What is an Executive Order? An Explainer

Rock the Vote
3 min readJan 31, 2017

By Kosoko Jackson and Sara Tabatabaie

We’re only in week two of Trump’s presidency.

This early on, one thing is clear: The president is going ham on executive orders. And we need to pay attention.

What is an Executive Order?

Basically, it’s an official statement from the president advising federal agencies on what to do and how to use resources.

Executive orders do not create laws, but they give specific instruction on how to operate under existing laws.

Here’s an example from the Washington Post:

Trump’s executive order on building a border wall basically establishes building the wall as a federal priority and directs the Department of Homeland Security to use already-available funding to get the ball rolling on its construction.

He’s not creating any law to build a wall. He’s directing (well, ordering) the Department of Homeland Security on how to spend its existing budget and to prioritize construction.

What gives presidents this power?

There’s actually nothing in the Constitution that specifically gives a detailed outline of executive orders, but there is a “grant of executive power” in Article II, which has been cited to give presidents this authority.

Are executive orders common?

Every president to date has used executive orders, and more than 13,000 have been issued since 1789. They’ve been used in all different instances: to respond to natural disasters, states of emergency, war, economic crises, to promote civil rights… and sometimes to limit them.

What are some examples from the past?

History has looked both kindly and deeply unfavorably on executive orders throughout history. Examples include:

  • The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II by President Franklin Roosevelt
  • Racial discrimination in federal housing and hiring was banned by President John Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson
  • Hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children had deportation orders halted by President Barack Obama

What can we do if we support or oppose a particular order?

  1. The most effective thing is to vote for candidates who are aligned with your values. The president has the power to issue executive orders, and only the courts can strike them down. Members of the Senate confirm Supreme Court nominees, so we must vote carefully in presidential and midterm elections in order to impact how executive orders come to be.
  2. We also need to tell our Senators how we expect them to vote when Supreme Court candidates are being confirmed. Whether it’s by making calls to the Capitol, to district offices, emailing or even showing up in person, we must hold our elected officials accountable.
  3. Lastly, we can join rallies in support or opposition to executive orders, write blog posts, or tell the stories of people who are affected by executive orders. Speaking truth to power is an important part of what it means to be American.