WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump plans to take executive action on a nearly daily basis for a month to unravel his predecessor’s legacy and begin enacting his own agenda, his aides say, part of an extended exercise of presidential power to quickly make good on his campaign promises.
But in a reflection of the improvisational style that helped fuel his rise, he has made few, if any, firm decisions about which orders he wants to make, or in which order. That is a striking break from past presidents, who have entered office with detailed plans for rolling out a series of executive actions that set a tone for their presidencies and send a clear message about their agendas.
It was clear that Trump had devised no such strategy by his first day in office, as advisers expressed doubt until the last moments about whether he would issue any directives Friday. “It’s going to be a gameday decision,” Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, told reporters that afternoon.
Then, at about 7 p.m., reporters were suddenly summoned to the Oval Office. After sprinting from the briefing room, they watched Trump sign a directive to federal agencies to begin scaling back parts of the Affordable Care Act.
“There are a number that are being looked at, but it’s just a question of which ones he feels like doing, and when,” Spicer had said of executive orders earlier Friday. In recent days, he had said Trump’s top aides were still deciding on the “sequencing” of the unilateral actions.
Still, there is little doubt about the policy areas in Trump’s sights: international trade deals, illegal immigration, the fight against the Islamic State, climate change and Washington lobbying.
In his first half-day in office, Trump focused on health care, ordering the machinery of government to look for every opportunity to pull back on President Barack Obama’s signature achievement by waiving fees or granting exemptions to states, businesses, individuals and insurance companies. He also moved quickly to freeze the Obama administration’s unfinished regulations, a routine step for an incoming president of the opposite party.
During the campaign, Trump railed against Obama’s use of executive authority to sidestep an uncooperative Congress on issues such as immigration and health care. After his victory, Trump vowed to use those same powers to quickly reverse the country’s ideological course.
Aides said they hoped to group Trump’s executive actions thematically for maximum impact. They gave few other details, though some advisers suggested that executive actions on illegal immigration could be among the first issued after the inaugural weekend.
Advocates for undocumented workers are anxiously waiting to see what Trump will do.
If he moves aggressively, he could immediately overturn Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA — the program Obama created to protect young immigrants who were brought illegally to the United States as children, giving them legal status and access to work permits. Ending that program would put as many as 800,000 of them at risk of being removed from their families and sent to the countries they had left as children.
The White House could instead unwind the program slowly, giving the young people, often called Dreamers, more time before their immigration protections and work permits expire. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Friday that in a brief conversation with the new president, Trump had given him assurances about the program.
The president, Durbin said, told him that “we don’t want to hurt those kids; we’re going to do something.”
“Thank goodness he said that,” the senator added.
The president could also order federal agents to conduct workplace raids to crack down on immigration violations. He could take action against sanctuary cities, those that shield undocumented immigrants from deportation. Or he could issue an order reinstating a program known as Secure Communities, in which the local authorities cooperated with federal agencies to detect and deport undocumented migrants.
And he could order work to begin, at least symbolically, on a wall at the southern border. Financing construction of the entire wall would require congressional action, however. But on the border wall and other promises, Trump now faces the challenge of translating slogans into action. He has already missed the deadline for a vow he made in August to start deporting undocumented migrants with criminal records on his first day in office.
“We will begin moving them out, Day 1,” he said during a rally in Phoenix. “My first hour in office, those people are gone.”
Trump’s approach to using his newly minted executive power mirrors his often chaotic transition to the White House.
The stop-and-start nature of the new president’s first 24 hours reflected his management style, both in his business empire and in the campaign, which went through four shake-ups as aides fell into and out of favor. His travel schedule was rarely planned out more than a few days in advance, and Trump did not hesitate to tear it apart when he wanted to. Decisions would be telegraphed by top advisers, only to be pulled back within hours, or never formally announced.
The lack of planning stands in stark contrast to the approaches of past presidents, who have sought to demonstrate the change in direction they hope to lead and maximize the effectiveness of their unilateral actions.
President Ronald Reagan retreated to the President’s Room just off the Senate floor only moments after being sworn in and signed an order freezing federal hiring, echoing the declaration in his inaugural address that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Obama also decided well in advance which executive actions he wanted to take in his first days, after a team of lawyers led by Greg Craig, his first White House counsel, spent much of his transition planning what he could do without Congress to illustrate a stark break with George W. Bush’s presidency.
On his second full day in office, Obama ordered the closing of the Guantánamo Bay prison — a directive still unfulfilled — and banned torture by mandating that terrorism interrogations be guided by the Army Field Manual.
Obama’s embrace of executive orders — early in the administration and later, when a Republican-controlled Congress blocked his legislative agenda — may have helped pave the way for Trump to take quick action. Since many of Obama’s achievements were put in place with executive action, Trump can reverse them, at least over time, the same way.