In so many ways, 2020 has been a year unlike any other in modern history. It has been marked by a once-in-a-lifetime viral pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout. But the coronavirus caseload rose against the backdrop of a summer of protest and a presidential election year with a divisive incumbent known for his masterful political theatrics. Ultimately, the year filled our headlines and timelines with a myriad of political talking points. Here are the 11 biggest political moments of the year. 


Becoming just the third president to be impeached by the House of Representatives, President Donald Trump started 2020 with the specter of an impeachment trial over his head. With calls of a "witch hunt" echoed loudly on Twitter, the House impeachment managers argued a case to remove the president from office over charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The president's defense team successfully argued to the Republican-controlled Senate that the president was well within his authority when he said to the Ukrainian president, "I would like you to do us a favor," while committing to secure release of military aid as a result. 
Republicans in the Senate blocked additional witnesses and further testimony on the impeachment charges. Ultimately, the Senate acquitted Trump on all charges — though Republican Senator Mitt Romney became the first senator in history to vote to convict and remove a president of his or her own party when he voted for one of the two charges of impeachment. At that point, it seemed like impeachment might have an impact on the election and we would all be discussing them as the two biggest political stories of the year. But 2020, of course, had other plans. 

Iowa caucus fail

Iowans take a lot of pride in their status as the first-in-the-nation state to kick off the presidential primary season. But 2020 may be the year that put an end to their tradition of gathering in school gyms and restaurants across the Hawkeye State and voting with one's feet instead of in a ballot box. The quaint caucus tradition dates back decades but may finally be too antiquated as of 2020 when Democrats became mired in technology challenges and reporting difficulties. The state party did not have results until weeks after caucus night. 
It truly could not have been worse for a party set on showing that the caucus process remained an important tradition in the presidential election. The state Democrats were facing calls that Iowa did not adequately represent the national party's electorate and received a vastly disproportionate share of the primary election resources. South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg squeaked out a win in the Midwestern state, very narrowly toppling Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders took that momentum into the first-in-the-nation primary election in New Hampshire where he edged out Buttigieg. Sanders ultimately won Nevada in the First in the West caucuses, where a heavily Latino electorate delivered the third, and seemingly final, blow to an ambitious campaign of one former Vice President Joe Biden. But politics can surprise you.

Biden comeback

After seeing three devastating defeats in early primary states, the Biden campaign bet it all on South Carolina. It seemed like South Carolina bet it all on him too. The state's most prominent Democrat, House Majority Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn, released a key endorsement in an emotional statement just days ahead of the South Carolina primary. "I want the public to know that I am voting for Joe Biden. South Carolina should be voting for Joe Biden," Clyburn said at a news conference at that time. 
That endorsement sent shockwaves through the Democratic electorate and catapulted Joe Biden to a massive victory in the southern primary. On Super Tuesday, March 3, Biden won 10 of the 15 states and territories, creating enough momentum to ultimately clinch the nomination during the national convention on August 18. His campaign seemed to be dead in the days after Nevada's caucus but it came back to life at exactly the right time to guarantee that he would face off against incumbent Republican Donald Trump in the November election. But it was a primary season — and election landscape — completely changed by a virus making its way through the American people. 

"COVID will just disappear"

The first case of the novel coronavirus in the United States was diagnosed on January 20 in Washington state. February 6 marked the first death from COVID-19 in California. As doctors, nurses and hospitals struggled to fight an unknown assailant, the president tried to project calm from the White House, repeatedly saying he expected the virus to "go away."
On February 27, Trump said, "It's going to disappear. One day — it's like a miracle — it will disappear. And from our shores, we — you know, it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away."
It did, in fact, get much worse before it got any better. This messaging from the White House continued even as cases ticked up and deaths began to rise. The president convened a coronavirus task force, led by Vice President Mike Pence, that led to the rise in prominence of top infectious disease doctor, Dr. Anthony Fauci and top public health official, Dr. Deborah Birx. Both sought to balance political rhetoric with health reality. In the early days of the pandemic, the White House promised easy access to testing while many Americans reported being unable to get tested. States, lacking support from the federal government and its response, started a patchwork of responses that led some to impose strict stay-at-home orders and others to avoid even requiring masks in public spaces. 
The lack of federal guidance resulted in misinformation about the virus while the president focused on projecting normality in an extremely abnormal environment. He focused all of his political capital on developing a vaccine to combat the virus. By May, when the daily caseload remained consistently more than 20,000 per day, the president said, "We're doing very well on the vaccines but, with or without a vaccine, it's going to pass, and we're going to be back to normal." 

Racial justice takes center stage

When the video of George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police hit the internet, it almost instantly sparked a resurgent movement energized to end police brutality and call for racial justice. Protestors poured onto the streets in cities and towns across the country calling for more legislative support to prevent violent interventions by the police. 
While the protests themselves were not inherently political, the movement they sparked became political as the president continued to weigh in on Twitter, tweeting at one point: "Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts." 
In one of the more stark moments of the Donald Trump presidency, police officers used tear gas to disperse a peaceful group of protestors across from the White House as the president echoed his Twitter rhetoric from the Rose Garden, threatening to deploy the U.S. military to states and cities who did not control the protests. He then walked from the White House across a now empty park covered in graffiti where reporters could still smell the tear gas from just minutes before. He walked to St. John's Episcopal Church where he held a bible aloft for a photo opportunity before marching back to the White House. 
In this June 1, 2020, file photo President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
The entire event took less than 30 minutes but changed the perspective on the protests. People who had never before been supportive of racial justice said "Black lives matter." Lawmakers introduced bipartisan legislation to address policing disparities across the country. Conversations started and continued well beyond the death of one man in police custody and the conversation continues as 2020 closes its doors. It became one of the hottest topics on the campaign trail where Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden visited with Floyd's family and gave an emotional plea for action. "We can't leave this moment thinking we can turn away and do nothing. The moment has come for our country to deal with systemic racism," Biden said on June 2. 

Campaign trail goes virtual...for some

As the president sought to contain the political fallout from a virus that ravaged the country and maintain a tough guy image in the face of political unrest, he tried to routinely project an image of calm and strength, allowing Americans to take comfort that he continued with business as usual. Meanwhile, his campaign ramped up an extensive digital presence that included nightly talk shows with Republican headliners and the president's family members. But reports started shortly after stay-at-home orders began in mid-March saying the president eagerly awaited a return to the campaign trail. 
He did just that on June 20, after several months away from the Make America Great Again rallies that so define his political persona. Limited by restrictions on public gatherings, he chose Tulsa, Oklahoma as the place to kick off the new phase of his campaign. The crowd, largely maskless and sparsely filling the indoor arena, showed the disconnect between the president and his supporters when it came to the virus and the public health realities. 
At the same time, Democrats, expecting a nomination of Joe Biden imminently, removed themselves from the campaign trail completely.
Republicans maintained door-to-door campaigning while Democrats ceased all forms of in-person interaction for much of the election cycle until the final weeks of the election, when events like socially distanced "drive-in" rallies marked Joe Biden's campaign strategy.  
Democrats moved their convention from July to August before announcing a "convention across America" that would be an all-virtual event with appearances from around the country. In a series of well-produced videos interspersed with live appearances from Democratic voices, the party managed to put on two-hours of nightly programming capped off by a Wilmington, Delaware speech from its nominee Joe Biden. 
The Republican convention followed a more winding path in the run-up to its festivities. Originally scheduled for Charlotte, North Carolina in late August, the president's goals of holding a regular convention-style event with thousands of attendees from across the country were scrapped when officials in the Tarheel State refused to certify those plans. In a fit of pique, the president moved his entire event to Jacksonville, Florida, sparking contractual concerns and confusion about how to pull off a large-scale event with just weeks to go. As coronavirus cases in Florida ramped up over the summer, the viability of an in-person event with thousands of attendees narrowed until it became clear that it was not going to happen. Finally, the national Republican leaders mirrored their opposition, holding a virtual convention in Washington, DC, with pre-taped speeches recorded at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium and signature live speeches every night. The president spoke from the White House South Lawn, completely eviscerating the line between candidate and president. The conventions kicked off the final swing of campaigning, coronavirus-style. 

First presidential debate

President Donald Trump and former-Vice President Joe Biden faced off in a presidential debate in late-September that the American people eagerly awaited. It marked the first time the two men shared a stage after Biden became the official nominee on the Democratic ticket. More than 70 million Americans tuned in for the chance to compare and contrast the policies and politics of the two men vying for the highest office in the country. 
That is not, however, what they got. Instead, the debate quickly devolved into interruptions and ad hominem attacks with Biden at one point calling Trump the "worst president in history." Trump came out on the stage swinging, lasting only minutes before aggressively interrupting Biden. Commentators and journalists lambasted the display with CNN's Dana Bash going so far as to call it a "s***show." Still others called it a mess, a disgrace and the "worst debate in history."
The president's tone did not do anything to hurt his standing with his base but did not endear him to the subset of swing voters in battleground states who often decide elections. Biden's showing did not do much better and it clearly emerged that the real losers from the debate were the American electorate.
But the display also gave the Trump campaign an opportunity to accuse the media of playing favorites with Biden, refusing to ask him hard questions and giving the president less favorable coverage. Ultimately, Trump refused to attend the second debate, which the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates declared would be virtual, solely as a health and safety consideration for all involved because the COVID-19 situation took a dramatic turn.

Trump gets COVID

The first presidential debate happened on a Tuesday night. On Wednesday, one of the president's top aides tested positive for coronavirus. By Thursday, the president had tested positive using the rapid test that is pervasive at the White House. His more accurate molecular PCR test results came in very late Thursday night and in the wee hours of Friday morning, he confirmed that he and the first lady tested positive for COVID-19. 
By Friday evening, the president had been transported via helicopter to Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He received multiple treatments, including an experimental antibody treatment, in a "kitchen sink" approach that attacked the virus with every possible intervention in the hope some combination of medications would prevent a more serious case in the 74-year-old president with pre-existing conditions. His treatment plan also included a round of steroids, a medication called remdesivir (originally devised to treat ebola), and supplemental oxygen before his transfer to the hospital. Trump's hospitalization was not without controversy as he insisted on doing a motorcade driveby of supporters, despite being actively infectious, and routinely balked at being asked to stay in the medical facility. His medical team often reported contradictory information as the president tried to minimize the impact of the virus. After three days, the president was discharged from the hospital where he returned to the White House, famously removing his mask in a photo op from the balcony. He then released a video on Twitter urging the American people, "Don't let it dominate you. Don't be afraid of [COVID-19]." 
He began holding public events just 10 days after his diagnosis, starting with a large public speech at the White House. He hit the campaign trail right after that. Trump wanted to show his supporters and the electorate that he remained the strong and brash leader they had come to know. 

September surprise

After health complications, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on September 18, 2020. Her final words, according to her granddaughter, were, "My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed." 
Immediately, Republican lawmakers and conservative thought leaders took to the airwaves to discuss her legacy and her impact on women around the world. They also pushed back on the idea that they would wait to install her replacement on the highest court in the land, despite less than two months until Election Day. 
In 2016, the death of Justice Antonin Scalia left a vacancy on the court in February of an election year. Despite a nominee from then-President Barack Obama, Republicans in the Senate refused to hold confirmation hearings to fill the vacancy. At the time, Senator Mitch McConnell said, "Let's let the American people decide. The Senate will appropriately revisit the matter when it considers the qualifications of the nominee the next president nominates, whoever that might be." 
It was a gamble that paid off when Donald Trump was elected president. It was also a gamble they did not take in 2020 when Republicans rushed the confirmation process for Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative Circuit Court judge and former legal professor. In one of the shortest confirmation periods in modern history, Barrett was sworn in to fill the vacancy on October 27, a week shy of the election and less than six weeks after Ginsburg's death. McConnell said when confronted with allegations of hypocrisy, "Since the 1880s, no Senate has confirmed an opposite-party president's Supreme Court nominee in a presidential election year." He argued that because the Senate and White House were held by the same party, his viewpoint remained consistent. 
This appointment gave Trump his third nomination to the highest court after filling the federal bench with conservative justices as one of the top priorities of his in consultation with Senator McConnell. 

Election Day that lasted a week

In the lead up to Election Day on November 3, polls showed Democrat Joe Biden outpacing Donald Trump by nearly 10 points on average. Trump aggressively trekked the campaign trail, hitting up to five states in a single day in the final days of the campaign. 
But the 2020 election was unlike any other. In 2020, record numbers of early voting and mail-in ballots changed the entire way Americans cast their votes. One hundred million voters sent in ballots before Election Day. Because states conduct their own elections, each one had a different way of counting those ballots. In some, votes are counted as they arrive, whether it's in the mail or via early, in-person voting. That meant that some battleground states had results right away on Election Night. Others, like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin took a little longer to count all those ballots as state regulation prohibited counting those early ballots until Election Day. 
That reality did not stop President Donald Trump from falsely and prematurely declaring victory early Wednesday morning. He did so in a combative White House address in which he insisted he won and the vote counting should stop since he was ahead in most battleground states. A week later, it became clear that Trump would not win the election as Pennsylvania finished counting its ballots and Joe Biden was projected to win that state. Ultimately, of the six states that Donald Trump insisted he won — Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia — Trump did not win a single one. Biden ultimately won the Electoral College with 306 votes to Trump's 232. 
As the sun sets on 2020 though, Trump still refused to acknowledge the reality of his defeat. He continued to mount legal challenges despite numerous defeats in the courts in the weeks following the election. He shouted his false claims of voter fraud across the Twittersphere to anyone who would listen despite every single secretary of state or high-ranking election official in every state and the District of Columbia reporting no evidence of any widespread voter fraud. Results in Wisconsin and Georgia were recounted and certified — twice in Georgia's case. Still, the president did not concede as his power waned. 

Last-minute COVID relief?

There are signs that 2020 is ending on a high note — or at least a higher note. 
Two vaccines received FDA emergency use authorization in December and a mass-scale vaccination program took its first steps. Prominent political figures like Vice President Mike Pence, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and President-elect Joe Biden received their doses publicly to promote confidence in the shot. 
After nine months of a roadblock after roadblock and failed negotiations, lawmakers thought they had a big win in the final days of the 116th Congress. On the shortest day of the year, lawmakers had a long workday capped off with both chambers passing a $2.3 trillion government funding omnibus and COVID relief bill — the most expensive legislation ever to become law. The legislation included direct stimulus payments to Americans of up to $600, extended enhanced unemployment benefits, billions of dollars in relief for small businesses, and huge pots of money for education, transportation, and coronavirus relief efforts including vaccine rollout. But then President Trump called for those checks to Americans be bumped up to $2,000 and the world turned upside down: Democrats were happy to jump on board with that plan, while fiscally conservative Republicans, like Senate Majority Leader McConnell, pushed back hard. Trump ultimately signed the bill, and the House quickly passed it trying to increase the per person maximum while the Senate remained undecided...for now.
Despite being in a lame duck session with a lame duck president, Congress achieved more in the final days of 2020 than the American public could point to the entire rest of the year. While the bill was not without controversy — Democrats wanted a bigger package while Republicans worried about adding to the deficit — it passed with huge majorities in both the House and the Senate. It was a much needed boost the American people needed going into the holiday season.
2020 is a year we will never forget for so many reasons. But the nonstop political headlines certainly make it one of the most fascinating years in American political history ever.