Since taking office three weeks ago, Donald Trump hasn't spent much time signing bills into law, at least not yet, but he's been quite aggressive with executive orders, actions, and directives. Some, such as his controversial Muslim ban, have had an enormous policy impact, affecting thousands of people.Others, however, appear almost meaningless. The New York Times reported yesterday on the latest batch from the Oval Office.
At an Oval Office ceremony for the swearing in of Jeff Sessions as attorney general, President Trump announced that he was also going to sign three executive orders "designed to restore safety in America," to "break the back" of cartels and "stop as of today" violence against the police. [...][A]bout 45 minutes later, when the White House released the actual text of the three orders, they turned out to contain few specific policy steps.
One of the orders noted Trump's disapproval of international criminal cartels. The other two ordered the attorney general's office to look for ways to reduce crime rates (which the president continues to describe in demonstrably wrong ways).In other words, Trump put on a little show in the White House, with leather-bound documents and a well-covered signing ceremony, to sign executive directives that don't actually do anything, other than send rhetorical signals about the new administration's priorities.Or put another way, we're talking about glorified press releases. These actions may help pave the way for future actions -- I'd expect Republicans to take up some kind of "Blue Lives Matter" legislation in this Congress -- but that doesn't mean the orders themselves carry real policy weight.Yesterday's batch of orders weren't the first to have limited practical meaning. Trump's order on ISIS, for example, amounted to little more than asking his team to come up with some kind of plan for him. The president didn't really need to issue a presidential directive for that -- because as Commander in Chief, he could've just given an order.Similarly, Trump issued an executive order on "rebuilding" the military, which ultimately just expressed his affinity for the idea of building new weapons of war. He signed another order killing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was already dead.My point is not that all of Trump's executive actions have been meaningless. On the contrary, the Muslim ban is incredibly important, and his reinstatement of the Mexico City policy will do real harm to many lives around the world. The order restructuring the National Security Council also sent shockwaves through the government for good reason.But while the president likes to argue that each of his orders is a "big" deal, USA Today examined the 26 executive actions Trump has taken thus far, and found most "have been rather mundane.""Trump's executive orders, many of them, don't go very far substantively," Mark Rozell, the dean of the government school at George Mason University, told USA Today. "But the way they're being presented showcases that he's doing something very dramatic, very significant."Trump apparently likes the theatrical elements of the presidency. He loves putting on a little show, creating drama, and giving the impression that he's doing important work.But take a look at the fine print.Postscript: The Washington Post recently published a good piece explaining what an executive order is. For those who might need a refresher, I found it helpful.