinton’s bizarre tarmac meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch forced her to defer to Comey’s judgment.

More emails (hacking)

Hillary Clinton’s emails were not the only ones to produce headaches for her campaign.

As the Democratic National Convention was getting underway in July, hackers released emails stolen from Democratic National Committee staff accounts that made clear how strongly the party establishment favored Clinton over Sanders. The emails led to the resignation of the DNC chair and revitalized anger among Sanders’ most ardent supporters.

In the final month of the election, WikiLeaks slowly released tens of thousands of emails belonging to Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. Few contained explosive revelations, but the sustained focus on them throughout October frequently took the Clinton team off message and handed new talking points to Trump.

The intelligence community believes the emails were obtained by hackers linked to the Russian government, possibly under orders from President Vladimir Putin himself. Some officials say it was done with the intent of aiding Trump, who praised Putin during the campaign, but others are less certain of the motive.

Democrats continue to press for a thorough, independent investigation of the hacking, believing it may have cost Clinton the presidency, but Trump and other Republicans have questioned the reliability of the secret evidence supporting the allegations.

Celebrity endorsements

Hillary Clinton closed out her presidential campaign with a huge rally in Philadelphia the night before the election headlined by President Obama, the First Lady, Bruce Springsteen, and Bon Jovi.

Days earlier, her campaign hosted a concert featuring Jay-Z and Beyoncé in Cleveland.

She lost Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Despite Trump’s Hollywood connections, Clinton always had the more star-studded campaign. Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, and other celebrities implored their fans to get out and vote for Clinton.

Trump had Scott Baio and Antonio Sabato Jr. at his convention, and he reportedly has struggled to draw top talent for his inauguration events.

In 2016, at least, more star power did not translate into victory.

Fake news

Social media has developed into a spectacular tool for sharing information. It has proven far less useful for determining whether that information is true.

The term “fake news” has quickly snowballed into a catchall phrase for many types of inaccurate reporting, but it originally applied to false stories that frequently circulated under the guise of factual reporting on Facebook and Twitter.

Such stories led voters to believe false claims about both Clinton and Trump. They also allegedly led a North Carolina man to drive to D.C. with a gun to rescue nonexistent child sex slaves from a pizzeria linked to the Clinton campaign.

Media outlets are still grappling with how to deal with the spread of fake news. Facebook and Google have announced steps to curtail fake content, although some question whether they can do that objectively.

President-elect Trump

Heading into Election Day, even Donald Trump seemed unsure of his chances. He has told crowds at his “thank you” rallies of being somewhat surprised as states turned red on the map before him that night.

“I had this ballroom that’s not very big because I didn’t know if we were going to win or lose,” he said at a rally in Wisconsin. “If we lose, I don’t want a big ballroom.”

Trump’s win was small by historical standards, but he far outpaced the performance most experts predicted while Clinton faltered in several key battleground states.

A lot of explanations and excuses have been offered for Clinton’s failure and Trump’s success, but none of it changes the outcome of the race. Trump will be inaugurated on Jan. 20.

Democrats point to Clinton’s 3 million vote lead in the popular vote to prove Trump lacks a mandate to govern. Some even claim his victory is illegitimate, but others, including incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, say they are already looking for areas of common ground to work with Trump.

Trump Tower

Rapper Kanye West visited Donald Trump at Trump Tower on Dec. 13, a moment that stunned and baffled many in the media.

"I wanted to meet with Trump today to discuss multicultural issues," West tweeted afterward. "I feel it is important to have a direct line of communication with our future President if we truly want change."

It was just one of many meetings Trump held in his tower during the transition period, with members of Congress, governors, and business leaders who were under consideration for Cabinet jobs or could offer Trump their expertise and advice.

Through it all, cameras sat in the Trump Tower lobby, trained on the elevator doors to catch the various comings and goings. At times, the feed was streamed live online.

Legal marijuana

Legalization of marijuana picked up momentum in 2016. In November, Massachusetts, Nevada, California, and Maine passed legislation allowing recreational marijuana. A similar measure failed in Arizona.

Four other states approved the use of medicinal marijuana, including Florida and Arkansas.

Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, has been a vocal opponent of legalization efforts in the past, so it is unclear how the federal government will respond to these changes under the Trump administration.

21st Century Cures Act

One of the final pieces of legislation signed by President Obama was the 21st Century Cures Act, a massive bill that directs billions of dollars to medical research.

The act includes funding for an effort to map the human brain and for Vice President Joe Biden’s cancer moonshot. It also provides an infusion of cash for the National Institutes of Health.

Rep. Tim Murphy told Sinclair the 21st Century Cures Act represents a huge advance in mental health treatment, including training more mental health professionals and creating a new office to address mental health and substance abuse.

"If you don’t treat mental illness in a community, you end up dealing with it in prison, and homeless programs. People lying on a gurney in an emergency room waiting for a bed, or sadly, sent to the county morgue when they die," he said.

Critics have complained about deregulation and giveaways to the pharmaceutical industry in the bill. Many compromises were necessary to win bipartisan support in Congress and get the industry behind it as well.

What didn’t happen

Along the road to Trump’s 304 electoral votes, his opponents at times turned to arcane elements of constitutional law and party procedures.

Throughout the spring, reporters and pundits gamed out elaborate scenarios through which the Republican nomination could be swiped from Trump in a contested convention. Instead, he easily secured enough delegates to become the nominee.

In the weeks afterward, as Trump battled a gold star family in the press and downplayed his offensive “locker room talk” in a decade-old “Access Hollywood” video, attention turned to Republicans’ options if they wanted to abandon him or push him to step down post-convention.

On the Democratic side, many questions were asked about what exactly would happen if Clinton was indicted and how her replacement would be chosen.

In the general election, when Clinton was leading in the polls and Trump was predicting that the election would be rigged, much time was spent in the press discussing a hypothetical situation where he lost and refused to accept the results.

Even after Trump won the election, some clinged to the possibility that enough electors could be convinced to turn on him to change the outcome in the Electoral College.

For everything that was unconventional about the 2016 campaign, though, those big moments all played out in surprisingly conventional ways.

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