At 4.42 p.m. on January 27, 2017 in the White House, US President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order to halt all refugee admissions and temporarily ban people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.
The decision was not only met with widespread anger across the country but also drew international condemnation. Tens of thousands of people protested outside the gates of the White House, in Boston’s Copley Square and in New York’s Battery Park while e-activists similarly expressed dismay on social media sites including Facebook and Twitter; even posting a record number of comments in reaction to a New York Times article on the so called ‘travel ban’, in the process.
But, I hear you asking, before attempting to dissect the news: what is an executive order, who grants him this power, and where is Congress in all this? The term ‘executive order’ has been bandied around by mainstream media outlets ever since Trump’s inauguration with an assumption that we all know what it is, forgetting and failing to appreciate that some of us do in fact exist outside the political circus, that some of us are not privy to this type of political terminology. So, we are in need of some clarification.
Basically, an executive order is an official statement from the president about how the federal agencies he oversees are to use their resources; directives which carry the full force of law yet don’t require congressional approval. Paul Begala, former advisor to President Clinton in 1998, summed up executive orders as follows: ‘Stroke of the pen. Law of the Land. Kinda cool’.
Though we’ve now grasped an understanding of the term itself, we also need to look at the origin and source of such power — its roots. You may be thinking that Mr Trump is somehow an exception to the rule. In fact, he is playing by the rules, and is perfectly within his right to exercise such executive privilege, permitted by article II of the US Constitution which states that: ‘executive power shall be vested in a president of the United States of America‘.
We still need to go one step further though in our understanding of executive orders, by considering the varying circumstances that they are used in. Perhaps a president may face an unsympathetic, uncompromising, partisan Congress which will not budge. In reaction to a similar political climate during both his terms in office, President Obama stated that: ‘If they’re not going to do anything, we’ll do what we can on our own’. Acting on these words, Obama used an executive order in 2014 to shield specific groups from deportation through the Immigration and Nationality Act. Nonetheless, most commonly, Congress passes a law and then charges federal agencies with the responsibility of deciding on its implementation. Hence the nitty-gritty aspects of a specific bill are left open with a certain air of vagueness, in turn, enabling a president to issue an executive order to fill in the blanks.
So why doesn’t Congress be more specific you ask? Well, as an institution notorious for indecisiveness and gridlock, Capitol Hill accedes some discretion to the executive branch purely on grounds of efficiency. However, in the case of Mr Trump, who has a Republican majority in both Houses of Congress and whose administration is currently experiencing its so-called ‘honeymoon period’, one would presume that the issuing of six executive orders in his first seven days was unnecessary, considering his position of strength. So, why did he?
Put simply, Mr Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign turned the tables upside down on ‘politics as usual’. By running and railing against ‘all talk, no action‘ establishment politicians, he offered a beacon of hope for the marginalized and disillusioned in society, even amidst the controversy that consistently surrounded him. Therefore, the opportunity for Trump to ‘hit the ground running‘ by boldly issuing multiple executive orders in his first days in office, was done as a signal of intent, a signal of an administration that wants to act, and walk the walk, as opposed to just talking it. To back-up his rhetoric, he’s rapidly gone about fulfilling his promise to erase ‘every unconstitutional executive order issued by President Obama’. However, Trump needs to err on the side of caution when utilising executive orders if he seriously intends to create a lasting political legacy. Just as he can repeal his predecessor’s executive orders, his successor can as easily do the same to his.