Doer-in-chief Trump takes first steps towards his ‘beautiful’ wall
US president has moved at breakneck speed with orders to fulfil his big campaign pledges
View of the border line between Mexico and the US in Tijuana, northwestern Mexico. Photograph: Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty
The famous maxim uttered by former US attorney general John Mitchell at the start of Richard Nixon’s presidency, “Watch what we do and not what we say,” is a useful guide to follow president Donald Trump.
During Trump’s transition to the presidency, his vice-president Mike Pence warned Republicans in Congress to “buckle up” in preparation for what he would aim to achieve in the Oval Office. They have not disappointed. Only five days in, the Trump administration has been driving at breakneck speed.
On Wednesday the new Republican president took the first steps towards fulfilling the marquee promise of his presidential campaign – and one of the most contentious issues of the 2016 election: the construction of a “beautiful” wall at the border with Mexico and the strengthening of immigration enforcement.
“This is border security. We’ve been talking about this from the beginning. This is going to bring it over the top,” Trump said as he signed the first of two executive orders on a visit to the Department of Homeland Security, the government agency that will put those campaign promises into action.
When it comes to enforcement issues internally, the undocumented Irish can probably breathe easily – for the time being, at any rate – as Trump has directed immigration officials to focus on illegal immigrants who “have also otherwise violated” US laws, not the immigration laws they broke by staying in the US.
Trump’s supporters will no doubt love the strongman approach he has taken in the early days of his presidency and in particular on the barrier he wants to construction. “Build the wall!” was a popular catchphrase at Trump’s rallies.
Many details have still to be ironed out, such as whether a border wall is required along the entire frontier. The Government Accountability Office has said that there are walls, fences and other barriers along about 1,050km (652 miles) of the 3,145km (1,954-mile) border, and a wall could be unnecessary along mountainous regions.
There is a big question mark around whether Mexico, as Trump has insisted, will pay for the wall. The costs vary too. Trump said in February that he could build his wall – probably between 10 and 12 metres (35 and 40 feet) high – for $8 billion (€7.5 billion), though the upper estimates put the cost at a total of $25 billion (€23.25 billion).
The new president told ABC News that construction of the wall could begin in months but that the planning work was “starting immediately”. He is intent on making Mexico pay for it, even though they have said that they won’t. He has said that the wall would be paid for with US government funds initially and that he would seek reimbursement from Mexico later “perhaps in a complicated form”.
On Planet Trump, these details are, right now, relatively minor. His first week in office has been about making big statements, ticking off his checklist of promises to his supporters to shake up Washington and overturn the liberal policies of his predecessor, Democratic president Barack Obama.
So far his actions have come through his executive pen, signing orders that do not require congressional support. Even though he is in a strong position with his party in control of both houses of Congress, Trump, with 52 Republican senators on the Hill, would require the support of eight Democrats to reach a 60-vote threshold to pass, for example, a replacement to Obama’s healthcare law, the Affordable Care Act.
The law was a clear target early on for Trump. In one of his first acts as president, he signed an order aimed at “minimising the economic burden” of Obamacare by directing the heads of all government agencies to waive the requirements of the law to the “maximum extent permitted by law”. The wording is telling of how far Trump can go before he touches legislation that he would need his congressional allies to dismantle.
Still, Trump has shown that he can do plenty of damage to Obama’s legacy all on his own and that his executive orders have not only been symbolic, telegraphing the actions of his administration.
He has withdrawn the US from all talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, frozen all proposed regulations from Obama’s final weeks, reinstated a ban on US government money going to international organisations that provide or “promote” abortions, and ordered the expedited approval of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines along with environmental reviews on big infrastructure projects.
There is even a draft order in circulation that would direct the CIA to study whether it should return to the practice of capturing and interrogating terror suspects overseas at so-called “black sites”, the controversial programme banned by Obama because to many it amounted to the torture of detainees.
The Republican has said that next Thursday he will announce the name of the person he wants to fill the supreme court seat vacated by the late Antonin Scalia. Expect a staunch conservative and Democrats to reciprocate the obstruction that blocked Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland.
For 17 months, Trump’s campaign was about saying, or more accurately bragging, about what he would do in office. Now he is the doer-in-chief and he has been wasting little time getting things done.