Trump signed six executive orders in his first 10 days (through Jan. 29), according to the tally maintained by the American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara. In addition, he also published three presidential memorandums in the Federal Register during that time.
Presidential memorandums are “executive orders by another name,” says presidential scholar Phillip Cooper. Some of Obama's most significant executive actions — on gun control or immigration, for instance — came in the form of memorandums, rather than executive orders.
So simple numerical tallies, like the ones here, miss a lot of nuance. Still, all executive orders and memorandums are similar in the legal limits on their scope: They're not supposed to create new laws but rather to clarify how existing laws are carried out.
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.
But as executive orders have fallen out of popularity, the use of presidential memorandums has increased considerably in recent years, according to a 2014 study by Kenneth Lowande of Washington University in St. Louis.
In 2016, for instance, Obama issued nearly as many memorandums (36) as executive orders (43). Back in the ’60s and ’70s, in a typical year a president issued more than 10 times as many orders as memorandums.
Part of the move toward memorandums may be because they often receive less attention than executive orders.
“Whereas executive orders have attained significant media coverage and have drawn litigation, presidential memorandums are frequently overlooked by news outlets and have not been subject to direct legal action,” Lowande wrote in the study. “The present obscurity of presidential memorandums may allow presidents to claim credit for policy change, while avoiding the charges of 'imperial overreach' likely to be levied by critics.”
Obama's executive actions were not without controversy — some of his actions on immigration were ultimately blocked by the Supreme Court. But within 10 days of taking office, Trump's orders have already led to widespread protests, judicial battles and the firing of an acting attorney general. Trump's explorations of the limits of executive power could continue to be a flash point throughout his administration. In an email, Lowande said that “the only trend the administration seems to be breaking is the lack of agency vetting,” which has led to considerable confusion over how to implement some of the new orders.