When President Trump unveiled the 28th executive order of his presidency with great fanfare at a White House ceremony this week, he pledged that the days of the Education Department overstepping its legal authority were over.
“The time has come to empower parents and teachers to make the decisions that help their students achieve success,” Trump declared Wednesday afternoon.
Yet the text of the order itself is far more modest. It directs Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to conduct a review of regulations and modify them as she sees fit, a power that the administration acknowledges the secretary already had.
And the entire process is slated to take a whopping 300 days — ending in the second year of Trump’s term.
In the week ahead of Trump’s 100-day benchmark on Saturday, the White House has rushed to put more than half a dozen executive orders on the president’s desk, with the aim of bringing the total to 32.
Contrary to the administration’s assertions, that number is not a significant milestone for new presidents. What’s more, more than half of the 29 orders issued as of Thursday have merely called for reviews, have commissioned reports or established panels to issue recommendations. The documents lay out a dizzying schedule of 90-, 120- and 180-day increments for federal agencies to evaluate the feasibility of White House policy goals and report to the president.
They hardly represent the immediate action the president and his aides had heralded they would bring to Washington. But Trump has reveled in the symbolic speed and decisiveness they represent, even if his policy aims may not be realized for quite some time.
“It’s politics and symbolism,” said Doug Holtz-Eakin, a Republican economist and president of the American Action Forum, a conservative think tank. “ ‘If we’re going to do something in November, could we take credit for it now?’ ”
“It gives them two bites of the apple,” he added.
Warnings from conservatives during the Obama era about an imperial presidency have faded as Trump has taken the mantle of executive orders and made the sheer number he has signed a trademark of his first days in office. Among many aspects of the government that have been new to Trump, the executive order as a tool of unilateral governance has a familiar feel, allowing him to act almost in the way a business executive would.
The drama of the signing ceremonies has been particularly appealing to the White House at a time when Congress has been unable to move forward with significant legislation on health care, tax reform and other issues.
“It seems he’s frustrated, and he’s probably saying, ‘What can I do?’ and his advisers are saying, ‘You can issue executive orders,’ ” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University. “He’s trying to keep his base happy without giving them the action he promised. He’s showing executive activity without getting executive results.”
Even then there are real limits, of course. The courts have halted several of Trump’s orders, including his temporary ban on entry to the United States by citizens of six majority-Muslim countries and his directive to punish “sanctuary cities” for refusing to cooperate with immigration enforcement measures.
Several of the executive orders instruct federal agencies to “enforce all Federal laws” pertaining to a slew of issues, including enhancement of the safety of law enforcement officers, managing visas for high-skilled foreigners, and addressing drug and human trafficking. In many cases, the orders serve as a means for Trump to communicate with his own government about his priorities.
“Given that the Senate hasn’t moved forward with many of his nominations and he hasn’t put forward as many as the agencies would like, it’s an efficient way to communicate to the agencies if you don’t have anyone working there,” said Tom Fitton, president of the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch.
Some senior White House officials have acknowledged that the executive orders are intended in part to signal Trump’s priorities to his supporters.
“The purposes of the orders are to make clear what the president’s and the administration’s priorities are and to signify the importance of these issues to the American people,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said last week as he rolled out the executive order on reducing the burden of tax regulations.
White House aides say that many of Trump’s orders are designed to rein in executive power, rather than expand it. But even orders that eventually might result in the unwinding of regulations and other actions taken by previous administrations must first go through a process of review before anything is done.
Appearing at the Interior Department on Wednesday, Trump accused the Obama administration of an “egregious use of power” by using a national monuments designation to protect larger swaths of land than was justified.
“This is a big one,” Trump said.
But Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke noted at the event that the order itself “does not remove any monuments.”
Still, several of Trump’s orders have produced tangible results.
The Internal Revenue Service effectively ended its enforcement of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate after Trump’s first executive order directed the executive branch to do everything in its power to ease the regulatory burden of the law.
Conservatives also say that Trump’s executive order mandating the removal of two regulations for every one put in place has had a demonstrable effect.
And while the economic impact of some of Trump’s executive orders may not be direct, the White House and its allies say it has sent a message of confidence to businesses.
“We keep track of regulatory cost on a regular basis. There’s about a $7 billion difference between the total regulatory cost imposed in this administration and the previous two,” Holtz-Eakin said. “The business sector is going to notice that.”
Trump aides have also highlighted Trump’s use of the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress a limited window to repeal regulations put in place by the executive branch. Trump and GOP lawmakers have worked together to repeal more than a dozen such regulations issued in the waning days of the Obama administration. By contrast, Trump aides said, the law was used only once before by other presidents.
Typically, presidents resort to governance by executive order in response to divided government. With Trump, issuing executive orders became a strategy from the beginning even though the Republican Party holds the House, the Senate and the White House.
“Political scientists would probably have predicted that Trump would need to rely less on executive orders because he has full control of government,” said Daniel Gitterman, a professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “He doesn’t really have a working coalition in Congress.”
On Thursday, Trump signed an executive order creating an office at the Department of Veterans Affairs designed to clear a fast path to disciplining or firing poor performers or employees who are accused of misconduct, taking over an effort that had stalled in the Senate.
But the new office could duplicate similar efforts underway at the agency, and VA Secretary David Shulkin acknowledged that he needs “legislative help’’ to move quickly against wrongdoers, who right now have appeal rights and other due-process rights under civil service law.
“The legislative process is clearly taking much longer to pass key issues like health-care and tax reform, so promoting some executive orders that especially reverses Obama’s policies as a way to show supporters they are fulfilling some of Trump’s campaign promises makes sense,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist. “However, voters will want to see more results, and the pressure is clearly on Capitol Hill Republicans and the White House to get bills to the president’s desk for signature.”
After years of accusing then-President Barack Obama of executive overreach through executive orders and presidential memorandums, conservatives are less alarmed by what Trump has done.
But Fitton warned that Trump, like every president who governs by executive fiat, faces the possibility that his actions might be invalidated or reversed by the courts or his successor.
“If you want real policy change that goes beyond an administration, the best strategy is to go through the constitutional powers of the Congress,” Fitton said.
Lisa Rein and Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.