Live by the Sharpie. Die by the ballpoint.
From the border wall with Mexico to the ban on transgender people in the military to travel prohibitions on majority-Muslim countries to the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, many of former President Donald Trump’s proudest accomplishments have been undone in just the first days of successor Joe Biden’s administration.
Trump’s failure to codify his preferred policies through legislation, relying instead on a black Sharpie marker to scrawl his signature onto executive actions and then show them off for the cameras, left them vulnerable to Biden’s signature on countermanding orders. And so far, the new president has signed dozens of them – albeit with a ballpoint pen and less flourish, but every bit as effective – wiping out much of Trump’s “legacy” in a matter of days.
“Elections have consequences,” said a former Trump adviser on condition of anonymity.
Biden took office at noon last Wednesday and did not arrive at the White House until nearly 4pm. Yet within two hours, he had signed 17 executive actions, including orders:
- reentering the United States into the Paris agreement to combat climate change.
- ending the “national emergency” that Trump had declared to let him raid money for his border wall from the military construction budget
- suspending Trump’s ban on travel from a group of majority-Muslim nations
- revoking Trump’s order blocking the counting of undocumented immigrants in the 2020 census
- and reinstating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme that halts deportation of many immigrants who came into the country illegally as young children.
In the following days, Biden restored collective bargaining power for federal employees and ordered the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to find ways to keep workers across a range of industries safe from Covid-19.
And on Monday, the new president rescinded the ban that Trump had imposed on transgender people serving in the military.
“It’s simple: America is safer when everyone qualified to serve can do so openly and with pride,” Biden said in an Oval Office ceremony.
The rapid-fire reversals highlight Trump’s reliance on implementing change on his own rather than building support for his ideas in Congress in order to pass laws.
On his promise to build a wall along the southern border, for example, Trump neglected it entirely during the two years Republicans controlled both the House and Senate, then triggered a monthlong government shutdown to try to coerce Congress into giving him funds to construct it, and finally declared a national emergency that provided a justification for him to raid military construction budgets – taking money that otherwise would have gone for such things as schools and on-base housing for service members and their families.
Doing so allowed him to build 453 miles of new steel fencing along the 2,000-mile Mexican border, although only about 80 miles are in stretches where no previous barrier existed. (Trump had promised hundreds of times during his 2016 campaign that he would force Mexico to pay for the wall, but in four years he never made that request even once, and Mexico never paid a dime.)
One former White House official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said that in Trump’s first year, after failing to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the White House focused on passing the tax cut bill. “They got it through while he had both houses of Congress,” the former official said.
Cutting taxes, though, is a perennial priority for Republicans and almost certainly would have passed a GOP-controlled Congress with or without Trump’s backing. Legislation pushing Trump’s own agenda, on the other hand, was almost nonexistent.
Indeed, the one notable exception was in 2018, when Trump’s proposal to severely restrict immigration – long a priority of top policy aide Stephen Miller – was given a vote on the Senate floor and received just 41 yeas, the fewest of any of the plans under consideration that day.
The former White House aide said that vote pretty much ended Trump’s interest in immigration legislation. “That ship sailed after that first effort,” he said.
Biden, for his part, acknowledged that executive orders and memorandums can only get him so far.
“I’m proud of today’s executive actions, and I’m going to start by keeping the promises I made to the American people,” he said in the Oval Office on Inauguration Day, a tall brown stack of binders on his desk awaiting his signature. “These are just executive actions. They are important, but we’re going to need legislation for a lot of the things we’re going to do.”