Controversy over the use of executive action is fuelled as the world watches Trump gripping a pen and signing away, but how much power do these documents actually have?

Donald Trump is making good on campaign promises through the use of executive orders and presidential memoranda.

What are they?

Famously described by Paul Begala as ‘stroke of the pen, law of the land’, these actions require no approval, nor can be overturned by the legislative body.

Whilst both executive orders and presidential memoranda are legally binding orders given by the president, executive orders are numbered and considered the more prestigious of the two.

Although intended to be used to direct federal agencies in the execution of established laws or policies, both are often used to push agencies in directions contrary to congressional intent.

(Courtesy of @PPact)


There is no specific provision in the Constitution permitting executive orders or presidential memoranda but they are understood to fall within the remit of the ‘grant of executive power’, expressed in Article II of the Constitution.

These orders have always been the subject of controversy because they enable presidents to essentially leapfrog Congress and achieve political goals, undermining the constitutional principle that no person should have power unilaterally.

How have they been used throughout history?

Trump isn’t the first president to utilise executive actions and certainly won’t be the last. In fact, more than 13,000 executive orders have been issued, many of which made dramatic changes to the US political landscape.

President Johnson in the company of Martin Luther King Jr, signing Executive Order 11246, promoting the protection of civil rights


Eisenhower used an executive order to desegregate schools, and Kennedy and Johnson used them to stop racial discrimination in federal housing, hiring and contracting.

More controversially, Clinton fought a war with Yugoslavia under an executive order and George W Bush issued several concerning the gathering of intelligence in the war on terror, some of which were kept secret.

Not only do presidents use executive orders to promote policy, they also use them to reverse the work of their predecessors.

Clinton famously reversed Reagan’s barring of federal funds that advocate abortion, and Obama reversed George W Bush’s order that restricted public access to the papers of former presidents.

(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)


How has Trump used them so far?


Trump kicked things off with an executive order ‘minimising the economic burden of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act pending repeal’.

The multi-paragraph directive instructs agencies to ‘waive, defer, grant exemptions from, or delay’ Obamacare where it creates a financial burden on states, individuals or healthcare advisors.

Regulatory Freeze

Obama used his last week in office to make final attempts at promoting his agenda. Trump has responded by passing a presidential ‘memorandum for the heads of executive departments and agencies’.

The memorandum demands a ‘regulatory freeze pending review’. In other words, anything not yet set in stone must be frozen pending approval by the Trump Administration.

Hiring Freeze

Another of Trump’s memoranda has told agencies they cannot fill any vacant positions nor open new ones aside from: ‘military personnel and critical public safety positions’.

Mexico City Policy

Anti-abortion activists are celebrating Trump’s controversial memorandum regarding the Mexico City Policy.

The Mexico City Policy is the aforementioned policy implemented by Reagan, preventing US cash from supporting foreign NGOs ‘providing counselling or referrals for abortion or advocating for access to abortion services’.

This memorandum is devastating to women’s rights organisations in developing countries where funding and support is already limited.

Despite not impacting US citizens, the order is indicative of Trump’s approach to abortion policy.

As many as 4.6 million women took to the streets of Washington, protesting against Trump’s prospective policies


Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)

Obama’s TPP had never received approval from Congress and was yet to be effective, but another of Trump’s memoranda withdraws the US from any further negotiation or agreement.

The TPP was used by Trump as a ‘punchbag’ throughout the election campaign, so this action hasn’t come as a great shock.

Environmental Reviews

An executive order has been signed by Trump ‘expediting environmental reviews and approvals for high priority infrastructure projects.

The process will be sped up, because according the President, ‘environmentalism is out of control’.

Keystone XL and Dakota Access

Obama had halted work on Keystone XL, a 1,179m pipeline running from Canada to the US, over concerns regarding climate change.

Construction was also suspended on the Dakota Access pipeline as a result of huge protests by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe at the North Dakota site.

Trump has changed direction dramatically on these matters by signing two memoranda, authorising the advancement of construction on both controversial pipelines.

Protest by the Standing Rock tribe against the Dakota pipeline


Within the first 100 days of inauguration, the Oval Office traditionally bears witness to a flurry of presidential actions.

However, global controversy surrounding Trump’s campaign has reached boiling point as the unlikely becomes reality with each stroke of his pen.