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Trump's flurry of day one policies had some surprising omissions

President Donald Trump Signs Executive Orders Photo by Ron Sachs - Pool/Getty Images

Donald Trump made a lot of promises on the campaign trail about what he’d do on day one of his presidency. Now day one is over — and after the first full weekday of the Trump administration, what Trump hasn’t done is just as notable as what he has.

Trump’s first round of executive orders were surprisingly consistent with what you might see from any other Republican president: a splashy but vague order on implementing Obamacare, a federal hiring freeze, and a reinstatement of the “global gag rule,” an anti-abortion funding rule that’s existed under past Republican administrations.

Trump also formally pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal — which critics say could undermine American efforts to play economic hardball with China.

On two of Trump’s biggest issues, though — immigration and Obamacare repeal and replacement — his administration showed Monday that it’s still not quite sure what it’s going to do, at least through executive action. On those issues, “day one” didn’t involve reading executive orders, just tea leaves.

The official death of the TPP (or at least the US’s participation in it) could be an opening for China

The most prominent campaign promise that the Trump administration kept on day one was an instruction to the US Trade Representative’s office, asking to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal among countries that border the Pacific Ocean that the Obama administration negotiated but failed to get Congress to ratify.

The TPP was basically dead anyway. Both Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had promised not to pursue it; even if Trump had flip-flopped, the current Congress is certainly not more likely to approve a trade deal than the old Congress was.

Politically, though, the TPPullout officially reverses the position of the past several presidential administrations that multilateral free trade deals are fundamentally good. The Trump administration has promised to support only trade deals that support American jobs (particularly in the manufacturing sector), and it’s shown a preference for bilateral (one-on-one) trade deals with individual countries as opposed to big deals like the TPP (or NAFTA, which the Trump administration hasn’t yet formally asked to renegotiate but is expected to do so soon).

It might take a little longer to see the consequences of the US’s TPP pullout for policy. It’s possible that the deal will collapse entirely, though some countries (like Australia) are still hoping to ratify it.

Because the TPP was devised, in part, to counter China’s growing dominance in Southeast Asia (by creating tighter economic ties between those countries and the US), it might be logical to assume that the US’s absence from the TPP would be good for China. That’s especially true because China has been casting itself lately as a defender of globalization (in contrast to the populist turns in the US and Europe).

What’s good for China might not be bad for the US — there’s a good argument to be made that it isn’t, in fact. But the Trump administration appears to believe that Chinese economic dominance is, in fact, very bad for the US, and has all but promised to get very aggressive with China on trade. It’s going to be harder to weaken China economically without competing with it in Southeast Asia.

Killing the global gag rule will probably lead to more abortions worldwide

President Trump didn’t make abortion a key campaign issue, and he barely mentioned reinstating the Mexico City policy (often referred to by pro-choice advocates as the global gag rule) — a policy dating back to the Reagan administration, which governs US funding for international health efforts. But it’s a standard policy for a Republican president, at this point, and a key ask of the anti-abortion organizations that still hold down the party’s social-conservative wing. So on day one, the gag went back on.

Pro- And Anti-Abortion Groups Rally On Roe V. Wade Anniversary
An anti-abortion protester in DC in 2007.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The global gag rule, contrary to what Trump administration officials and anti-abortion groups have said, doesn’t prevent US taxpayer money from going to fund abortions abroad — that wasn’t happening to begin with. Here’s what it does, as explained by Vox’s Emily Crockett:

The rule strips federal funding from international organizations that either provide abortion or discuss abortion services with their clients — even if those services are paid for by separate, privately raised funds. [...] The gag rule tries to control how international organizations use their own funds, raised from other sources. It defunds entire organizations if those organizations — many of which also provide contraception and other health care to vulnerable women worldwide — do so much as tell women that abortion is a family planning option.

This policy makes sense for people who don’t want the United States to do anything that could be in any way construed as supporting abortion. But data from the last time the policy was instated, under George W. Bush, suggest that — in addition to hurting other public health aims, like HIV/AIDS prevention — it actually led to an increase in abortions:

Nongovernmental organizations also estimate that since those abortions are more likely to be unsafe, the Mexico City policy could also cause maternal mortality to go up. So the global gag rule is best understood as an endorsement of intentions versus consequences: a declaration that the US is not going to be involved in anything that considers abortion a legitimate exercise, rather than a commitment to reducing abortions.

A hiring freeze based on a lie — and with some big question marks attached

Trump’s third executive order Monday instituted a hiring freeze throughout the federal government, claiming to halt a “dramatic increase” in the size of the federal workforce under President Barack Obama. (There has been no such increase.)

The freeze has two big loopholes — one much clearer than the other. The clear exemption is for the military. The less clear one: Any jobs deemed “necessary to meet natsec or public safety responsibilities" can be filled, but the freeze didn’t specify who else would count under that umbrella.

This might get messy. The executive order says it’s the job of the head of an agency to determine who counts as “necessary.” But the Trump administration still hasn’t nominated people to run most of the agencies — meaning the decisions could be up to acting agency heads (held over from Obama), or could just pile up unaddressed. (The Office of Management and Budget is also allowed to grant exemptions, but Trump’s nominee for that hasn’t been confirmed.)

In the past, hiring freezes haven’t tended to work to shrink the federal government — not least because much of the federal workforce is actually taken up by contractors, who are often less cost-efficient but don’t count as permanent “jobs.” But the hiring freeze could make it harder for some federal agencies to keep up with their workload — especially given how understaffed at top levels the Trump administration is likely to be for the first several months.

What happened to Trump’s immigration promises?

Perhaps the biggest surprise Monday was that when it ended, the Trump administration’s immigration policy was publicly identical to the Obama administration’s — no changes had been made (or at least announced).

Furthermore, when it comes to deportations, the Trump administration is sounding mighty … Obama-ish:

Asked about rumors that President Trump will end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — the Obama-era program that’s given protection from deportation and work permits to about 750,000 unauthorized immigrants — White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that Trump “has been clear that we need to direct agencies to focus on those who are in the country illegally with a criminal record and/or pose a threat” to Americans.

That’s exactly the policy the Obama administration spent several years trying to impose on immigration agents in the field — over the vocal objections (and sustained resistance) of those field agents. Trump won the support of the unions representing immigration agents by promising they’d no longer be restricted in doing their jobs.

The Trump administration could have issued executive actions rescinding the Obama-era memos that directed immigration agents on which unauthorized immigrants shouldn’t be “priorities” for deportation. (The House Freedom Caucus has recommended it do just that.) It hasn’t yet. Obama’s directions are still in place, and Trump’s press secretary is now endorsing something very much like them.

On the DACA program itself — despite persistent rumors that Trump is acting imminently to end the program — at least some members of the Trump administration appear content to let DACA remain in place for now. White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, asked about an executive order on Fox News Sunday, said the administration was “going to work with House and Senate leadership as well to get a long-term solution.” Meanwhile, the federal government has continued to process applications for the program.

President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama after Trump’s speech. Andrew Harnik/AP Images

There are likely to be immigration-related executive orders later in the week, though no one’s yet sure exactly what topics they’ll cover. It’s more likely that Trump will issue some sort of executive order “authorizing” work on a wall on the US/Mexico border, or restricting federal grants to “sanctuary cities,” than that he’ll take on the DACA program in week one.

An Obamacare executive order that doesn’t make much sense without a Cabinet secretary to interpret it

Trump’s first executive action, directing the federal government to waive enforcement of the Affordable Care Act “to the maximum extent permitted by law,” was actually issued Friday night. But as of Monday, no one was totally sure what it would mean — because there isn’t yet a secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to interpret the order and turn it into policy. (Rep. Tom Price, Trump’s nominee, hasn’t yet been confirmed.)

Vox’s Sarah Kliff thinks this vagueness might itself end up having policy effects:

If you’re an insurance plan, for example, the executive order says that we have no clue about the regulatory landscape around the health care law in the coming months and year. If that’s the case, why bother sticking around and selling coverage? Why not get out now?

The executive order itself makes no tangible changes. But its introduction of more uncertainty may very well do that.

It’s possible, though, that once Price is confirmed to the HHS secretary position he’ll choose to interpret the executive order aggressively; the Trump administration could even decide to stop enforcing the individual mandate, as adviser Kellyanne Conway (who doesn’t have an official position in the administration) hinted could happen in an interview Monday.

The Trump administration would probably face some sort of court challenge if it tried to just stop enforcing the mandate. But as Kliff points out, the Obama administration delayed implementation of some parts of the ACA, so there might be precedent for the Trump administration to halt them.

This would be a huge disruption to the ACA — and, indeed, the whole health care system as it exists right now. “Halting implementation of the individual mandate could cause really significant disruption in some state marketplaces,” Kliff writes, “encouraging both healthy individuals and health insurers to quit the marketplace.” The result would be a health insurance market that only sick people participated in — meaning high rates for participants and less coverage for everyone. It’s possible that some states could try to impose their own mandates — but Republican-run states are unlikely to find this an appealing option.


Watch: Republicans have one major problem on Obamacare

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