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Cokie Roberts Answers Listener Questions On Executive Orders


President Trump's first week has been a whirlwind of executive orders - many controversial - which has been raising a lot of questions for many of us, including you, our listeners. The executive order is a tool presidents have been using since the founding of the republic. I want to play a little bit of tape now. Let's listen to Harry S. Truman desegregating the U.S. military by executive order after World War II back in 1948.


HARRY S. TRUMAN: I should like to talk to you briefly about civil rights and human freedom. It is my deep conviction that we have reached a turning point in the long history of our country's efforts to guarantee freedom and equality to all our citizens.

MARTIN: Again, Harry S. Truman using an executive order. We've been gathering up all your questions about how this particular presidential tool works, and we're going to put those questions to commentator and columnist Cokie Roberts. It's part of our regular segment Ask Cokie.

Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel. That was interesting to hear Harry Truman.

MARTIN: Right?

ROBERTS: It was very controversial, by the way.

MARTIN: At the time.


MARTIN: So we'll talk about how executive orders can sift through or exacerbate those controversies. All right, let's get to our first question here.

NEVA: Hi, Cokie. This is Neva from Beach Park, Ill. My question is - is it custom for the president to take office and sign multiple executive orders? Thank you.

ROBERTS: Well, hi, Neva. It has become much more of a custom with the last few presidents. It used to be that they would talk more about how they would run the executive branch - put in lobbying rules, pay freezes. But over the last few presidents it's been much more aimed at policy. For example, President Obama said he'd close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and stop waterboarding. And of course, we've had enormous raft of policies from President Trump.

One that he did was re-establish what's called the Mexico City language on abortion, which bans foreign, non-governmental organizations from promoting or providing abortions if they receive U.S. money. And this is instructive because it shows that these executive orders are basically built on sand. This language has been imposed and revoked over and over by presidents, depending on the party. So it started with Reagan, rescinded by Clinton, reinstated by Bush, rescinded by Obama.

Rachel, you get the drift.

MARTIN: Yeah, which provokes more questions, right? So that leads us to our second questioner. Let's listen.

KRISTAL GIBSON: Hi. I'm Kristal Gibson from Seattle, Wash. Can you help explain the executive order and why presidents don't need to go through Congress to make sweeping decisions?

MARTIN: So this gets to the very nature of the executive order.

ROBERTS: Right, right. Well, the Constitution doesn't say anything about these orders. But as you said, Rachel, they've been around since George Washington. They're loosely based on a phrase in the Constitution that says the president, quote, "shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed." They were used pretty sparingly in the early days, but then Franklin Roosevelt issued more than 3,700 executive orders. And there have been some very big measures, like the WPA, the Works Progress Administration; Japanese internment; as you heard, Harry Truman desegregating the military; and the most famous of all, the Emancipation Proclamation.

MARTIN: So as we've heard, the presidents can use this tool for really broad purposes, to make big changes. And that brings us to our last question today.

GABBY RODIL: My name is Gabby Rodil, and I'm from Berwyn, Ill. What are the limits on the president's power with executive orders?

ROBERTS: Well, that's generally more a political question than a legal one. Congress can pass a law to overturn an order, but it would have to be veto-proof 'cause, presumably, the president would veto it. And the courts can intervene.

When Harry Truman had nationalized the steel mills during the Korean War to keep them working despite a strike, the court said that he was not executing the law but making it and that the president had to rely on Congress or the Constitution. Justice Robert Jackson tried to refine that a little bit more, saying that presidents should look to Congress and if Congress objected, that his executive order was not on very solid ground. And presidents have pretty much taken those guidelines into account, but we've got a new president with a different take. And of course, the ultimate limit is election.

MARTIN: Commentator and columnist Cokie Roberts. She joins us Wednesdays to answer your questions about how Washington and politics work. Tweet us your questions @morningedition the hashtag #AskCokie, or you can email us your questions - askcokie@npr.org.

Cokie, thanks so much.

ROBERTS: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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