Skip To Content

    Executive Orders Explained For British People

    For those of you asking, "How the fuck does American government work?"

    In the first few weeks of the Trump presidency, you may have heard a bit about executive orders, and wondered softly to yourself, "Wait what?"

    Is Donald Trump really just allowed to write his name on something and make it a law?

    That's a very nice train, Donald.

    Well, the tl;dr version is that the president, as head of the executive branch of government, can make an executive order to state and federal agencies to do (or not do) something.

    BUT WAIT, you may be wondering, isn't the US government set up so that the different branches of government can check each other's power in case one of them goes completely off their nut?

    That's right! There are three branches of government – the legislature (which makes laws), the executive (which implements the laws), and the judiciary (which interprets and rules on the law and the Constitution).

    The executive branch (i.e. the president and his mates) has certain powers granted to it by the Constitution. But the Constitution also limits what it can do!

    Or, well, he COULD make that order, but the judicial branch – headed by the Supreme Court – could be like, "You've been a very bad boy," and strike it down.

    Almost every president since George Washington has signed at least one executive order (except for William Henry Harrison, whose most memorable act as president was to swiftly die of pneumonia).

    But over time the Supreme Court has made it clear there are ~limits~ to executive power, for example that time Harry Truman got his executive order dick out and started waving it around.

    Anyway, lots of time passed, George W. Bush used executive orders to expand surveillance after 9/11, blah blah blah, then came Barack Obama.

    Wait a bloomin' minute, my old matey, we hear you ask, does our sad and rainy island have anything like executive orders?



    Nope, it's really the prime minister.

    Also, we've got so-called judges too!

    Well, it's like the US, except that the Queen doesn't then get angry watching cable news and shout about it on Twitter. Or does she?, she doesn't.

    Anyway let's take all the lovely things we've heard about so far and apply them to the present day, and learn the lessons of history, shall we?

    So President Trump has started out by signing a whole bunch of executive orders. As we've already learned, that's not especially unusual, and not necessarily a sign of impending fascism!

    Also, some of Trump’s executive orders are more about ~symbolism~ than actually getting stuff done – they're about defining what his presidency's priorities will be.

    Like his "I hate Obamacare" order, which doesn’t actually do a huge amount other than signal that the new administration doesn’t like Obamacare and will try to replace it. But Trump can’t do that with an executive order: The Affordable Care Act (to give it its fancy name) is an actual proper law, and it’ll need a lot of work in Congress to actually unpick it.

    But then there's stuff like the immigration executive order that's either a ban or definitely not a ban, depending if you ask the president or his press secretary.

    The answer is: maybe, maybe not! But what actually happens could come down to a disagreement between the executive and the judicial branches, i.e. Donald Trump and some judges.

    But oh my god, PLOT TWIST: Remember how in 1952 the Supreme Court was riding Harry Truman's dick about him going too far with his executive orders?

    So anyway, now Trump argues that because of this law, he's got the power to say that, for example, your Uncle Ali coming to visit for two weeks with a suitcase full of sweets from his village in Iran is not okay, on the grounds that he's in the wrong "class of aliens".

    Who is right? So far the courts seem to agree with those who oppose the ban – but we won't really know until the full issue has been argued out, at length, in a whole bunch of federal courts.

    Anyway, that’s what executive orders are! We’ve learned about the separation of powers, the branches of government, checks and balances, and that Harry Truman was sometimes a dick and sometimes not a dick.