Love it or hate it, the use of executive actions (be it executive orders, proclamations, or memoranda) to dictate U.S. policy is here to stay, if Trump’s first month in office is any indication. Not counting periods of war, the use of executive actions has typically ebbed and flowed depending on a president’s relationship with Congress, but in general its use has grown in both scope and significance under the veil of “national security” since George W. Bush’s presidency, reaching levels unprecedented in the post-WWII era.

The idea that Trump too is an aggressive proponent of unilateral executive action may seem odd, if one were to look only at Trump’s statements prior to assuming the presidency. On July 10, 2012, Trump castigated Obama for his reliance on unilateral executive power, tweeting “Why is @BarackObama constantly issuing executive orders that are major power grabs of authority.” Trump frequently made similar comments on the campaign trail. In one instance, Trump criticized President Obama’s use of executive orders when it came to gun control, saying “Wouldn’t it be nice if [President Obama] could get Congress together. And, you know, do it the old-fashioned way…[Obama] just wants to sign executive orders all the time…it’s no good, and it’s no fair.” Trump subsequently went on to say that he would regularly work with Congress and prioritize dealmaking as President.

Despite these previous assertions, however, Trump has begun his mandate not as a dealmaker but as a CEO, employing the same “pen and phone” strategy that Republicans and Trump himself have spent years criticizing President Obama for. According to Fox News, Trump has signed 24 executive actions in his first month, 12 of which have been executive orders, spanning everything from national security to the economy.

To be fair, this isn’t a substantial deviation from Trump’s two most immediate predecessors if we focus specifically on executive orders, which are the most reliable measure of unilateral executive action since they must be catalogued by law. President George W. Bush issued 7 executive orders and President Obama issued 16 executive orders in the first month of their first presidential terms, which puts Trump right in the middle. Merely focusing on the number of executive orders issued, however, misses much of the nuance. While Trump has issued fewer executive orders than Obama did during his first month in office, Trump’s executive orders are more significant in terms of policy implications, particularly because many deal with hot button issues. Out of Obama’s 16 executive orders, 5 merely established executive advisory councils (i.e. White House Office of Urban affairs and President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board) and another 4 addressed government contracting and federal employee rights. Even Obama’s executive orders with the greatest potential for policy disruption, orders 13491-13493 which ordered the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facilities in Cuba and reviewed the government’s lawful interrogation and detention procedures, had no immediate effect. At least four of Trump’s executive orders, on the other hand, have had immediate policy implications, specifically executive orders 13765 and 13767-13769, which waived the economic burden of ObamaCare and laid the groundwork for Trump’s immigration policy, respectively.

Obviously, being only one month into Trump’s presidency, this all has to be taken with a grain of salt. Trump may very well end up being a successor to Lyndon B. Johnson, who was renowned for his ability to compromise with Congress. The ability to get things passed through Congress and the use of executive actions are not mutually exclusive endeavors for a president, and they never have been. The frequency with which Trump continues to issue executive orders over the next two months will perhaps prove a more reliable indicator of the balance he will strike as president between dealmaking and executive power and of the extent to which his actions represent a departure from other recent administrations. For instance, neither George W. Bush nor Obama maintained the same pace of issuing executive orders that they had in their first month in office for the remainder of their first 100 days (George W. Bush issued only 5 executive orders between March and April of his first year in office and Obama issued only 3).

When one takes a holistic look at the strategies and comments Trump has made as president, however, such as his labeling of the media as the “enemy of the American people” and judges that criticize his policies as “so-called judges,” his assertion that presidential power to control immigration and protect national security cannot be reviewed by any court, and his disdain for dissent within the executive branch, it seems likely that Trump will continually revert to his reliance on the bully pulpit and executive actions when he faces increased opposition from Congress or other setbacks to his agenda. In this sense, Trump’s presidency is positioned to not only be a continuation, but an extension of the recent expansion of executive power, with “national security” certain to remain its perennial justification.



  1. I can’t believe the amount of hypocrisy he exudes. Absolutely ridiculous, “it’s no good and it’s no fair.” Do you think he’s going to be a Nixon? Also, what’s up with Congress-they feel like a dead weight right now?


    • A couple of points: 1) In terms of Trump’s hypocrisy, to be fair, it’s worth noting that a similar pattern can be seen with past presidents. Many of them, including Obama, criticized the reliance on unilateral executive power on the campaign trail, but then changed tunes once they assumed office. 2) As you point out, I think more can be said about the hypocrisy shown by many members of Congress. It’s supposedly the “honeymoon period,” so I don’t think it should be expected that Trump encounters substantial resistance in Congress, particularly in a republican-majority one, any time soon. However, the fact that the same Republicans that criticized Obama’s use of executive orders have remained overwhelmingly silent, or even demonstrated tacit approval, of Trump’s executive actions is hypocritical. 3) The comparison to Nixon is something that’s been drawn a lot, and I think there’s something to it. I hope to more fully address that in my next takeaways entry, in which I will also draw a comparison between Trump and Andrew Jackson. It should be posted by Monday!


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