Many of the sweeping actions President Trump vowed this week through his executive orders and declarations are unlikely to happen, either because they are:
- Opposed by Congress;
- Opposed by members of his Cabinet;
- Full of legal holes.
The reality — that yawning gap between what Trump says he will do and what he actually can do — highlights his chaotic start, which includes executive actions drafted by close aides rather than experts and without input from the agencies tasked with implementing them.
“We’re taking the first steps to get it done, with the understanding that some of these things may be a process, but you have to begin the process and that’s what he’s doing — taking bold action and doing everything he can to make sure these things happen,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the principal deputy White House press secretary. “I have no doubt these things are going to happen.”
REALITY IS COMPLICATED
But the reality is far more complicated. On immigration, for instance, Trump’s call for a border wall paid for by Mexico first has to be funded by Congress. And the possibility that Mexico would pay for the wall — always a long shot — grew even more remote this week after Mexico’s president on Thursday canceled his planned visit to Washington to meet with Trump, citing disagreement over the wall. The White House said that one possible option would be to pay for the project with a border tax on Mexican imports.
WHO TO RENEGOTIATE WITH
On trade, Trump can withdraw from and renegotiate trade agreements, as he promised during the campaign. But there is no guarantee that he will have willing partners with whom to renegotiate better trade deals, and certainly not necessarily with better terms. And change will hardly be instantaneous: Under the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement, for example, the president or any other leaders must give six months’ notice of his or her intention to withdraw.
INVESTIGATION ON ILLEGAL VOTING
Trump has promised to order an investigation into his false claims that 3 to 5 million people voted illegally in November for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who beat Trump by nearly 3 million votes. But there is no evidence to support Trump’s claim, and although he has the authority to launch a fact-gathering investigation, it unlikely to unearth the massive election fraud he is asserting.
One national security executive order he is considering would allow the Central Intelligence Agency to reopen “black site” prisons abroad, as well as reconsider the agency’s now-shuttered enhanced interrogation program. But it does not have buy-in from Defense Secretary James Mattis or CIA Director Mike Pompeo, both of whom privately told lawmakers they were not consulted. Many lawmakers in both parties have also expressed strong opposition to the directive.
Trump, for example, said that only after a discussion with industry leaders this week did he realize that the nation’s pipelines are not necessarily made with U.S. steel. The epiphany scrambled aides to draft an executive order requiring that they be constructed with solely American-made materials. But specifying U.S.-made steel is a violation of the World Trade Organization agreement, except in cases of national security — which this is not.
Trump, however, does not seem to realize the limited power of his executive orders and has made public signing ceremonies a trademark of his first week.
“President Trump needs to go back to civics class because he can direct his employees to do various things, but he cannot repeal a bunch of laws through his executive orders because he needs congressional consent — and the executive orders themselves say that,” said Rena Steinzor, a professor at the University of Maryland’s law school.
“He can’t just sit there and show people pieces of paper with his overly emphatic signature and say, ‘I have changed the world,’ because that’s not how we do it,” she said.
AFFORDABLE CARE ACT
And although there is broad agreement among Republicans about the need to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act — a process Trump began with an executive order the day he was sworn in — there is far less harmony on exactly when and how to handle the issue. Trade, infrastructure, and tax restructuring have also exposed rifts in the party.
CAMPAIGNING VS GOVERNING
In many ways Trump is simply experiencing the stark difference between campaigning and governing, a riddle that has bedevilled nearly every incoming president, including Barack Obama.
David Axelrod, a former senior Obama adviser, pointed to Obama’s executive order his first week in office to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, noting that he faced stiff congressional opposition and never completed his pledge.
But Trump, he said, could face an even more difficult challenge, in part because he presented himself — rather than his policies — as the linchpin.
“The appeal he had as a candidate is that people clearly want someone to snap their fingers and just make something happen, and he saw that desire and played to that desire,” Axelrod said. “Now comes the reality and he’s going to be snapping in the dark.”
Axelrod added, “He campaigned as an autocrat and now he’s the president, and the president isn’t an autocrat — and he’s going to find that some of the things he wants to do are difficult.”
“It’s symbolic of greater security and greater control,” Ayres said. “If he gets part of a wall built and Congress has to pay for it, the response from his supporters will be, ‘Well, we didn’t get Mexico to pay for it but at least we got the wall.’ ”
And Judd Gregg, a former Republican governor and senator from New Hampshire, said that for Trump supporters, concrete changes may be beside the point, at least initially.
“They’re more interested in the verbal jockeying and the confrontational verbal approach than the results,” he said. “So as long as he’s poking a stick in the eye of the people his constituency feels are a problem, the rest won’t matter.”
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