Trump Administration Bricked On at Least Half of Its Executive Orders in 2017

Donald Trump issued executive orders for 95 reports, performance reviews, instructions, or other activities to be carried out by executive branch agencies.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 28: US President Donald Trump signs an executive order on implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy in the Roosevelt Room at The White House on April 28, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by  Eric Thayer-Pool/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump signs an executive order on implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy in the Roosevelt Room at The White House on April 28, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Eric Thayer/Getty Images

The Trump administration has either failed to complete or is keeping from the public more than half of the reports that President Donald Trump assigned to the administration through his early and prolific use of the executive order. Of the reports it did complete, many were turned in well past the assigned due date and only “complete” in the sense that they consist of words on paper.

In his first year in office, Trump ordered 95 separate reports, performance reviews, instructions, or other activities to be carried out by executive branch agencies. The Intercept has been reviewing these orders for the last year. We found that 48 of the 95 actions were completed, in many cases after the due date stipulated in the order. Federal agencies have yet to complete another 20. In 27 cases, the agency was unresponsive to our requests for information.

We finished our review of the administration’s record on executive orders at the end of 2017. Here’s our tracker in full:

The executive orders were intended to form the building blocks of Trump’s governing strategy. They covered everything from defeating the Islamic State, to instituting signature policies on immigration and cybersecurity, to fashioning the administration’s position on regulatory reform and energy independence. That the executive branch has completed just half of the tasks the president had ordered suggests that the administration isn’t running like the “fine-tuned machine” Trump has boasted about. If federal agencies cannot do the basic block-and-tackling work of writing a progress report, their ability to operate in a crisis is highly questionable.

The administration’s track record also reinforces the incredible secrecy within the Trump government. Only 19 of the 48 completed reports were publicly released. The Intercept attempted to obtain the still-private reports under the Freedom of Information Act and ran into continuous brick walls. Either the administration chose not to commit its plans to written documents so that those looking for information would have nothing to discover, or it deliberately hid them from the public. Cabinet heads have made it difficult for people to obtain their public schedules, let alone the reports they write to the president laying out their agenda.

For example, in April, the president signed an executive order on “Buy American and Hire American” rules for the federal government. It laid out a series of steps for executive agencies to prioritize American products and materials in federal procurement, as well as to step up enforcement of “Buy American” laws within their jurisdictions.

The policy is central to fulfilling Trump’s “America First” agenda. The secretary of Commerce and the Office of Management and Budget were to collate reports from agency heads on compliance, as well as assess the impacts of trade agreements on “Buy American” laws. And by November 24, the Commerce Department was to submit a final report, with recommendations on strengthening those laws so that the campaign promise could become reality.

The agency has not confirmed its completion of any of those reports. It took a Democrat, Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, to write the White House asking for the final report on December 12, 18 days after it was due. “I understand that the report is not finished and I am writing to urge your Administration to expedite the publication of this now late report,” she wrote. The Intercept asked the Commerce Department whether the preliminary reports were completed; the agency did not respond.

Trump’s “Buy American” plan could theoretically be a place for bipartisan cooperation and is one that aligns with the president’s promises to his base to restore jobs to the “forgotten man.” But all of that is apparently not enough of a priority for the administration to bother with it.

Other examples display the White House’s penchant for secrecy. The shrinking of two national monuments in Utah, announced in early December, came after a comically thin interim report on recent monument designations in June and a final report in August of which the public only got to see a two-page executive summary. Journalists had to look to leaked documents to ferret out that the Utah monuments would be targeted for shrinkage. Even members of Congress only learned about the plans when they were leaked to the media.

Ultimately, Trump modified the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments and could shrink several more, if he acts on a report from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that the Washington Post first reported. Several Native American tribes have sued the Trump administration over the monument changes.

Similarly, while the Department of Homeland Security has ordered federal agencies to enhance cybersecurity efforts, only four of the 14 reports scheduled to be delivered to the White House per a sweeping cybersecurity executive order have been confirmed as completed, and none of them have been made public.

The case of the president’s commission on combating drug addiction and the opioid crisis is also instructive. The commission completed reports ordered by Trump — albeit belatedly — and made its recommendations public. And after some prodding, the Trump administration declared the opioid crisis a national emergency, which in theory freed up some resources to deal with the scourge. But the emergency declaration unlocked around 2 cents for each individual suffering from opioid use disorder in America, neglecting to add new money to the paltry $57,000 in the Public Health Emergency Fund.

The commission, following Trump’s lead, also didn’t ask for new money to deal with the crisis, making its recommendations quaint but rather symbolic. To date, there’s been little action on preventing opioid addiction, and deaths from the epidemic continue to play a significant role in declining life expectancy in America, a trend not seen in over half a century.

Some of the reports have been useful in understanding the White House position on key issues. The series of Treasury Department reports on the financial system and regulatory burdens has clarified where it stands on issues like corporate taxes and how to unwind big banks that get into trouble. But this has been the exception more than the rule.

Trump has not stopped issuing executive orders and ordering reports and reviews. But the point of these exercises has become clear: to give the impression of activity within the administration, regardless of the follow-through.

Elisa Cho contributed research to this report. 

Top photo: President Donald Trump signs an executive order on implementing an “America First” offshore energy strategy in the Roosevelt Room at The White House on April 28, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

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