Just weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency, you would think that everything had changed. The uproar over the president’s tweets grows louder by the day, as does concern over the erratic, haphazard and aggressive stance of the White House toward critics and those with different policy views. On Sunday, White House aide Stephen Miller bragged, “We have a president who has done more in three weeks than most presidents have done in an entire administration.”
But Miller was dead wrong about this. There is a wide gap, a chasm even, between what the administration has said and what it has done. There have been 45 executive orders or presidential memoranda signed, which may seem like a lot but lags President Barack Obama’s pace. More crucially, with the notable exception of the travel ban, almost none of these orders have mandated much action or clear change of current regulations. So far, Trump has behaved exactly like he has throughout his previous career: He has generated intense attention and sold himself as a man of action while doing little other than promote an image of himself as someone who gets things done.
It is the illusion of a presidency, not the real thing.
The key problem here is understanding Trump’s executive orders and presidential memoranda. Trump very quickly seized on the signing of these as media opportunities, and each new order and memo has been staged and announced as dramatic steps to alter the course of the country. Not accustomed to presidents whose words mean little when it comes to actual policy, opponents have seized on these as proof that Trump represents a malign force, while supporters have pointed to these as proof that Trump is actually fulfilling his campaign promises.
Neither is correct. The official documents have all the patina of “big deals” but when parsed and examined turn out to be far, far less than they appear. Take the order authorizing the construction of a border wall between the United States and Mexico. The relevant section of the January 25 order read:
It is the policy of the executive branch to … secure the southern border of the United States through the immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border, monitored and supported by adequate personnel so as to prevent illegal immigration, drug and human trafficking, and acts of terrorism.
That sounds indeed like an order to fulfill a controversial campaign promise. The problem? Congress initially passed a Secure Fence Act in 2006 that required the construction of nearly 700 miles of fortified border. By 2011, under the Obama administration, most of that was completed, with a mix of pedestrian fencing and vehicle fortifications. Since then, there has only been minimal funding for further fortifications.
The result is that Trump issued an executive order mandating something that has in many respects already been done—with no congressional funding yet to redo the current fortified border with a larger, more expensive structure. The president does not have the budgetary discretion to build such a wall, and it remains to be seen whether Congress will authorize what promises to be a controversial and redundant project. This executive order, therefore, changes nothing, and only mandates something that has already been mandated, already been constructed and that the president lacks the spending authority to upgrade.
Then take things like the Keystone pipeline permits, the promise to deregulate and the most recently signed orders about crime. The January 24 order on infrastructure begins with a sentiment almost anyone could agree with: “Infrastructure investment strengthens our economic platform, makes America more competitive, creates millions of jobs, increases wages for American workers, and reduces the costs of goods and services for American families and consumers. Too often, infrastructure projects in the United States have been routinely and excessively delayed by agency processes and procedures.” It then declares that the policy of the Executive Branch is to expedite the permitting of such projects. That was followed by two memoranda on the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines that had been denied permits during Obama’s tenure, which urges the companies to re-submit their permit applications for review.
That might seem like an order to have the pipelines built. But Keystone remains almost entirely an idea, and oil shipments and infrastructure from Canada have long since been routed elsewhere given the years and years of delay in ever authorizing it. The Dakota Access Pipeline is largely complete, with a major dispute over its passage through tribal lands, and here too, it is unlikely that a presidential memorandum has any legal bearing on how that issue is resolved given that it lies within the purview of the Army Corps of Engineers and cannot simply be countermanded by the White House.
Or take the orders of deregulation. Those were widely hailed as a rollback of Dodd-Frank, especially given that the morning that the order was issued, February 3, Trump met with bank CEOs and expressed his dislike for many of the legislation’s provisions. The actual order, however, delivers much less than it promises, merely directing the secretary of the Treasury to review existing regulations and report back on which ones might be refined to achieve better outcomes.
Or the crime orders signed on February 9, which were widely hailed as cracking down on “transnational criminal organizations” and “preventing violence against … law enforcement officers.” Nothing in the text of these orders is either objectionable or in any respect a departure from current law and policy. One order states plainly that it shall be the policy of the administration to “enforce all Federal laws in order to enhance the protection and safety of Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement officers, and thereby all Americans.” The other says that the administration will seek to use existing laws to crack down on trafficking. You would have known none of that from the headlines both supporting and denouncing the efforts. Breitbart claimed “Trump Signs Three Executive Orders to Restore Safety in America” while many took these orders as a sign that police will have new, expanded powers and protections. In truth, the orders changed the status quo not one whit.
On it goes: The recent crackdown on undocumented immigrants that followed Trump’s January 25 order on enforcement priorities may depart from Barack Obama’s post-2102 policies to de-emphasize deportation of undocumented immigrants who do not have criminal records, but it appears fully consistent with deportation actions during both Obama’s first term and during significant portions of George W. Bush’s administration. The orders on health care, on defeating ISIS, on rebuilding the armed forces—all were essentially statements of intent with no legal force and requiring no action except a mandate to relevant departments and agencies to study issues and report back.
The travel ban, of course, is different. It was an actual policy order that dramatically changed immigration and visa policies for seven Muslim-majority countries. It was swiftly rejected by the courts, however, which meant that the signature policy of the Trump administration is now not a policy at all—at least, unless and until the White House finds a different approach.
Yes, what the president says matters. Trump’s casual relationship with the truth and his carefree use of tweets set the public agenda and help determine how foreign countries relate to our government. Intent also matters, and clearly, the Trump administration is determined to do a variety of things—from border security to health care to trade to immigration—that many, many Americans find objectionable, wrong and against the best interests of the country.
And yet, words are not the same as actions. Trump can issue as many documents called executive orders and presidential memoranda as he wants. As the fate of the travel ban shows, however, that doesn’t mean that even the more meaningful ones are actionable, and the preponderance of the orders to date would in any other administration have been news releases stating broad policy goals that may or may not ever become actual policy.
But too many of us take these words as action. That confirms both the worst fears of what the Trump administration is and the greatest hopes of what Trump wants it to be: a White House that shoots first and asks question later, a White House of action and change that shakes the status quo to the core and charts a new path for America and Americans. To date, this White House has broken every convention and rule of tone and attitude, toward Washington and toward the truth. But in reality, it has done far less than most people think.
In the time ahead, as Congress turns to actual legislation and the White House presumably does normal things like propose a budget and specify its legislative ideas, there will be real actions for us to probe and debate. Distinguishing between words and action is essential: When senators say silly things about legislation, we know to separate those public statements from votes takes and laws passed. When leaders of other countries speak aggressively, we do not immediately act as if war is imminent; if that were the case, we’d have invaded Iran and North Korea years ago. Words should be taken as possible indicators of future action, but not as absolutes and not always.
Trump poses a challenge to decades of tradition and precedent. He is masterful as conflating words and actions in a way that enrages and alarms his opponents and exhilarates and excites his supporters. It’s more important than ever to distinguish what is from what isn’t. Understanding the difference between what this president says and what he does is one of the only things that will keep our public debate from plunging ever deeper into the hall of mirrors.