Daily Video

August 10, 2020

Explainer: Trump’s executive orders and the limits of presidential power


Directions: Read the summary, watch the video and answer the discussion questions. To read the transcript, click here

Summary: After Congressional negotiations on a COVID relief bill stalled, President Donald Trump signed four executive memos and orders designed to extend COVID-19 economic relief. Democrats and several Republicans have raised concerns over the orders. Democrats called the documents unconstitutional and ineffective, and some Republicans said they prefer that Congress legislate on these issues and not the executive branch.

  • An executive order is a federal rule signed by the president that interprets laws passed by Congress and provides new guidelines for carrying out those laws. Critics fear that executive orders sometimes claim too much power for presidents to interpret law, essentially making new laws in the process, which is constitutionally the role of Congress.
  • President Trump signed four documents on August 8 at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. The orders seek to extend extra unemployment insurance benefits, deter evictions, defer student loan interest and also defer payroll taxes (payroll taxes help fund Social Security and Medicare) through the end of the year.
  • Questions remain about the legality of these orders, which some believe impinge on Congress’s powers over taxes and spending. The constitutional debate mirrors debates over President Obama’s executive orders to manage immigration law through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and defer health care penalty payments under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), among other orders. (See extension activity for more.)
  • Other critics question the effectiveness and unintended consequences of President Trump’s orders. For instance, the payroll tax deferral causes confusion for companies and individuals who may have to pay the tax back next year. It also threatens social security and Medicare funds. The unemployment insurance extension draws from  emergency funds and requires states to pay in with money that may not be available. It is unclear when and how money would reach those who need and, or who is eligible.

Discussion questions:

  1. Essential question: How do executive orders affect the system of checks and balances?
  2. What checks on presidential power keep presidents from making laws through executive orders?
  3. During his August 8 signing, President Trump incorrectly referred to his executive order and memos as “bills.” What is the difference between an executive order and a bill?
  4. What do you think are the advantages of presidents being able to sign sweeping economic executive orders? What do you think are the risks or drawbacks?
  5. Media literacy: In this segment we hear from a presidential advisor, Democratic Congressional leaders and a political reporter. Who else might you want to hear from to better understand the purpose and potential consequences of these executive orders and memos?

If there is time: The text of the order and memos are available here. Have students review and discuss: do these orders seem to match how they’re being portrayed in the media? Do you find anything surprising or confusing about these orders?

Extension activity:

What are executive orders and how do they work? Use this lesson plan and resources from iCivics to learn more about executive orders and the controversy surrounding them. Note: You’ll need to register for a free iCivics account in order to access the lesson plan. In this lesson, students will learn:

  • To define executive orders.
  • To explain the roles the legislative and judicial branches play in regulating executive orders.
  • To analyze a news item for multiple perspectives.


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