February 13, 2017 (Fault Lines) – By February 13th of his presidency, Bush had only managed three executive orders. Obama, clearly determined to show Bush how to rule by decree, cranked out fourteen in the same time period. So far, the Federal Register has only recorded seven Trump executive orders, but that doesn’t count all the orders that have come out this February, including a raft of new orders on crime reduction that landed this past Thursday and immediately provoked a data-driven response from the press.
There are three of these orders: the first establishes a task force on crime reduction and public safety, the second emphasizes federal efforts against transnational crime, and the third announces the intention to prevent violence against law enforcement officers.
Response to these orders was swift. The ACLU announced that “President Trump intends to build task forces to investigate and stop national trends that don’t exist.” Over at the Atlantic, Trump was accused of offering “Illusory Answers to Imaginary Crime Problems.” The New York Times wasn’t far behind. Each offers some variation of the theme: “crime is down, the numbers show we’re right, Trump’s orders are silly and ineffective.”
On substantive policy, these writers are not wrong. The first order directs the Attorney General to establish a task force to find ways to reduce crime. Presidents love task forces. Instead of a lame ad hoc committee of a dozen or so people talking in a room while drinking bad government coffee, you have a task force of a dozen or so people talking in a room while drinking bad government coffee. Badass. Plus, since the president or, in this case, Attorney General Sessions, gets to pick those dozen people, there’s pretty much no risk that your task force will say something you don’t want to hear.
President Obama issued a similar executive order in 2014 to create his Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Comparing the two, you get the sense that Obama had a slightly better idea of how to organize this rodeo: his order set out the task force organizational structure and provides some operational guidance for their meetings, while Trump’s does not even indicate if the meetings will be public or not. Beyond the specifics however, the mechanics of the orders are the same: a task force will meet, and produce some purely advisory suggestions. If you like them, it’s a great way to add the presidential imprimatur to something you wanted to do anyway. If you don’t, the printed report is still pretty handy for propping open doors or fixing wobbly tables.
Order two, directing various federal law enforcement agencies to stick it to transnational crime and review their efforts, offers more of the same featureless generality as order one. In fact, order two probably has the laziest language of any of the orders. Its general goal is to have the Attorney General improve coordination among agencies and evaluate how they are using their money and personnel.
The actual verbs in the order, however, are much lazier. For example, the Attorney General doesn’t have to improve the coordination of federal agencies, merely to “work to improve the coordination of federal agencies.” It’s like how if you have to lose weight; you failed if you’re no lighter at the end of the process. If you only have to work to lose weight, you can still be a winner even if you didn’t lose an ounce. You worked at it after all – you cut one whole fry from your dinner. Throw in a couple of commands that only have to be “to the extent deemed useful by the Co-Chairs, and in their discretion” (looking at you sections (h) and (i)) and you’ve got an order that allows a whole lot of things, but requires almost nothing.
The third order, protecting law enforcement officers, is probably the blandest of the bunch. Section two of the order commands the Attorney General to coordinate state, federal, and local agencies to prevent violence against officers, prosecute that violence, and review existing programs designed to prevent violence. More coordination, more reviews – as former Attorney General Holder fumed on Twitter. It’s essentially a less specific, less substantive, less funded rerun of a 2011 Department of Justice initiative. Not only is Holder’s more specific, but his initiative named its coordination effort VALOR (Preventing Violence Against Law Enforcement and Ensuring Officer Resilience and Survivability) while Trump’s order doesn’t even have a tortured federal backronym. Sad.
So, three orders, each about as formless and general as an order can be without descending into actual incoherence. And yet, contrary to the conventional wisdom, these orders are likely to be incredibly effective. They will not, as Sean Spicer suggests, be effective at focusing the administration on crime. A toddler that got into the sugar bowl could offer more focus than these orders.
They will, however, keep the public focused on crime and on what Trump is doing about it. Obama’s first executive order on crime came more than two years after his election. Trump didn’t wait two months and now he has a task force that can hold an event every time the public stops worrying about crime. The goal here is fear and even a quick read of these orders shows how much better Trump is at stoking it. Here’s how Obama’s executive order on transnational crime described these groups:
[Transnational crime organizations] are becoming increasingly sophisticated and dangerous to the United States; they are increasingly entrenched in the operations of foreign governments and the international financial system, thereby weakening democratic institutions, degrading the rule of law, and undermining economic markets. These organizations facilitate and aggravate violent civil conflicts and increasingly facilitate the activities of other dangerous persons.
Not bad, but technical, nuanced. Now watch Trump’s order describe the same groups:
These organizations derive revenue through widespread illegal conduct, including acts of violence and abuse that exhibit a wanton disregard for human life. They, for example, have been known to commit brutal murders, rapes, and other barbaric acts…These groups are drivers of crime, corruption, violence, and misery…. A comprehensive and decisive approach is required to dismantle these organized crime syndicates and restore safety for the American people.
Short, simple, and just the right amount of brutality. This order lets you know who to be afraid of and who is going to protect you. The data that shows how silly and unnecessary these orders are? Doesn’t matter. If data mattered, Americans wouldn’t be pant-wettingly afraid of crime at a time when crime, even with minor upticks, remains at near historic lows. Trump’s orders may not be effective at fighting crime, but they’re going to be pretty effective at making the public think he’s fighting crime.
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