Whenever President Donald Trump whips out his pen and his phone — to borrow a euphemism for his predecessor’s executive actions — liberals act as if the new administration were overturning decades of democratic norms.
Usually, Trump is just overturning the actions of President Barack Obama — and often, Obama’s actions during his second term, when he was safely past his last election.
To be sure, Trump has occasionally taken actions not seen in decades. The most famous example was his executive order, still in litigation, to ban travelers from certain terrorism-compromised nations.
Congress in the 1950s delegated broad powers to the president to exclude foreigners he deems a threat to national security, and past presidents have used that authority to block certain classes of foreigners from entering the country. But no president has tried to exclude people as broadly from as many countries for an open-ended period of time.
Yet most of the rest of the Trump administration’s actions can properly be characterized as reversing Obama’s executive overreach — or returning to policies that had been in place for decades before Obama became president.
Here are some of the biggest examples:
DACA and DAPA. The Obama administration created two quasi-amnesty programs after Congress debated but failed to pass laws that would have conferred a full-fledged path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.
The first was Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which offered guarantees not to deport qualifying applicants who had been brought to America as children. The executive action in 2012 also gave them permits to work legally in America. The administration created the second program, Deferred Action for the Parents of Americans (DAPA), in 2014 to give similar protections for illegal immigrants who have U.S.-born children.
Trump’s announcement last week that he was going to end DACA after a six-month delay, to give time for Congress to pass a law formalizing the legal status of recipients, prompted progressives to act as if the world were ending. Politicians and commentators described the decision as “cruel,” “mean-spirited” and “inhumane.” Janet Napolitano, who created the program as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, even announced that she would sue to block the reversal.
The fury came despite the fact that Obama himself had said nearly two dozen times that the president lacks the authority to create such a program without Congress.
Even if Congress fails to pass a version of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act and Trump follows through on his announcement, so-called dreamers will go back to the same situation they always had been in before, including for most of Obama’s first term.
Liberal reaction was more muted to Trump’s decision to kill DAPA in June, since the federal courts already had blocked it from taking effect.
Loosening restraints on immigration officers. President Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration in January prompted outcries from the Left that the new administration was setting up “deportation forces” to conduct mass roundups of illegal immigrants across the country.
It seemed unprecedented — as long as one ignored pre-Obama history. Experts say Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers and U.S. Border Patrol agents now are operating more or less the way immigration officers had for decades before Obama took office. Throughout his administration, authorities dramatically narrowed the enforcement priorities for immigration.
In the first of these memos, in March 2011, ICE leadership instructed officers not to enforce immigration violations against most illegal immigrants. The administration in June of that year offered protection for illegal immigrants engaged in union organizing or complaining about employment or housing discrimination.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department took no action against a string of cities and counties that declared themselves “sanctuary” jurisdictions. At the same time, the Justice Department sued Arizona, Alabama, Utah, and other states that passed laws modeled after federal law to give local authorities the power to help federal agents enforce immigration violations. In 2012, the administration moved to defund a joint federal-state initiative to enforce immigration law.
In December 2011, ICE relaxed detention policies for illegal immigrants.
In 2014, the Department of Homeland Security ended the “Secure Communities” program — which aimed to identify and deport illegal immigrants arrested by local law enforcement officers — and replaced with the Priority Enforcement Program. That focused on deporting illegal immigrants who met narrow criteria, such as national security threats, people apprehended at the border, people convicted of serious felonies or three or more misdemeanors, and illegal immigrants who entered after Jan. 1, 2014.
Rolling back Obama land grabs. Last month, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended that Trump alter at least three national monuments that Obama and President Bill Clinton created, including a 1.35-million-acre swath of land in Utah known as Bears Ears. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) told The Washington Post that “Teddy Roosevelt would roll over in his grave if he could see what Donald Trump and Ryan Zinke are trying to do to our national treasures today.”
Environmental groups threatened legal action to block any revision of Obama’s designation.
But critics argue that Obama’s original designation was a vast overreach from what the 1906 Antiquities Act intended, and that the law should not be used to restrict public access to hunting, fishing and other traditional uses of land.
Allowing police departments to acquire surplus military equipment. Once again, liberals expressed shock and dismay when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last month that he was restarting a program that allowed local law enforcement officials to acquire armored vehicles and other equipment that the Pentagon no longer wanted.
Obama sharply curtailed such transfers in 2015 in response to complaints about “militarized” police who responded to riots in Ferguson, Missouri, following a fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer. State and federal investigations later cleared the officer of wrongdoing after determining that the victim, Michael Brown, attacked the cop and tried to grab his gun.
But Obama decided the optics were bad and that the federal government should not help local police obtain equipment previously used by the military. The program had been in place for nearly 30 years.
Ban on transgender soldiers. Also last month, Trump signed an executive order reinstating a longstanding ban on transgender people serving in the military and gave the Pentagon the authority to decide whether to remove transgender service personnel already serving.
That prohibition had been lifted only last year, after a review ordered by then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. Actually, the change had not even fully taken effect since Carter in June said policies related to removing the ban would be implemented over the following 12 months. But current Defense Secretary James Mattis put that on hold so the Pentagon could further review the matter.
The reaction of Democrats and some Republicans, however, could have led one to believe transgender soldiers had been opening serving for decades instead of just a few months.
More consequently, the president signed an executive order in January directing federal agencies to rescind any existing regulations that “unduly burden the development of domestic energy resources.” It rescinded Obama-era executive actions and ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to review Obama’s Clean Power Plan, designed to cap power plant emissions of carbon gases.
Democrats and environmental activists fumed that Trump’s actions would doom the planet. But the Clean Power Plan was enough of a reach that the courts had blocked it from taking effect while litigation played out in lower courts.
End of sentencing leniency. In May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo to federal prosecutors, instructing them to charge the most serious offenses that can be proved.
Progressives were aghast.
“The new charging memo will also have an enormous and negative impact on the families whose loved ones are forced to serve disproportionately lengthy prison sentences,” Families Against Mandatory Minimums stated in one typical reaction.
But the policy was only “new” because former Attorney General Eric Holder overturned decades of standard operating procedure in U.S. attorney’s offices in 2013, when he encouraged prosecutors to leave drug quantities out of charging documents in some cases — so as not to trigger mandatory-minimum sentences. He also instructed prosecutors not to seek sentencing enhancements in certain cases, such as by submitting information to the court about prior offenses for lower-level drug offenders that would result in longer prison terms.
That was a radical departure from past Justice Department policy. A string of policy memos issued by attorneys general and deputy attorneys general in both Republican and Democratic administrations affirmed essentially the same approach Sessions outlined in May.
(photo credit, homepage and article images: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)