Executive Orders, Explained: What to Expect and What to Do

What can we expect from all these executive orders Trump is signing, and what can we do to oppose them? You’ve probably noticed that Trump is signing a lot of executive orders. At first I wondered if I only found this weird because I didn’t pay close enough attention to Obama. However, as most things that are happening right now, the narrative that seems most unlikely is actually truth.


Executive orders are legally binding documents signed by Presidents that can set policy. They are usually used by a president to bypass Congress, and Congress can only undo them in the form of de-funding (which the president could veto anyway). In order to override a veto, 2/3 of both chambers of Congress must vote to override.

So, in short, they are powerful for the moments that they are in effect.


  • They can be immediately undone by another executive order (usually when the next president takes office).
  • They tend to be narrower in scope than a law, because anything determined in the order still has to operate within the bounds of existing law. This part is important.
  • They cannot reverse a law passed by Congress.
  • All executive orders passed starting in 1994 are in the online Federal Register and you can read any of them here.


Obama has been criticized for “ruling by executive order” in an unprecedented way, but like many Obama criticisms, that is a flat-out lie.

  • At 290/year, FDR had the most orders in history (both in number and frequency).
  • At 34/year, Obama had the lowest number since Grover Cleveland.
  • Trump has only been in office a week, so the pace might slow down, but his current frequency puts him at 144/year if he were to keep steady, which would be the highest since FDR.
image via fivethirtyeight.com

So, what’s going on with Trump right now?

Take a deep breath. Trump isn’t our king.

What’s strange to me is that Trump has a Congress that will mostly do what he wants. The colossal damage he is attempting to do could be signed into law with minimal compromise, and backed by a Supreme Court when he gets his nominee on there. Is he being impatient? Is he trying to set up a scenario where he is the hero and Congress isn’t? Are they opposing him behind closed doors? Is this a manifestation of his insecurity about himself as President?

More than likely it’s just symbolic. He is showing his supporters he is serious about getting things done, and when/if they don’t end up working out, he can blame Congress for messing it up. He claims it’s to avoid gridlock. Sure. Whatever. I don’t really care what he has to say about it.

If this continues indefinitely, it’s going to piss off Congress, which is a good thing. Hopefully at least a few Republicans will also be pissed, and chances are they might because some of them (deficit hawks) might be unwilling to authorize funding for some of this.

What he’s done and what to expect:

Here are all the major orders he’s signed at the time of me publishing this (1/26/17):

The Environment

Two orders restarting construction the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Basically, just undoing what Obama did. The orders dictate that the Army Corps to review and approve these quickly (although I cannot tell you whether the Army Corps can actually be forced to approve).

  • Added caveat is that the pipelines must use American steel. I am confused about how that is not some level of government overreach, but I’m really not opposed to that specific part of it (so much more to oppose!)
  • This does not necessarily grant the permit.
  • For those of us in Louisiana, this will likely set a precedent to us getting our own environment-destroying pipeline, the Bayou Bridge Pipeline which is already underway.
  • What to expect: a return to where we were at the peak of the Standing Rock protests in the fall.
  • What can you do? Support the protesters for Standing Rock.
  • There are three more orders that go along with, in attempts to expedite permits and fully utilize American steel.

Reproductive Justice

Reinstated the Mexico City Policy (aka “Global Gag Rule”). It essentially cuts funding for any global organizations that provide or even mention abortion as a family planning option. It goes in and out based on what party controls the White House.

  • Trump expanded this from its previous scope; it used to just affect organizations that received help from USAID and the US State Dept; now it affects any organization that gets aid from any US governmental organization.
  • George W. Bush exempted programs that covered HIV/AIDS. Trump has no exemptions.
  • In its previous forms, the Global Gag Rule has been known to cause an increase in abortions (since we all know less family planning = more abortions).
  • What to expect: an increase in female deaths, abortions, overpopulation, poverty, oppression, etc around the globe. This also leads to extremism in developing countries. Here is more detail on what to expect for women around the world.
  • What to do:
    • Call your member of Congress (both in the House and the Senate) and ask them to support the HER Act Bill, which would repeal the rule.
    • Support any of the organizations listed in this document.

Racism, Part I

An order launching construction of the US-Mexico border wall, and beefing up security by adding personnel. Bonus, there is also one ending the “catch and release” policy.

  • What to expect: Increased spending on border security, a very long drawn out process of arguing about wall, wall costing a bunch of money, wall probably not getting built, and, um, hopefully not war with Mexico…? People of color in your life are probably starting to feel very upset. You may want to tell them you love them.
  • What to do: The wall will probably not have a real effect other than stealing people’s land and costing a bunch of money. Oh, and just ripping out the stitches over and over again on racist rhetoric against Mexicans (and other Latinx people)
    • Call your representatives so they do not give Trump the funding to do this, as you and I both know Mexico is not paying us back.
    • Check out and support these organizations dedicated to “Border Advocacy.”

Racism, Part II

An order stripping federal grant money to “sanctuary cities.

  • There are…a lot of these.
  • In order to avoid losing the money, these cities would have to agree to assist federal agencies in looking for, arresting, and detaining suspected undocumented immigrants.
    • Currently, cities/counties have the choice to not detain anyone just because the FBI says so, because of the fact that detaining someone without warrant is illegal.
    • The order is supposed to compel the cities to keep the individual detained.
    • Cities and counties who are considered sanctuaries are largely interested in making sure undocumented individuals are not afraid to contact the police if they need help
  • It seems that this wouldn’t hold up in court, because the feds are not supposed to withhold funding unless the funding has to do with the particular matter (to prevent blackmail situations, like this one). So the only money Trump could withhold would be money related to immigration stuff.
  • What to expect: Assuming it holds up (or for the time it’s in place, at least): more brown people detained illegally, mayors hedging their reelection bets on popular opinion, families torn apart, people having to relocate due to the status of their area changing.
  • What to do:
    • Call your local politicians – mayors, councilpersons, etc – to encourage them to make/keep your city a sanctuary city. Miami has already succumbed to Trump’s pressure and given up its sanctuary status.
    • Note: Mayor Mitch Landrieu has doubled down that we are a sanctuary here in New Orleans. Call and thank him!
    • Support the ACLU, fighting for immigrant rights.

Racism, Part III

Guys, it’s finally here! The Muslim Ban! (throws up in mouth.) Trump is suspending visas from seven Muslim countries. This includes refugees, halting all refugees entering for 120 days, and specifically Syrian ones indefinitely.

  • It seems that all of this is within Trump’s scope of power.
  • After the 120 day period, religious minorities suffering persecution will be given priority. The way this is geographically shaking out, it looks like it will just be Christians…
  • The ban excludes countries that Trump does business with.
  • Trump seems to think he can test people’s ideologies before letting them in. McCarthyism sets some precedent for this.
  • What to expect: a halt on Muslims entering the country for the most part. It is currently unclear what this means for people with dual citizenship (who might be abroad) or anything else. Technically they should be fine but we don’t know what he’s going to try to do.
  • What to do: Support the ACLU, and CAIR, who are on the front lines.


Trump has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. It put us into a trade agreement with 12 Pacific countries.

  • Because this had never been ratified by Congress, it won’t have any real effects on any economic policy in place. It is largely symbolic of Trump’s intentions with trade.
  • Critics, including John McCain, believe this will hurt American exports.
  • Bernie Sanders and other Democrats, however, support pulling out of the deal. Oh, these times.
  • What to expect: no change you will feel here at home, probably, even though the TPP was kind of a bogeyman blamed for a lot of economic issues. You’ll find some added resentment from other countries who were involved (such as China – freaking China!).
  • What to do: There is not too much you can do, if you want to oppose this, other than try to vote Representatives in next time around who would ratify something like that…then get a new president who would also propose it…

Federal Jobs

An order for a hiring freeze on all federal jobs (except for the military, national security, and public safety). The freeze is to last 90 days.

  • The intention here is to cut the size of federal agencies.
  • The problem is that it could force these agencies to contract out those jobs, effectively privatizing them and driving the cost of them way up.
  • The action applies to 1.36 million people, more or less.
  • What to expect: people who work for the federal government to start losing their jobs, the service and abilities of federal government agencies to be limited and ineffective.
  • What to do: Support unions via the ACLU (who are raising hell), support Veterans’ groups (who could also be affected)

Letting Our Own People Die In The Streets While Bankrupting Their Children

An order to begin the rollback of Obamacare by releasing some of the regulations.

  • Super vague in scope, and many people think it probably is more symbolic than anything.
  • One of its directives is to direct the executive branch to seek the repeal. In other words, he is just formally signing a document instructing his own department to do it. Is it because he’ll forget?
  • What to expect: Honestly? Seems like we can just expect what we already have; Republicans are talking and talking and talking about repeal.
  • What to do: Fight to protect Obamacare down the line by calling your Congresspeople (when votes are coming up). You can also call them today about Tom Price, Trump’s nominee for the Health and Human Services secretary, who is all about making women be pregnant and keeping us all poor. We actually have a chance to block this one because he is chock-full of conflicts of interest.

Whew, that was a doozy.

Stay strong. Resist.

Action Items:

  • To oppose the Global Gag Rule:
    • Call your member of Congress (both in the House and the Senate) and ask them to support the HER Act Bill
    • Support any of the organizations listed in this document.
  • To oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline: Support the protesters for Standing Rock.
  • To oppose the Border Wall:
    • Call your representatives so they do not give Trump the funding to do this.
    • Check out and support these organizations dedicated to “Border Advocacy.”
  • To support Sanctuary Cities:
    • Call your local politicians – mayors, councilpersons, etc – to encourage them to make/keep your city a sanctuary city, and thank them if they are standing tall.
    • Support the ACLU, fighting for immigrant rights.
  • To support the rights of Muslims to immigrate to the United States:
  • To oppose the federal workers’ hiring freeze:
  • To defend Obamacare:
    • Call your reps about Tom Price, Trump’s nominee for the Health and Human Services secretary. We actually have a chance to block this one because he is chock-full of conflicts of interest.



Author: Melissa

Melissa is an artist and half-architect living in New Orleans, Louisiana.

3 thoughts on “Executive Orders, Explained: What to Expect and What to Do”

  1. FracTracker looked into the details on the DAPL and Keystone XL orders that Trump signed. Re: DAPL, the document orders the Army Corps of Engineers to review and determine a viable route for the pipeline to approve as soon as legally possible. (The Corps was already planning to do this.) As for Keystone, the executive order invites the company to resubmit their plans which will be reviewed within 60 days.

    Thanks for getting this information out there. We hope that our work on the Bayou Bridge Pipeline has been helpful!

    Sam Rubright
    FracTracker Alliance


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