Trump, Once a Critic of Executive Orders, Has Relied Heavily on Them

President Donald Trump will mark the end of his first 100 days in office with a flurry of executive orders, a tool he once derided.

Trump’s frequent use of executive orders points to his struggles getting legislation through a Congress controlled by his own party, and few of the orders themselves appear to deliver the sweeping changes the president promised.

White House aides said Trump will have signed 32 executive orders by Friday, the most of any president in his first 100 days since World War II. That’s a far cry from Trump’s heated campaign rhetoric, in which he railed against his predecessor’s use of executive action late in his tenure as President Barack Obama sought to maneuver around a Republican Congress. Trump argued that he, the consummate deal maker, wouldn’t need to rely on the tool.

“The country wasn’t based on executive orders,” Trump said at a town hall in South Carolina in February 2016. “Right now, Obama goes around signing executive orders. He can’t even get along with the Democrats, and he goes around signing all these executive orders. It’s a basic disaster. You can’t do it.”

But after taking office, Trump has learned to love the executive order.

Need for speed

In an email blast to reporters Tuesday, the White House touted the sheer volume of orders as evidence for the suspect claim that “Trump has accomplished more in his 100 days than any other President since Franklin Roosevelt.” The White House has defended the use of executive orders as necessary to accomplish the speedy solutions it says the American people elected Trump to produce.

At first, the president’s West Wing advisers fashioned an onslaught of executive action to set the tone for this term, with the centerpiece of that first-week blitz being Trump’s travel ban. But courts rejected the hastily drawn ban. A second replacement order also remains in judicial limbo.

Presidents frequently turn to executive orders when they struggle to advance their agendas through Congresses controlled by the opposition party. In Trump’s case, he’s struggled even though both houses of Congress are in the hands of Republicans; his health care bill never even came up for a vote in the House of Representatives after it drew sharp criticism from moderate and conservative Republicans alike.

And in the Senate, Republicans need to win over some Democratic lawmakers to get the 60 votes needed for passage of a contested bill. But the Senate is generally more inclined to cut bipartisan deals than the House because senators have statewide constituencies.

Easiest path

“This president has found that legislating is hard work,” said Mark Rozell, dean of George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. “Executive orders are the easiest, simplest way to showcase action by the president to begin to fulfill some of the pledges made in the campaign.”

A review of Trump’s executive orders reveals that a number of them represent necessary first steps at unraveling Obama-era environmental safeguards and financial service regulations. In some cases, there is no other way around those administrative hoops, and some of the orders have brought about major changes. Among them: his late March order that directed federal agencies to rescind any existing regulations that “unduly burden the development of domestic energy resources,” a move that rolls back environmental protections. Democrats and environmentalists denounced the move, while Republicans who advocate energy independence cheered it.

But many of Trump’s executive orders signed with great fanfare have had little immediate impact.

For instance, during his campaign, Trump talked tough on trade, vowing to slap punitive tariffs on companies that move production offshore and on countries that undercut U.S. goods. Aides hailed one of the executive orders he signed on the topic as “historic.” Yet the order called only for the completion within 90 days of a large-scale report to identify trade abuse and nonreciprocal practices.

And while Trump has pledged to overhaul the nation’s tax code, the order he signed Friday simply commissions a review of the nation’s tax regulations.

Orders to come

On Tuesday, Trump was expected to sign an order creating an interagency task force that will be charged with identifying measures to spur American agricultural growth. On Thursday, he’s expected to sign an order to create whistle-blower protections in the Department of Veterans Affairs while making it easier to discipline or terminate employees who fail to carry out their duties to help veterans. He’s also poised to sign an order that directs a review of the locations available for offshore oil and gas exploration. Another will instruct the Interior Department to review national monument designations made over the past two decades.

“Unlike his predecessor who abused executive authority to expand the size and scope of the federal government in an end run around Congress, President Trump is using his legal authority to restrain Washington bureaucrats,” said White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Trump is far from the first president to turn to governing by executive orders rather than by legislation. Obama had frequently criticized his predecessor, George W. Bush, for governing unilaterally, but he, too, turned to executive action, particularly after the Republicans seized control of Capitol Hill.

Obama signed 276 orders during his eight years in office, fewer than Bush (291) and Bill Clinton (364) did in their two terms, according to data from the University of California-Santa Barbara.

Executive orders were used relatively infrequently until Theodore Roosevelt ushered in a new era of executive action at the beginning of the 19th century, signing more than 1,000 while in office and establishing a template for his successors.


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