For some days after the inauguration of Donald Trump, Americans and the rest of the world were waking up every morning to news of the new US president signing yet another executive order that appeared to be swiftly hardening into policy the harshest, most inflammatory aspects of his campaign rhetoric.
Taking the executive-order route to jumpstart government action in lieu of the belabored path of waiting for congressional fiat is not new. Barack Obama also availed himself of this privilege in his first seven days in office. But there is no greater telling distinction between the path America took at the dawn of the Obama era eight years ago and the one it’s taking under Trump than the basic character of their respective opening directives.
Among the first actions Obama took with the power of his signature was a call to review American detention policies, in light of the global outrage over documented reports of torture and illegal incarcerations committed by US troops in the so-called war on terror. He made official the ban against waterboarding and other forms of torture. He also instituted a policy of transparency and ethical governance in his administration, banning gifts from lobbyists, limiting their entry into government office, and directing government agencies to honor the Freedom of Information Act. He strengthened environmental statutes, and authorized the allotment of funding for Palestinian refugees.
Obama’s actions were all in line with his vision of an America that was tolerant, inclusive and fair, a country of ideals and laws that was committed not only to doing right but also to righting itself when it faltered.
In contrast, Trump’s inaugural barrage of official policies reflects a markedly different mindset. He has, among others, diluted environmental regulations as well as review procedures for infrastructure projects, approved the Keystone oil pipeline that has been the subject of massive protests by Native Americans, and ordered the building of the controversial wall he had promised to erect on the US-Mexico border.
The latest, and most shocking, Trump edict suspends for 90 days the acceptance of refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries that the White House is formally identifying as havens of terror and thus supposedly posing a risk to American security: Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Somalia and Yemen.
But the order was apparently too broad, too vague and too sudden that it immediately caused chaos. Hours after its announcement, US immigration began turning away or detaining at airports travelers whose passports and records showed the remotest ties to the seven countries declared anathema, including those already with visas granted. Worse, many immigrants already holding “green cards,” which were obtained under years of painstaking process and who are therefore legally allowed to stay on American soil, have also found themselves suddenly barred from returning to their homes and families.
It had looked at first blush that Trump’s abrupt, thoughtless move would go unchallenged. But a heartening sight soon materialized: hordes of lawyers descending on American airports to work pro bono on facilitating the release of detained travelers, and many ordinary citizens simply showing up to express loud disagreement with his order. All day and into the night, “Let them in!” was a constant rallying cry. Five federal judges in succession would eventually order a stop to parts of the order being implemented, giving the Trump administration its first defeat in court.
Trump’s authoritarian aspirations in the world’s most powerful office are only beginning. But the law, as well as the basic conscientiousness of ordinary Americans and other people around the world, appears to be shaping up as a powerful, growing rebuke to the danger he represents.