The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Trump learned to embrace the executive order, which he once called an ‘easy way out’

‘The 45th President’: One in a series looking back at the Trump presidency

President Trump hands a pen that he used to sign an executive order on health care to Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky at the White House on Oct. 12, 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s original entry ban on visitors from seven Muslim-majority nations, issued the week he took office in 2017, became a model for his use of executive power: aggressive, highly politicized and sometimes a bit sloppy.

The order was a hasty attempt to address Trump’s impossible campaign promise of a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” It prompted global condemnation and cries of racism from critics. And it was revised twice under legal challenges before passing muster with a divided Supreme Court.

Through scores of executive orders and other directives since then, Trump has sought to highlight conservative policy priorities including an immigration crackdown, his still-unfinished border wall, reductions in environmental protections and boosts for domestic energy production.

One of his most expansive moves came last week with an executive order that would remove job security for tens of thousands of civil servants, marking a dramatic effort to remake the nonpartisan side of the federal government.

The 45th President: Looking back at Donald Trump’s presidency

Trump has also frequently used the power to appeal to his largely White political base by stoking racial and cultural divisions, academics and others who track executive orders said.

“I’ve also issued an executive order to prohibit the teaching of critical race theory in the federal government,” Trump said to applause during a reelection rally in Muskegon, Mich., this month, referring to a directive attempting to restrict certain kinds of diversity training.

“Oh, you’re so lucky that I’m your president, because that was getting out of hand,” Trump added.

Trump’s 193 orders to date exceed the numbers for other recent presidents: Barack Obama published 147 executive orders in his first term, George W. Bush 171 and Bill Clinton 128. But presidential scholars said the most notable difference is Trump’s eagerness to embrace a tool that most presidents have treated more as a last resort — stretching the boundaries of executive authority in ways likely to outlast him, whether through policies that endure or greater leeway for future presidents to deploy executive power.

“I think he likes the phrase ‘executive order,’ ” said Bowdoin College political science professor Andrew Rudalevige, who along with three other academics has compared Trump’s use of the tool to other recent presidents’.

“It’s better to ‘order’ something rather than ‘memoranda’ something or ‘guidance’ something,” Rudalevige said, noting that the Trump White House brands routine statements as executive orders, apparently for theatrical and political effect. “He sure likes having something to sign and hold up” for news cameras.

Trump’s orders follow the broad pattern of recent predecessors who have used the power chiefly to address matters of government organization and operations, foreign policy, defense and national security, the analysis by Rudalevige and his colleagues found.

But Trump’s orders stand out in both style and substance. Their populist flair, showmanship and hyperbole echo the president’s public speaking style, and recent orders have come with lengthy, sometimes first-person preambles boasting of Trump’s accomplishments in office.

“The end goal of these does not always seem to be the specific policy goal these orders are crafted around, but instead are a way of giving the president a thing he can point to as a thing he has done. Something affirmative,” said Liz Hempowicz, public policy director at the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight.

Despite facing numerous court challenges, beginning with the entry ban, Trump has also successfully expanded presidential power in part by classifying immigration and some environmental and other issues as matters of national security.

“He’s really pushed the envelope on what a president can do. In some cases that has been a successful means of expanding the power of the office, and in other cases he’s been slapped around by the courts a little bit,” said John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution.

Trump appears untroubled by a concern among some previous presidents about overuse or misuse of executive orders, held “because of an understanding of the office and that losing in court can weaken the presidency,” Hudak said.

The White House says Trump has used his executive powers on behalf of the country.

“While President Trump prefers to work with Congress to deliver results for the American people, as he did to pass historic criminal justice reform through the First Step Act, momentous tax cuts through the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, and coronavirus relief through the Cares Act; he has also achieved more than any president in history by frequently utilizing his executive authority when Congress has played politics instead of doing what’s right for the American people,” deputy press secretary Judd Deere said in a statement.

Deere added: “President Trump has signed executive orders to reinvigorate our space program, expedite critical infrastructure projects across the country, promote agricultural prosperity, reduce regulations on affordable housing, confront online censorship and suppression of free speech, mobilize American manufacturing to produce necessary medical supplies during a global pandemic, end surprise billing for health-care expenses, lower the price of insulin and prescription drugs, encourage buy-American and hire-American practices, and implement hundreds of other actions to improve the lives of all Americans.”

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has pointed to several areas, including on immigration policy, where he promises to undo or revise Trump’s actions if he wins next week. Some of those revisions would be likely to use executive orders.

“Vice President Biden will take immediate action — through legislation and executive action — on a host of issues,” Biden campaign press secretary T.J. Ducklo said.

Trump’s pace of executive orders has accelerated this year, partly in response to the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 225,000 Americans, with 56 orders issued through last week. The only president of modern times who has exceeded Trump in the use of such orders was Ronald Reagan, who issued 211 during his first term nearly four decades ago.

Trump also revoked more executive orders in his first year than Obama, but fewer than Bush, Clinton or Reagan, the analysis by Rudalevige and others concluded.

Executive orders and related forms of presidential directives address government operations. They are issued independent of Congress, offering a president stymied by the legislature or choosing to move faster than the speed of lawmaking a way to get things done.

Their use or overuse has been controversial for decades, with both political parties at times decrying the rise of an “imperial presidency” that aggregates power to the executive at the expense of Congress or the courts. The other branches of government can each be a check on executive action, with courts able to strike down orders and Congress able to pass laws that make a given order impossible to enforce. Only a president can revoke an order.

Conservatives, including Attorney General William P. Barr, have argued that presidents have been denied the full measure of their constitutional authority, and some have looked to executive orders as a way to project the power of a strong executive branch.

Heritage Foundation vice president James Carafano, a conservative foreign policy expert with ties to the Trump White House, said criticism of executive orders as an arrogation of power misses the point. Presidents have always had power to issue unilateral directives to the government but may not have labeled their actions as executive orders, he said.

“There’s this mythology that’s grown up around executive orders,” including an expectation that a new president will have a batch ready to go on Day 1, Carafano said.

“Obama did some of that, and Trump took it to a new level,” Carafano said. “It’s not that presidents are becoming more activist, but — I hate to say this — it’s kind of a PR thing. The power of the presidency is exactly the same.”

Trump’s approach to the power is an implicit rejection of the view that executive orders are a president’s last resort or a sign of weakness because the desired policy outcome could not be achieved through legislation.

In his second term, Obama began saying “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone,” as an answer to why he used such orders in response to a deadlocked Congress. Among his most far-reaching actions were a group of orders protecting undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, known as “dreamers,” from deportation. The Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration from ending the program earlier this year.

As a candidate in 2016, Trump had criticized Obama for taking “the easy way out,” and said if elected he wanted “to do away with executive orders for the most part.”

But Trump opted for executive actions from the very start of his presidency, when he enjoyed a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, and hasn’t looked back.

In January 2017, scenes of sorrow and chaos ensued around the world as travelers, airlines, diplomats, federal agents and lawyers tried to make sense of Trump’s executive action against migrants and U.S. legal residents from Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Libya and Yemen, and to refugees from around the world. The list of countries would later shift with changes under court challenges.

“For people who follow executive orders, the thing that was immediately obvious was that this order was not really very — well, let’s say it didn’t show the kind of careful drafting that has been typical” for White House issuances meant to stand up in court, said John Woolley, professor emeritus at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who co-directs a project that catalogues presidential orders.

But, he added, “it was a bold, dramatic stroke implementing a kind of campaign promise. That’s not an indicator of somebody who’s really trying to achieve consequences. It’s symbolism, and I think a lot of Trump’s ordering has that kind of symbolic quality to it.”

The approach has become almost reflexive, Woolley and other experts said.

A two-page ‘race’ memo became an issue in the first presidential debate

Trump’s orders have ranged from banal to brazen, on such matters as creating a National Space Council in 2017 and “Advancing American Kidney Health” in 2019.

One directive earlier this month called for a report and recommendations “to support integrated planning and coordination among agencies to maintain and modernize our Nation’s water infrastructure, including for drinking water, desalination, water reuse, wastewater, irrigation, flood control, transportation on our rivers and inland waterways, and water storage and conveyance.”

That one did not arrive with the fanfare of a Sept. 24 order bearing the misleading title “An America-First Heathcare Plan.” The order was not the comprehensive health-care plan Trump has repeatedly promised and failed to deliver, but he made a show of signing the document during an event in North Carolina, a 2020 swing state. He sat at a plain wooden desk that looked much too small for his frame, then held up the signed order for the cameras.

In another recent example, The Washington Post reported in September that Trump had issued a verbal directive after watching a Fox News report about diversity training in the federal government, which he labeled “crap.” Training sessions were ordered halted, but the White House had to issue further clarifications amid weeks of confusion.

In many cases, the president has used his reversals as rallying cries to his political base or to appeal to the wider Republican preference for rolling back regulations.

Speaking Sunday in Maine, Trump celebrated his proclamation in June opening the Atlantic Ocean’s only fully protected marine sanctuary to commercial fishing. The move lifted 2016 restrictions imposed by the Obama administration on nearly 5,000 square miles of ocean to save whales and allow marine life to recover from overfishing.

“So I don’t know if you know, they took 5,000 square — they called it a monument. You know who it was a monument to? Your last president. And I got rid of it,” Trump said. “I did it through an executive order. I freed it up, so now you can have that — all of that tremendous ocean back.”