Frustrated with his inability to spur Congress to act on much of his agenda, President Trump is increasingly using his executive powers in a risky bid to gain leverage with lawmakers on an array of unfulfilled campaign promises.
Following his announcement that he is cutting off health-care subsidies key to the Affordable Care Act, Trump voiced hope that the move would force Democrats to join him in his stymied effort to pass a health-care overhaul in the Republican-led Congress.
After proclaiming the end of a popular program that shields young undocumented immigrants from deportation, Trump offered to continue it — but only if lawmakers move on several of his stalled priorities in return, including funding a U.S.-Mexico border wall that was central to his campaign.
And on Friday, Trump disavowed the international nuclear deal with Iran but held out the possibility of keeping the United States in the pact if Congress attaches new conditions to a deal that he continually derided as a candidate.
The strategy has been cheered by many of the president’s core supporters, who view it as Trump making good on his pledge to be a disruptive force in Washington while dismantling the legacy of former president Barack Obama.
“Any time he can be viewed as a strong, disruptive force, hitting D.C. with a wrecking ball, his core base of supporters love it,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican consultant close to the White House.
But such political hostage-taking carries considerable risk, particularly given the paralysis that has gripped Congress in the first nine months of the Trump presidency and the real possibility that the “deals” Trump is seeking won’t materialize. Hanging in the balance now are the ability of millions of Americans — including many of Trump’s working-class supporters — to afford health insurance, the fate of hundreds of thousands of “dreamers” who could face deportation, and the international standing of the United States.
“There’s nothing clever about creating a crisis and hoping Congress responds when the American public is in the crosshairs,” said Cecilia Muñoz, a longtime immigrant rights advocate who served as Obama’s White House domestic policy adviser.
Trump’s critics also accuse him of hypocrisy for employing executive orders and other actions at a time when his agenda is stalled in Congress. Trump and other Republicans excoriated Obama for similar tactics, calling him an “emperor” and a “monarch,” particularly during the latter part of his presidency, when he faced a hostile GOP Congress.
In Trump’s case, he is acting on his own even as his party controls the House and Senate. And Trump is now on pace to sign more executive orders than any president in the past 50 years — although some of those actions, particularly early in his term, had limited impact.
Trump's use of executive power to upend the status quo has extended to other areas, including an attempt to renegotiate NAFTA, which was underscored by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's visit to the White House last week. Trump's administration also announced a proposed rule that would repeal regulations aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. power plants.
Trump aides acknowledge that some of his recent actions are due to his frustration with Congress, which the president has made no effort to hide on Twitter and in public appearances. And they defend his frequent use of executive orders as necessary to undo actions by Obama they consider unconstitutional or otherwise legally problematic.
“The president campaigned on a bold agenda, and Congress’s inaction won’t stop the administration’s tireless efforts to boost the economy, improve health care and protect the American people,” said White House principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah.
Supporters outside Washington say the moves show a president unwilling to take no for an answer as he attempts to make good on his campaign promises.
“The president is doing what he said he’s going to do,” said Terry Lathan, chairman of the Republican Party of Alabama. “He’s not a man to sit back and wait when told not to do something. That’s not how he’s wired. It’s one of the reasons he got elected. He will not let barriers stand in his way. He’ll go over, under, around it to get something done.”
But Trump’s critics expressed dismay that he has tried to upend many of Obama’s initiatives without a clear strategy of how to move forward to protect some of the country’s most vulnerable populations, which already are being harmed.
“What he’s done on health care is nothing short of sabotage,” Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) said. “Millions of Americans are paying a price for his egocentric behavior, for his narcissistic behavior.”
Malloy argued that Trump seemed motivated more by undoing Obama’s legacy than by advancing any coherent policy aims of his own. “If he had followed Lincoln, he’d have tried to reinstate slavery,” said Malloy, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association.
Trump announced Thursday that he was ending insurer subsidies that have been used to lower costs for those who purchase insurance on the individual market under Obamacare. A nonpartisan congressional analysis has suggested that the move could lead to a 20 percent increase in premiums next year.
Trump, who defended the move as ending a giveaway for insurance companies, voiced hope that it would prompt Democrats to work with him. Previous attempts to pass a health-care bill with only Republican votes have repeatedly failed.
“What would be nice is if the Democratic leaders could come over to the White House,” Trump said Friday. “We’ll negotiate some deal that’s good for everybody. That’s what I’d like. But they’re always a bloc vote against everything. They’re like obstructionists. If they came over, maybe we could make a deal.”
Some analysts see that prospect as remote, however.
“If he thinks this is going to bring Democrats to the table, I think he’s sadly mistaken,” said Jim Manley, a longtime aide to former Senate minority leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). “I can’t imagine Democrats are going to reward such bad behavior by trying to cut a deal with him.”
The president’s allies, meanwhile, were already championing his action as delivering results.
"President Trump is already the most effective deregulation president in American history," Lara Trump, the president's daughter-in-law, said Friday on a weekly online show sponsored by the president's campaign, citing a claim by former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
Trump announced last month that he would end the Obama-era program to shield from deportation hundreds of thousands of immigrants, known as dreamers, who were brought into the country illegally as children. Trump offered a six-month delay until the dreamers begin to lose their work permits in March, suggesting that it is up to Congress to forge a legislative solution.
In the meantime, the Trump administration this month issued hard-line immigration principles opposed by Democrats that are likely to make a deal on Capitol Hill more difficult. The administration’s wish list includes the funding of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, a crackdown on the influx of Central American minors and curbs on federal grants to “sanctuary cities.”
Already, more than 30,000 dreamers failed to meet a Trump-imposed deadline earlier this month to renew their status in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, according to the Department of Homeland Security, meaning they could be exposed to enforcement actions, including deportation.
“That is quantifiable harm. This is not a game,” Muñoz said.
Muñoz recalled the budget battles on Capitol Hill in 2013 when lawmakers threatened to impose mandatory across-the-board spending cuts in hopes of a better budget deal — only to get stuck with the sequestration budget after failing to do so.
Others said Trump's actions are creating unnecessary chaos and risk beyond the United States, pointing to his decisions to pull the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accord, as well as the Iran nuclear deal.
Trump boosters say those actions are consistent with the “America First” vision he articulated on the campaign trail. But supporters of those agreements argue that Trump is risking U.S. credibility, making future deals more difficult as foreign capitals have less confidence that the administration is a reliable partner.
“He’s created great uncertainty, particularly on national security, about where we’re headed,” said Wendy Sherman, the former undersecretary of state for political affairs, who was particularly critical of Trump’s actions on Iran.
Trump on Friday asked Congress to attach new caveats that could either alter the pact or lead to its rupture. Sounding frustrated and angry, Trump also threatened to unilaterally withdraw from the seven-nation accord if his concerns are not met.
Simon Rosenberg, founder of NDN, a liberal think tank in Washington, said what Trump has done is “a blow to the global order that our country built and a sign he’s untrustworthy.”
“Republicans will say he’s just honoring campaign promises, but history will not judge Donald Trump on kept promises, but on whether he left America a stronger country,” said Rosenberg. “He might be keeping his promises, but he’s weakening the United States.”