The Quantified Presidency

In counting Trump’s “historic accomplishments” the administration shows it values size over substance.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

First, it was crowd size. Then, it was health-care bill size. On Tuesday, the Trump administration continued its habit of conflating quantity with quality by releasing a list detailing President Donald Trump’s “historic accomplishments” from his first 100 days in office, a milestone he will officially reach on Saturday. The list boasts of the number of Trump’s Congressional Review Act resolutions, his executive actions, and laws he’s signed since his inauguration.

A few of these figures appear to be wrong. But what matters more is that the administration is bothering to count them in the first place.

Tuesday’s press release predicts that Trump will have signed 30 executive orders by his 100th day in office, a feat the administration says is greater than that of any other president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom it credits with signing only nine executive orders. Roosevelt actually signed 99 executive orders by June 12th, his 100th day in office.

On Twitter, historian Peter Schulman offered a plausible theory for how the press release might have gotten it wrong: Perhaps it was citing the numbers from the American Presidency Project, which appears to list only the most consequential executive orders from past presidents. Schulman also pointed out that while the press release is correct in saying that President Truman signed 25 executive orders within the first 100 days of his 1949 inauguration, Truman’s first 100 days actually took place after he took over for Roosevelt in 1945. In that year, Truman signed more than twice that many executive orders.

Accuracy aside, it’s revealing that the Trump administration is boasting about the number of executive orders and laws the president has signed, rather than highlighting the impact of those laws. The release says, correctly, that Trump has signed 28 laws in his first 100 days—more than any president since Harry Truman. That tally includes a recent law funding NASA and another authorizing the National Science Foundation to promote entrepreneurial programs for women.

But it also includes a dozen pieces of legislation rolling back regulations issued by President Obama, and three joint resolutions appointing men to the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. In March, Trump signed H.R. 609, dubbing the Veterans Affairs health-care center in Butler County, Pennsylvania, the “Abie Abraham VA Clinic.” Another act declares an outpatient clinic in American Samoa the “Faleomavaega Eni Fa’aua’a Hunkin VA Clinic.”

In other words, not all laws have equal impact. In his first 100 days as president, Bill Clinton had signed the Family and Medical Leave Act. By March 2009, President Barack Obama had signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law, and later, employed the economic stimulus package intended to end the recession.

But counting, rather than evaluating, has become a trademark of an administration focused on ratings. During a press briefing in March, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer illustrated the difference between the House Republicans’ new health-care proposal and the Affordable Care Act by setting them side by side on the dais in the West Wing.

“This is the Democrats’,” Spicer said, gesturing to the taller stack of papers. Then he pointed to the smaller stack. “This is us,” he said, adding, “I think the greatest illustration of the differences in the approaches is that size.” But being shorter in length doesn’t make legislation inherently better: The GOP proposal failed despite its lower page count, because House Republicans couldn’t agree on its contents.

In Friday’s interview with the Associated Press, Trump complained that the first-100-days threshold is an “artificial barrier” that is “not very meaningful.” It’s a critique this latest release from the White House appears to bolster.