The executive actions President Donald Trump has signed have the potential to be among the most “aggressive” and “disruptive” ever issued by a chief executive, according to lawmakers and experts.
Trump and his top aides often describe his use of executive orders, actions and memoranda as the president using his constitutional authorities to “put America first” and plot a policy course to benefit the country’s forgotten men and women. Both were major themes of his 2016 campaign.
From touting national security via the three versions of his travel ban, to greenlighting two pipelines his predecessor blocked, to ending an immigration program that affects millions, to targeting federal regulations to altering the 2010 health care law and beyond, the 45th president and his team have been unapologetic about his use of executive powers.
They dismiss criticism of such unilateral actions despite their hammering of President Barack Obama on the 2016 campaign trail for his use of executive authority.
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Hill lawmakers from both parties have expressed concerns not about the number of actions Trump has signed but about the substance.
Democrats worry it creates chaos within federal agencies, undercuts the regulatory process or erodes American values on issues such as immigration.
“He’s used executive orders principally to roll back things from the Obama administration. There’s been no proactive or forward progress in any areas,” Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal said. “I regret the lack of initiatives on policies. … His lack of bipartisan cooperation really impedes any good for the country.”
Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Benjamin L. Cardin called Trump’s orders “transparent.”
“It seems like whatever he thinks, he writes down in an executive order,” the Maryland Democrat said. “And have they been vetted? Not at all. … It concerns me because he’s the president of the United States.”
In a sign that many congressional Republicans are standing beside the president, scores among their ranks — especially in the House — have fully embraced Trump’s orders, actions and memoranda.
“There was a lot to unpack and undo from the last eight years with the previous administration,” Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole said. “I think that was particularly the case with President Obama, who was aggressive in his use of regulations. President Trump has been working hard to remove those burdens. And I think that’s the right thing for him to be doing.”
Sen. James Inhofe, a senior member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, once famously brought a snowball onto the chamber floor to contend that climate change is not altering Washington’s winter temperatures. He applauds Trump’s actions related to that issue.
“I think they’ve been great,” the Oklahoma Republican said when asked if he has any concerns about the actions being too far-reaching. “And particularly the ones that affect the EPA.”
Inhofe said many of the presidential actions “directly relate to our economy, getting the foot of government off the neck of our private sector.” He added that those moves have contributed to greater economic growth since Trump took office. “The results are pretty clear,” he said.
Academics and policy analysts say Trump’s immigration orders and regulation-killing actions are already having effects. Experts see a distinct common denominator: Collectively, the 45th president’s actions are aimed at undoing as much of the legacy of his predecessor as possible.
They say just how far-reaching many of Trump’s orders will prove depends on forces outside the White House compound, including the actions of the federal bureaucracy, the findings of a laundry list of studies the actions have set in motion, and whom voters elect as the 46th chief executive.
But a handful of academics and analysts interviewed for this story agreed Trump has used his pen and signature to alter policy and change how existing laws are enforced with more muscle than most of his modern-day predecessors.
“Even though all presidents take a different view of executive authority once they get into office — it’s common for presidential candidates to criticize the other party for issuing executive orders — President Trump has been unusually aggressive in his use of executive authority to move policy and redirect policy in his preferred direction,” said Kenneth Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Some are purely hortatory and merely do things like establishing councils. But there are things that are clear departures from long-standing norms,” Mayer said. “Take the immigration orders. Those are really remarkable, as is the increasing likelihood that Trump’s going to unilaterally undo all of Obama’s national landmark designations. … He and his staff are clearly looking for ways to wield the pen to alter policy. I don’t get the sense he really cares about norms. These are unusually disruptive.”
That’s just the point, said Diane Katz of the conservative Heritage Foundation, who closely monitors Trump’s orders that target federal regulations.
“We need some disruption,” she said with a frustrated chuckle. “There’s a lot of excess government out there. We never get rid of any government — we never even think about whether whatever the damn thing is worked or not. … It’s impossible to get Congress to let go of anything.”
Katz gives the president and his team high marks for his orders that aim to pare back federal regulation or get rid of Obama-era rules. The same is true for an order that mandated a review aimed at reorganizing the federal government to, as a White House fact sheet describes it, make it “more efficient, effective, and accountable to you, the American people.”
“Several of these have the potential to bring about great change,” Katz said. “But these kinds of orders take time to develop, and require a lot of follow-through. … These will be a struggle, which is why I view them as potentially far-reaching.”
‘Apples and oranges’
Stephen Legomsky, a Washington University Law School professor, zeroed in on Trump’s three travel ban actions that targeted nationals of certain Muslim-majority countries, among others.
“The several immigration orders are, I think, very far-reaching,” he said. “But it’s hard to tell how far-reaching compared to what previous presidents have done on immigration because it’s really apples and oranges.”
“Trump’s immigration actions, with the exception of one, have been focused on enforcement,” Legomsky said. “In the past, presidents focused on helping immigrants overcome problems.”
Trump in early September signed an order that set in motion the ending of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants deportation relief and work permits to some 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children. Legomsky called that order “really huge” because it “upends the lives of unknown thousands of people and their families.”
The immigration moves have been so impactful, he said, due to “something that flies under the radar: Because there’s simply not even close to enough law enforcement officers to enforce the intent, you have every Border Patrol agent and ICE agent deciding how to enforce them.”
The bottom line, the University of Wisconsin’s Mayer said, is that Trump’s use of his executive powers “is not unprecedented on the whole — but they feature a lot of elements that go beyond what previous presidents have done.”
That’s one reason why even some Republican lawmakers are wary of any president’s reliance on, as Obama once put it, the pen “to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions that move the ball forward.”
“I do worry some about executives acting without consulting the legislative body,” said Rep. Mark Sanford, a former GOP governor of South Carolina. “But the president, I guess, felt like he needed to act. They are what they are.”