Does Trump Deserve Credit for Signing Directives?

We are now past the arbitrary “100 day” mark in the first term of President Trump’s administration. If you ask Mr. Trump, his advisors, or his supporters in Congress and elsewhere, they will tell you some of his chief accomplishments are signing a slew of directives (executive orders, memoranda, etc.) to make good on campaign promises.

For that reason, I think it is helpful to walk through them, to see if they warrant the label of “accomplishment.” To do that, I’m going to do something news organizations and the President will not do. I’m going to start by defining accomplishment, which I take to be a successful effort to change some status quo policy to the policy the President actually wants. To understand what the President wants, I (perhaps naively) take the President at his word. I read the stated purpose of the directive (or associated signing speech) and decide whether the directive actually did that.

Before getting into the particulars, here’s a summary. By my quick count (according to the Federal Register), Mr. Trump has issued 24 executive orders and 10 other directives (memoranda and national security directives) that are non-ceremonial and/or do things more important than providing orders of succession. Of those, by my count, it’s a stretch to say that more than 5 of those 34 directives count as “accomplishments.” Here they are:

  1. Mexico City Memo — halts foreign aid that funds abortion.
  2. TPP Memo — withdraws the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
  3. 13782  — revokes Obama-era equal pay and minimum wage rules for federal contractors.
  4. 13770 — imposes an ethics pledge on White House employees.
  5. 13766 — provides expedited White House review of infrastructure projects.

Reasons the others do not count as accomplishments vary. I list them below. The reasons are not mutually exclusive — nor do I take them to be exhaustive. However, they give a general picture of why counting directives is a silly way to measure accomplishment. Likewise, the fact that these cannot be considered “accomplishments” means they cannot also be considered “executive overreach” as political opponents of the President might be tempted to argue. The takeaway is that informed citizens should to be weary of anyone counting directives and claiming that as evidence of either claim. Think, don’t count.

Some give bureaucrats a lot of discretion. At the heart of every attempt for presidents to circumvent Congress are orders to bureaucrats. That is, instead of saying “do precisely this” — the order will describe some generic goal, or provide a vague mandate that will give bureaucrats a lot of leeway in deciding how to respond. That means that the final outcome is contingent on the decision-making of others. For example, EO 13788 orders department and agency heads to “hire” and “buy” American — subject to one big, discretionary caveat: if they determine it is in the national interest to do otherwise, they can issue a waiver. In effect, the order says “buy American, unless you don’t think that’s a good idea.” The following directives fit that description, by my coding:

Some aren’t policy changes, they’re reviews of existing policies. That is, many orders are not policy changes themselves, but instead, the beginning of some process that may (one day) lead to change. But, keep in mind, reviews like these happen all the time, and often lead to nothing. The following directives fit that description, by my coding:

Some have been stalled in Court. These will be well-known, as of this writing:

For some, it is too early to tell. Many of these directives depend on agency action. The administration has been tremendously slow to put key officials in place — but that does not mean they never will. So it is not yet appropriate to say they will never count as an accomplishment.

Finally, one (EO 13767) is effectively meaningless, absent congressional funding. This is the order that directs the government to begin construction of Trump’s proposed border wall, subject to available funding that does not appear to exist.

Thus, even the most generous accounting of these directives — one that assumes all the ones that might one day lead to some change but haven’t yet will — says only 19 (a little over half of those issued) can be called accomplishments. As I note above, that strains credulity. But nonetheless, in evaluations like these, it’s a helpful ceiling — whereas the 5 clear cut “accomplishments” provide a floor.

Finally, it is important to note the following. Similar think-pieces and assessments evaluating President Trump’s executive actions have appeared elsewhere. What is obvious, it seems to me, is that if the same level of scrutiny were applied to many other Presidents, the assessment above would not look all that different. What I mean by that is things that prevent these directives from being accomplishments mostly generalize to other presidencies.

It is, of course, hard to know exactly what differs. But, it is probably unlikely that other administrations would have so thoroughly mishandled the rollout of the immigration orders — so the “loss” rate in court might be abnormally high for the Trump Administration. Likewise, the Administration seems especially concerned with appearances — so prior administrations may not have bothered with some of the more substance-less orders.

Either way, the take away above is worth repeating. Republicans should stop pretending these orders are wins. Democrats stop claiming these orders are authoritarian decrees. The truth is far more complicated and (painfully) mundane — but that’s what governing is.

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