George Washington wanted a little advice.
It was 1789, he had just become the president of the newly minted United States of America, and he was about to issue the nation's first executive order — except it was more of an executive request.
In duplicate letters, he asked the heads of various federal departments “to impress me with a full, precise, and distinct general idea of the affairs of the United States.”
There were a lot of affairs: Washington was trying to grow, almost from scratch, a centralized federal government in a nation full of people who had just rebelled against a central authority.
The first president needed to decide whether to tax wealthy businessmen who had helped fund the American Revolution or a growing middle class looking for an economic foothold. England and France were headed toward war.
Washington wanted his advisers to help him get a handle on the country he was leading before they started making policy.
“It will be much easier to commence the administration, upon a well-adjusted system, built on tenable grounds, than to correct errors or alter inconveniences after they shall have been confirmed by habit,” he wrote to Vice President John Adams a month earlier.
Now, 228 years later, historians wonder whether President Trump could take a history lesson from Washington’s first executive order. (Such actions weren’t officially called “executive orders” until Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, according to Kenneth R. Mayer, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. But the concept was essentially the same.)
Trump has signed more than 10 executive orders during his first few weeks in office, including three on Thursday that are intended to crack down on crime and violence in America.
There have also been executive orders to address health care, ethics, financial regulations and infrastructure.
Signing orders to move forward with the construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines in the Oval Office. pic.twitter.com/OErGmbBvYK
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 24, 2017
Some of Trump's executive orders and actions have, of course, been more controversial than others.
Days later, the acting attorney general questioned the legality of the order and told Justice Department lawyers not to defend it. Trump fired her.
The legality of the ban has been debated in federal court. On Thursday, a federal appeals court maintained the suspension of Trump's immigration order in a unanimous, 29-page opinion that triggered an angry response from a president who hasn't suffered many losses of late.
SEE YOU IN COURT, THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 9, 2017
Earlier, a Trump Presidential Memorandum froze federal hiring. But shortly afterward, the freeze was criticized because it disproportionately hurt veterans, who receive preference in federal jobs.
Trump's executive actions have come at a rapid clip, which is to be expected, said Mayer, the political science professor.
“A new president works quickly to assert his authority over the federal government,” Mayer said in an interview. “What is unusual is the scope of what Trump has tried to do and, frankly, the casualness with which these orders have come out.
“They were not properly vetted.”
One of the reasons the immigration order was struck down, Mayer said, “is because it was so sloppily executed.”
In some cases, federal agencies charged with enforcing the new administration's executive orders say they were “blindsided.”
“The departments of homeland security and state seem to be learning about things after the fact,” said Cristina Rodríguez, a constitutional law professor at Yale. “I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this before. It’s a disregard for reality — the desire to bypass agencies altogether.”
Government fact-finding has grown more complex as the executive branch has expanded, Rodríguez told The Post.
When Washington assumed the presidency, he didn’t have senior advisers; a modern president wouldn’t need an executive order to find out details of a policy proposal.
Still, it’s uncommon for a president not to vet executive orders with the agencies that would have to carry them out, she said.
“It’s necessary in a different way now because society is much more complex and government has a much broader reach,” Rodríguez said. “You probably need greater expertise and people have been specialized in a way that they may not have had in [Washington's] time.”
As The Fix’s Aaron Blake previously explained:
Basically, an executive order is an official statement from the president about how the federal agencies he oversees are to use their resources.
It falls under the broader umbrella of “executive actions,” which derive their power from Article II of the Constitution, and it is the most formal executive action. Executive actions also include presidential memorandums (which are a step below executive orders and basically outline the administration’s position on a policy issue), proclamations and directives.
An executive order is not the president creating new law or appropriating new money from the U.S. Treasury — both things that are the domain of Congress; it is the president instructing the government how it is to work within the parameters that are already set by Congress and the Constitution.
Trump’s executive order on building a border wall, for example, basically establishes building the wall as a federal priority and directs the Department of Homeland Security to use already-available funding to get the ball rolling on its construction.
The president’s executive orders are recorded in the Federal Register and are considered binding, but they are subject to legal review.
In his explainer, Blake noted that “executive orders have often been the subject of controversy, with the opposition party accusing the president of overstepping his authority and acting like a dictator. Basically, they’re arguing that he’s changing the law rather than working within it.”
Presidents can blunt some of that criticism by consulting, which has benefits beyond merely getting things right, according to Thomas Fleming, a historian who has written extensively about American life after the Revolutionary War.
The conversations before the orders show that the executive branch is listening to the people paid to advise the president — and to the people he represents. That desire dates back to the years before the Revolution.
“Americans had a paranoid fear of a dictator — that was the terrifying fear that lurked in every American’s heart,” Fleming told The Post. “Washington was aware of that, and that’s something Trump needs to learn.
“He’s much too in love with these executive orders and acting solo without any advice. That’s the way you show the people that the government is acting in the best interest of the people, that it's actually representing them.”