Trump’s executive actions come faster and in different forms than before

After just eight days, more Americans disapprove of President Trump’s job performance than approve of it. Video provided by Newsy Newslook

WASHINGTON — President Trump has begun his presidency with an unprecedented blizzard of executive action, signing more presidential directives than any president in modern history.

As a candidate, Trump criticized President Obama’s “illegal and overreaching executive orders.” Now, he’s using those same orders in ways previous presidents have not.

He has used them to order the approval of permits to specific private companies (the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines). He has not only reinstated Reagan-era policies but expanded them — as with the ban on federal funding to global health groups that promote abortion. On Monday, he tightened the White House’s grip on the regulatory process, insisting that agencies stick to a quota of regulations approved by the president as part of the annual budgeting process.

And he has even created a new form of executive order called a National Security Presidential Memorandum and used it to give orders to the Pentagon and give his political strategist a seat at the table in National Security Council meetings.

While Trump has signed fewer executive orders than Obama at this point in his presidency, he has signed more presidential memoranda — a kind of first cousin to executive orders that became Obama’s tool of choice as he tried to get around a Republican Congress.

Trump’s party has control of Congress. He’s just impatient.

Trump appears to be trying to make good on every campaign promise at once, which in itself was one of his campaign promises. In speeches last fall, he promised to “cancel every unconstitutional executive action, memorandum and order issued by President Obama” on his very first day in office. (He didn’t.)

“It’s not unusual for a president to hit the ground running and issue a lot of unilateral directives early in his term,” says William Howell, a political science professor at the University of Chicago. “But to see him swinging for the fences — he’s just letting it rip on all manner of policy issues — is striking.”

Escalating pattern

Presidential scholars say Trump’s executive orders have followed an escalating pattern after a change of party: Republican presidents rescind Democratic policies and reinstate those of the last Republican president. Democratic presidents do the same with Republican policies.

The Day One executive order on the Affordable Care Act, for example, was a one-page directive telling federal agencies to allow more flexibility in enforcing the provisions of Obamacare until Congress can repeal it. But the order contained the phrase “to the maximum extent permitted by law,” three times, suggesting that its effects are yet to be determined.

One of the most noticeable differences is in style: While Obama signed most of his executive orders in private, Trump has signed all of his in public, with a headline-generating photo opportunities intended to convey constant presidential action.

“Executive orders are generally used to enact public policies, but some of Trump’s orders seem to have been for more symbolic or rhetorical purposes,” says Graham Dodds, a political scientist at Concordia University in Montreal.

And that seems to be part of the strategy. “We’ve hit the ground running at a record pace,” he boasted in his weekly radio address Saturday.

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The White House is scheduling executive order signing ceremonies even before it knows  which order Trump is going to sign — or whether he’ll sign them at all. Aboard Air Force One last Thursday, press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump would order an investigation into his spurious claims of widespread voter fraud. That order never came.

Executive orders are also a way to keep control of the narrative. “Bill Clinton did something similar during his impeachment where he issued a bunch of executive orders to do things Congress likely would have done anyway,” says Chad Murphy, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. “But he wanted to show he was busy doing the people’s work while Congress was wasting four years and $40 million investigating his sex life.”

The pace of action has prompted questions about how much agency lawyers have been involved in the drafting of executive orders, which has been standard practice under previous presidents. The order on refugee admissions, for example, appeared to include permanent legal residents — “green card” holders — despite later clarifications from the White House that it wasn’t the president’s intent.

Trump’s orders also show that presidential directives have become political weapons as much as they are policy and management tools, with partisan outrage depending on which president was wielding the pen.

During Obama’s presidency, Trump often criticized what he called “overreaching” executive orders. “Why is @BarackObama constantly issuing executive orders that are major power grabs of authority?” he tweeted as early as 2012.

“The conservatives who criticized Bill Clinton’s orders were largely silent for George W. Bush’s orders, then loudly complained about Barack Obama’s orders, and now are mostly silent about Donald Trump’s orders,” Dodds says.

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