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In consequential week, Trump uses pen to shape immigration, health care, Iran deal

President Trump, unable to push big legislation through Congress, exercised his executive power in a big way.

President Trump waves after signing an executive order on health care in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Trump waves after signing an executive order on health care in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)Read moreEvan Vucci

WASHINGTON — President Trump this week provided a robust example of the old political adage that "elections have consequences."

Unable to muscle much through Congress, Trump nevertheless took multiple steps that could have lasting consequences on immigration, health care and the Iran nuclear deal, using pronouncements and pen strokes to reshape some of the country's most charged debates.

While in one way the actions show the breadth of executive power, they also demonstrate its limits, said Matthew Kerbel, chair of Villanova Universitu's political science department. One president's executive actions can be quickly undone by a successor. It's harder to repeal a law.

His moves come after President Barack Obama, stymied in his final years in office by Republican resistance in Congress, used his phone and pen to advance many of his goals — prompting outcries from Republicans who called him an "imperial president."

Trump is now asserting his broad authority to weaken his predecessor's legacy.

On Sunday Trump outlined stiff conditions for a congressional deal on so-called "dreamers," undocumented immigrants who grew up in the United States after being brought to the country as young children; Obama had issued an order to protect them from deportation.

On Thursday Trump took two steps to undercut the Affordable Care Act, loosening some of the law's requirements and announcing plans to stop $7 billion in premium subsidies. These steps, experts say, could decimate individual insurance markets, spike costs, and ultimately lead to fewer people with health coverage.

And Friday he disavowed the Iran international nuclear deal, taking a step toward ending it — though stopping short of scrapping it, at least for now.

Kerbel noted that Trump's show of strength came after a weekend when Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) issued one of the most scathing rebukes of the president, calling the White House an "adult day care center."

"If there's one thing we've seen from Donald Trump," Kerbel said, "there's always a reaction to a challenge."

Each step also helped Trump signal to his supporters that he was working to keep bold campaign promises. They also set up looming deadlines that could force congressional negotiations to try to avert some of the most drastic fallout. Lawmakers could still strike deals to protect "dreamers," as Trump has urged, restore the insurance subsidies and keep the Iran deal intact — though in each case the president will seek concessions from Democrats in exchange for any compromises to soften his moves.

"A president can be hamstrung by the legislative process and see his agenda stall in Congress, and yet exercise executive authority in order to shape events and move policy in his direction," Kerbel said. "We are certainly seeing that."

He added, "This feels like the most vindictive week of his presidency, because it almost feels as if he's doing these things because he can, because he can't get anything else done."

Conservatives, however, hailed each step, seeing Trump's moves as ensuring tougher border security, freeing health-care markets from government and showing strength toward Iran.

"Obamacare has proven itself to be a fatally flawed law," House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) said Thursday night in response to the president's moves on the Affordable Care Act, the health law signed by Obama. Ryan also praised the move on Iran, saying Friday that "simply enforcing a fatally flawed agreement is not sufficient."

Democrats and many health policy experts countered that Trump's moves will raise insurance premiums for millions of Americans, particularly those who have the worst illnesses and need coverage the most; will disrupt already-shaky insurance markets; and will endanger a deal that has pushed Iran further away from obtaining nuclear weapons. The dreamers, they say, could be punished for actions they had no role in.

"He certainly said that he was going to take all these actions, but seeing them all together in one week makes you realize just how bankrupt his policies are," said Sam Berger, a senior policy adviser at the liberal Center for American Progress.

Trump, of course, has already utilized executive powers — pulling the U.S. out of international deals on trade and climate change, issuing tough restrictions on immigration from several countries, and rolling back a requirement that employers offer insurance covering birth control.

But rarely has he taken so many steps so quickly on such varied fronts.