Trump aides privately plot a flurry of moves in their final 10 weeks
The White House is eyeing executive orders and regulations on immigration, trade, health care, China and school choice.
WASHINGTON — On Monday, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows gathered senior aides on a call.
One of his goals: to plot the conservative policy moves they could push through in their final 10 weeks on immigration, trade, health care, China and school choice.
Even as President Donald Trump refused to concede to President-elect Joe Biden, Meadows was asking aides on the call to give him three goals by the end of the week that could be accomplished by Biden’s inauguration, according to two people briefed on the conversation. Since then, staffers have compiled a list of roughly 15 moves they could make through executive orders, executive actions or finalizing agency rules that they plan to pursue in the coming days, according to interviews with three administration officials.
On immigration, they are seeking to finalize a rule related to making the standards stricter around H-1B visas, which allow U.S. employers to temporarily hire foreign workers in specialty occupations. And a potential school-related executive order would seek to give Covid-19 relief money to parents in public school districts shut down by the coronavirus, allowing them to use the funds for private or parochial schools.
The president intends to start issuing the orders as soon as possible, aides said, while agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services or the Department of Homeland Security are rushing to finish rules already in the pipeline. It’s unclear how legally binding each executive order might be — Trump has earned a reputation for overstating the power of mostly symbolic EOs during his four years as president.
The planning is the latest sign of White House aides privately acknowledging the outcome of the election and eventual transfer of power to Democrats, while the Trump campaign publicly continues to wage legal battles in a handful of states over ballot counts and unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud.
“It will put pressure on Biden because a lot of the ideas are popular things,” said Stephen Moore, an informal economic adviser to the White House. “It would be a little politically tough for Biden to go into the White House and cancel them.”
Already, the Biden team has plans to sign its own set of executive orders on Jan. 20 to undo some of Trump’s four years of policymaking — reversing the Trump travel bans on mostly Muslim-majority countries, restoring protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, rejoining the Paris climate agreement and revising dozens of public health and environmental regulations Trump rolled back.
Up until the election, Trump aides had not made definitive plans for a lame-duck period — even though several were aware that President Barack Obama used his final months in office to finish a raft of regulations and executive orders. To do so would have acknowledged the chance of losing the election, a decidedly un-Trumpian position.
Trump aides want to ensure conservative policies and Trump’s norm-breaking views on immigration and trade hold for as long as possible. Inside the Trump White House, Meadows, senior adviser Jared Kushner and White House counsel Pat Cipollone are leading the various discussions on last-minute policymaking.
“The people who want to make sure their China policy sticks will attempt to take advantage of that moment in time,” said one former senior administration official, citing actions on Chinese apps and interfaces or strengthening sanctions as potential moves.
“Since taking office, President Trump has never shied away from using his lawful executive authority to advance bold policies and fulfill the promises he made to the American people, but I won’t speculate or comment on potential executive action,” said White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere.
The White House discussions come as Trump and some of his aides act like they are starting a second term — even as Biden unveils a transition website, starts to vet potential White House staffers and Cabinet members and announces teams of aides and volunteers who will work inside of agencies once the formal transition process begins.
“Regardless of who is president on Jan. 20, there’s plenty of work left to do this year,” said Dan Eberhart, the CEO of the energy company Canary and a Trump donor. “The Trump administration should be dotting its I’s and crossing its T’s on its priorities. The president is understandably focused on the ballot counting, but at some point soon, he needs to turn his attention back to the lame-duck session and putting a capstone on his first four years.”
In addition to rolling out executive orders and actions, Trump’s plans for the next several weeks include firing Cabinet officials who have irked him or refused to follow his lead on investigations. He kicked off the axings Monday by tweet-firing Defense Secretary Mark Esper. In the coming weeks, Trump may also fire CIA Director Gina Haspel and FBI Director Christopher Wray. Haspel was spotted in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office on Tuesday afternoon.
Presidents from both parties have long used the lame-duck period to cement their agenda and create headaches for the next administration. In 2008, as President George W. Bush’s administration neared its end, the federal government finished 105 regulations. In 2016, the Obama administration moved to complete 127, according to data from the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center.
Typically, the process of overturning an unwanted regulation takes at least one year, while undoing an executive action can be accomplished with a signature, said Susan Dudley, who directs the Regulatory Studies Center and formerly oversaw the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under George W. Bush.
“Not every midnight regulation is improper, but it becomes more troublesome if they are rushed without adequate analysis or review or engagement,” Dudley said. “Without impugning motives, it also ties the hands of the next administration. It means the next administration will have to devote resources to deciding if they want to change it.”