Less than eight hours after becoming president, Donald Trump sat behind the desk in the Oval Office and issued his first executive order. However, the newly elected president seemed to only stick his toe in the water of governance.
Trump directed government agencies to “ease the burden” of the Affordable Care Act on Friday night. The new president campaigned on repealing Obamacare and replacing it with “something terrific”.
However, these actions fell far short of the big promises Trump made for his first day in office on the campaign trail.
Trump took pleasure in boasting about the feats he would accomplish in his first 24 hours in the Oval Office, ranging from building a wall on the US-Mexico border to promises to announce a renegotiation of Nafta and withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
There was also a broad statement that he would “cancel every unconstitutional executive action, memorandum and order issued by President Obama”.
On Friday, however, the reality seemed far more restrained. Many of the first steps for the new administration had been postponed until Monday morning, three days after he assumed office. With a slow transition process that did not lead to the announcement of a full cabinet until the day before the inauguration, members of the new administration tamped down on expectations.
Vice-President Mike Pence said as much on Wednesday, telling CNN the administration’s first day really wouldn’t be Friday or even Saturday. “I think you can expect that President Donald Trump will hit the ground running on day one come Monday morning,” he said.
A source familiar with the transition indicated to the Guardian that many administration staffers would not even begin their orientation until Monday, although it was noted that appointees in many key positions were poised to be sworn in at 12.01pm Friday.
Some administration priorities are likely to wait for months. Although Trump has long insisted he will move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a source familiar with administration foreign policy indicated that no such step was likely for months and would in any case wait for Trump’s pick for US ambassador, David Friedman, to be confirmed.
Friedman is not scheduled to receive a hearing until February and is unlikely to be confirmed until March at the earliest.
Surprisingly, for all of Trump’s promises for executive action on his first day, he signed his first bill hours before his first executive order. Shortly after taking the oath of office Trump, signed a law that would give Gen James Mattis, his nominee for defense secretary, the needed waiver to serve in a ceremony in the Capitol. US law requires any potential defense secretary to have been retired from the military for seven years. Mattis retired from the marines in 2014.
At the inauguration celebrations, supporters did not to focus on specifics. Many touted their belief in the new president’s ability to bring back jobs and, of course, “make America great again”.
Dina Cook, a 76-year-old Spanish-American woman from Tennessee bedecked in Trump gear, enthused about the new president’s ability to rebuild American infrastructure, provided that “they would let him”.
Others showed more specific focus on what the new president could accomplish unilaterally. Danny, a gruff and moustached man from Yorktown, Virginia, with a Trump pin in his hat, was optimistic that the president would immediately repeal “a lot of Obama’s executive orders”.
Immigration – ‘One of the first orders I’m gonna sign’
Trump has long pledged to “suspend immigration from terror-prone regions where vetting cannot safely occur”, adding: “All vetting of people coming into our country will be considered extreme vetting.”
He has shown no indication that he might relent, or indeed delay any such action. In an interview with the Sunday Times of London, he indicated one of his first orders as president would involve enhanced border security, one of the mainstays of his staunchly conservative policy agenda on immigration.
“One of the first orders I’m gonna sign – day one … is gonna be strong borders,” Trump said. “We don’t want people coming in from Syria who we don’t know who they are. You know there’s no way of vetting these people. I don’t want to do what Germany did.”
In October 2015, Trump said such refugees “could be Isis”. Among refugee advocates, concern is widespread.
“One of our biggest concerns is not only the damage Trump can do at home, but what he means for other countries,” said Grace Meng, a senior immigration researcher at Human Rights Watch’s US program.
“We know that there are politicians in western European countries as well as other countries around the world who see him as a model for really anti-rights, anti-refugee policy.”
A spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Washington said there were more than 60,000 Syrian refugees awaiting resettlement in the US whose fate remains entirely unclear under the incoming administration.
UNHCR is responsible for selecting individuals for resettlement following application interviews. Such individuals are then screened by agencies including the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), subjected to biometric security checks and interviewed by DHS agents. The process can take up to two years.
Immigration hawks hope Trump will move towards a lengthy or even permanent moratorium on such arrivals.
“For most Americans, if we did not admit refugees for five years while we explored the problem of vetting in this unique circumstance, most people would not shed a tear,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a conservative immigration thinktank to which Trump transition adviser Kris Kobach serves as a legal counsel.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative migrant research organization, said he hoped a moratorium would also be placed on refugees from Somalia and Iraq.
“If it were me, I would reassess the whole idea of refugee resettlement, which I think is mistaken because the vast majority of people we resettle are not in some kind of emergency need of a new place to stay,” Krikorian said.
Trump has provided scant details regarding the “extreme vetting” he would seek to implement. In a campaign speech in Arizona, he advocated new screening tests that might provide an “ideological certification to make sure that those we are admitting to our country share our values and love our people”.
Krikorian acknowledged that the national security benefits of such a scheme were likely to “be on the margins” but said he supported the proposal nonetheless.
“It’s just a return to a cold war approach to excluding ideological enemies of the United States,” he said.