Whenever President Donald Trump signs an executive action, he mugs to the throng of cameras and acts as if he has just radically changed the shape of the nation. But in reality, most of Trump's executive orders and memoranda merely form some sort of committee or ask for some agency to give Trump a report on the issues they claim to tackle months down the line. As Politico's Michael Grunwald put it in a review of Trump's executive actions, they're "essentially homework assignments issued on national television."
It's actually pretty common for presidents to call for studies or committees. Sometimes that's because they're new to the office and learning on the job; sometimes they're preparing big policy pushes. Yet experts I spoke to agree Trump has leaned on this common tactic especially hard—either because he's gearing up for some major initiatives, or because he's an ineffective showman more interested in pretending to do things than actually achieving his goals.
To be clear, Trump has issued some significant executive actions, including his travel ban and his bid to defund "sanctuary cities" (both of which are currently held up in court). He's also made moves to stem the flow and force of regulations and cracked down on undocumented immigrants. But more often, the actions he signs generate more headlines than immediate effects. As of this writing, nearly a dozen of Trump's 58 combined orders and memoranda simply delegate duties away from the president, serve as cover letters to other actions, or make tiny administrative tweaks. And more than two dozen of Trump's orders and around a dozen of his memoranda have in part or in full focused on requesting studies and birthing committees.
Some seem to be indicators of future actions, like the order to review national monuments to see how much federal land could be open to commercial activity. Some, like the creation of a task force on crime fighting, are hopelessly vague. And some seem to double up on each other or on previous administrations' works, like Trump's new commission on America's opioid crisis.
These sorts of moves are far from uncommon. "Early in an administration, especially following a party change, there are going to be a bevy of issues for an administration to tackle," said Joshua Kennedy, an expert on presidential powers. "It makes some sense to commission these kinds of [reviews] to solicit recommendations about what changes might be possible" no matter who's in office at a point like that. That's especially true "with a president looking to make significant changes to the existing political order."
Additionally presidents pursue studies that overlap one another or their predecessors' works at times, according to Kennedy. New chief executives often want to maximize their control over the methodology used to create policy recommendations. They also often want to bring in multiple views on any given issue. Also, said Kennedy, "different actors want to have a voice in the process. The desire to accommodate all of them leads to repetitiveness."
Still, Trump's use of executive actions is striking and contradicts his scathing critiques of Barack Obama's use of them. Now, according to executive action scholar Andrew Rudalegive, "Trump is clearly using formal [actions] when other presidents might have used a less formal letter, even a phone call, to get the same result."
Some of this might have something to do with his campaign's lack of focus on developing a hard policy agenda and calendar before taking office. "I continue to believe that the election outcome was so unexpected to everyone involved that they've since had to scramble to actually come up with things to do," speculated Kennedy. Rudalevige suggested that these commissions are probably necessary because "most key White House [officials on Trump's team] don't have experience in working with or drafting complex regulatory change."
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At the same time, the administration hasn't turned the big issues of the campaign—the wall, infrastructure, even tax reform—into actual legislation. "Since none of [Trump's initial legislative promises] have even been drafted [into bills] by the White House," said Rudalevige, issuing orders and commissioning studies "provides an administrative placeholder of 'progress made' or 'promises kept.'"
Rudalevige also believes Trump has transformed the function of executive actions. In the past, internal federal bodies tried to limit their use to legal necessities and reined in the publicity and bombast around them. That has clearly changed. Rudalevige notes that Trump often loads the top of his actions with campaign-style messaging, which is new. Trump has also muddled the distinction between memoranda (a request to an agency to use their authority) and an order (a use of his own authority) to pump out more orders—possibly to seem like a uniquely productive president, Rudalevige argues. The president may feel compelled to churn out as many attention-grabbing orders as possible because if there's one thing Trump knows how to do, it's put his name on something.
Trump's flurry of reports and studies is the result of a mixture of circumstance, ambition, naiveté, and bluster. But no matter their roots, it's hard to tell what'll come from the dozens of commissions, reports, and reviews he's requested. Sometimes such things just get filed away in a cabinet, said presidential scholar Brandon Rottinghaus. Sometimes they become major policy guideposts that help shepherd keystone legislation into being. Trump's record is not great so far: The report on which cities do not cooperate with immigration officials, for example, was rough, full of errors, and widely criticized. And Rudalevige notes that the administration's chronic understaffing will make it hard for agencies to produce useful reports.
It's also hard for experts to tell whether Trump will continue ordering reviews. He could, Rottinghaus told me, develop internal structures that feed him policy plans with no need for reports. He could also attempt to use the reports to inform legislation. But legislation is hard, as Trump has learned, and this president already seems dismayed by his workload. "If Trump decides he has accrued the political benefits he wants from this sort of action, rather than from the actual substance of the reviews," said Rudalevige, "he might simply dispense with substance."
"Even if nothing happens" as a result of these reviews, Rottinghaus added, Trump "can say, 'Well the bureaucracy was against me and it's staffed by Obama-era apparatchiks and they're all out to get me.' [He] can go back and claim the outsider's mantle again, saying, 'Four years is not enough time to radically change Washington. You have to send [me] back for four more.'"
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