The process of making America great again will start with a bang.
Donald Trump reportedly told Fox News’s Andrew Napolitano that he plans to issue as many as 200 executive orders by the Monday after his inauguration. While plans are still somewhat up in the air, we have a pretty good idea from Trump’s prior public statements and plans, and the behavior of past Republican presidents, as to what they might be.
And even before he gets to those, Trump will have totally remade the White House staff in his image, installing a bevy of non-Senate-confirmable staffers to key positions overseeing national security, economic affairs, and the administration as a whole.
Some of Trump’s presidential initiatives will take a while to unfold. His Cabinet appointees won’t be confirmed right away, he’ll take time to pick judicial nominees, and any legislation he wants to push will have to move through Congress first.
But Trump will nonetheless be able to significantly change the country and the White House pretty much immediately upon taking office. Here are just a few hints as to how.
What Trump can do by executive order
Since Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee last spring, a team of advisers headed up by the Heritage Foundation’s Stephen Moore has been working on what they call the “First Day Project.”
“We want to identify maybe twenty-five executive orders that Trump could sign literally the first day in office,” Moore told the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos back in September.
Immigration: This is perhaps the area where Trump and his team have been most specific. Likely moves include an executive order “to direct the building of a wall on the southern border with Mexico,” and suspending the Syrian refugee admission program.
Trump has promised to rescind DACA, Obama's executive order protecting more than 700,000 undocumented immigrants who arrived as children. According to Reuters, “It is unlikely Trump's order will result in an immediate round-up of these immigrants. … Rather, he is expected to let the authorizations expire.” (The program issued two-year authorizations letting beneficiaries work and attend school). How exactly this will work might take a while to sort out — for one thing, it has implications for state driver’s licenses — delaying formal action by Trump.
DAPA, a similar program for undocumented parents of US citizens, hasn’t taken effect yet due to court action; it will likely be rescinded, or the administration might simply fail to defend it in court.
Trump has told reporters he’s interested in implementing his “Muslim ban” — since retooled into a ban on immigration from “terror-prone regions where vetting cannot safely occur,” and “extreme vetting” for all others — through an executive action, as soon as Monday. But like DACA, this is an area where the specifics are up in the air, which could delay an order.
Trade: Along with immigration, this is the point that Trump’s team has been clearest on. In October, Trump promised to use his first day in office to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with Asian and other Pacific nations, and to withdraw from or renegotiate the NAFTA deal with Canada and Mexico.
But his executive actions on trade likely won’t stop there. He has said he’ll instruct the Treasury Department to label China a currency manipulator — an action that does not do a lot on its own but that enables the administration to levy retaliatory tariffs against the country, which would then either be subject to World Trade Organization arbitration or spur yet more tariffs from China, sparking the beginning of a trade war.
The transition has stated that Wilbur Ross, the secretary of commerce nominee, will be the administration’s point person on trade issues, which makes sense given that the Department of Commerce has a lot of discretion in setting tariffs. In the October speech, Trump promised that upon taking office he would “direct the Secretary of Commerce and U.S. Trade Representative to identify all foreign trading abuses that unfairly impact American workers and direct them to use every tool under American and international law to end those abuses immediately.”
Those tools are real, and powerful. The Tariff Act of 1930 (also known, infamously, as the Smoot-Hawley act) is still on the books, though its tariffs have been massively reduced, and it gives the commerce secretary the authority to impose “countervailing duties” against countries offering subsidies to their exports and “anti-dumping” duties against countries flooding the market with cheap goods.
Some of these vehicles will take a while to be used, but every indication is that Trump and his administration intend to use them shortly after taking office.
Environment: The big-ticket environmental executive actions of the Obama area — including the Clean Power Plan and other greenhouse gas regulations — are certainly in danger in the Trump era, but they will take a while to attack.
Environmental Protection Agency rules that have already been finalized, like the Clean Power Plan, require a lengthy review and rulemaking process to change, as Harvard’s Jody Freeman explained to Vox’s Brad Plumer last month. On day one, the EPA could ask the DC Circuit Court, which is reviewing the Clean Power Plan, for a "voluntary remand," which would send the rule back to the EPA, and if the courts agreed, the EPA could start trying to replace the rule with something weaker. But as Freeman told Plumer, "the EPA would have to go out for public comment on that — and that usually takes a year or two.”
Other environmental rules could be rolled back earlier. Trump could reconsider Obama’s decision to reject construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, or declare his intention to ignore the Paris climate deal, something he has long promised to do (though he’s waffled a bit after the election). There are also a bunch of Obama-era White House executive orders directing agencies to take various steps on climate change that can be rescinded on the first day.
Health care: While the heavy lifting of Obamacare repeal will be done by Congress, there’s a fair bit that Donald Trump and his administration can do on their own.
For example, while it would require a lengthy rulemaking process similar to what the EPA will have to go through, the birth control mandate under Obamacare can be unilaterally reversed by the executive branch. Trump could direct the IRS to change enforcement priorities, for example by deemphasizing the employer or individual mandates or changing what counts as a "hardship exemption" to the individual mandate.
The one health care change that is all but guaranteed is the revival of the “Mexico City policy,” a 1984 initiative implemented by Ronald Reagan that prevented foreign nonprofit groups getting federal aid money from providing or promoting abortions, even if those activities aren’t funded by federal dollars. The rule is customarily rescinded by Democratic presidents and reinstated by Republicans, and there's no reason to believe Trump will be an exception.
The immediate changes aren’t just about executive action
That’s just for starters.
Immediately upon inauguration, Trump gets to install his White House staff, which doesn’t need Senate confirmation. That means that as of Friday, these will be official advisers in the White House:
- Michael Flynn, the retired three-star general who dined with Vladimir Putin and tweeted that it is rational to be afraid of Muslims
- Steve Bannon, who has spent years at the helm of Breitbart mainstreaming the alt-right and overseeing a site subsection for “black crime,” and once referred to feminists as “fucking dykes”
- Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, whose presence is arguably a violation of federal anti-nepotism rules
- K.T. McFarland, who has argued that Vladimir Putin should receive a Nobel Peace Prize and advocated for bombing Iran
- Gary Cohn, the Goldman Sachs alum who will run the National Economic Council
And that’s leaving out Reince Priebus, Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer, Hope Hicks, and many other White House staff already announced.
Beyond personnel and policy, one shouldn’t forget the effect that Trump’s mere presence in the White House will have on the country. Barack Obama’s presence was hugely influential, not least for a generation of black youth who were the first to grow up with a president who looked like them, and for opponents who recoiled at the idea of someone with Obama’s temperament, background, and, yes, race holding office.
Trump, obviously, has a sharply different relationship with minority communities. His presence will, like Obama’s, naturally cheer some parts of the population and spark fear among others.
Those effects are real, and in a sense they began before Trump even took office. The act of him becoming the president, though, will make them stronger still.