fb-pixel Skip to main content

President Trump warned last week that a storm was coming, and it seems to have arrived. Not in the form most feared — a potentially cataclysmic conflict with North Korea — but instead as a deluge of executive actions designed to wash away key pillars of the legacy left by President Obama.

In quick succession, the Trump administration has undone Obama’s signature effort to fight global warming and made it easier for businesses to drop contraception coverage. What’s more, in the days ahead, Trump is expected to attack the US nuclear agreement with Iran and potentially punch a hole in the Affordable Care Act.


Here’s what has already happened, what might yet happen, and what you need to know.

What has happened

Ending the Clean Power Plan. In a Monday speech, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, said he was rescinding the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, a set of rules designed to substantially reduce carbon emission from power plants by 2030. Though released to great fanfare and equal contention, the rules were quickly blocked by the courts and have never actually gone into effect. So the immediate effect of Pruitt’s announcement will be slim. But the big question moving forward is what comes next. Something must because courts have found that the EPA has an obligation to regulate carbon emissions, but for now the only hint we have is Pruitt’s insistence that “the war against coal is over.”

Narrowing contraception coverage. Under the Affordable Care Act, contraception is supposed to be available at no cost. But religious businesses and organizations have long balked at this requirement, on the grounds that they couldn't provide such coverage without violating their faith. Court rulings and Obama administration waivers had created a situation where some religious organizations were allowed to opt out of contraception coverage, but the Trump administration has now expanded that exemption. Which means that fewer business owners will feel torn between the law and their faith but also that more women will be forced to pay for contraception out of pocket.


Expanding religious liberty. The First Amendment makes clear that freedom of worship is a core American right, but the tricky cases come when this right butts up against some other cherished values, like nondiscrimination. That’s why courts regularly wrestle with questions like: Can Native Americans use an illegal drug like peyote in their religious practice? Or can a baker with religious objections refuse to create a custom cake for a gay wedding? Last week, Trump’s Justice Department issued new instructions to ensure that religious liberty gets maximum deference in such difficult cases. This could make it easier for religious groups to qualify for government funds and potentially change how agencies handle LGBT rights.

What might happen

Decertifying the Iran nuclear deal. Even though international inspectors have said that Iran is complying with its obligations under the nuclear agreement signed two years ago, the New York Times and others report that Trump might refuse to certify Iran’s compliance on the grounds that its missile program, its support for terrorist groups, and its interference in the affairs of neighbors all violate the “spirit” of the nuclear agreement. The effect could be purely symbolic. Trump has said that he won’t reimpose sanctions on his own (though he could); instead, he’d ask Congress to make that determination. Meanwhile, our European partners have expressed alarm at Trump’s intention, stressing that the risk of breaking this deal is a nuclear-armed Iran and an arms race in the Middle East.


Undermining the Affordable Care Act. While Congress has failed to repeal and replace the ACA, the Trump administration continues to take steps that actively undermine the program. It has dithered on a key subsidy for insurers, shortened the enrollment period, dramatically reduced funding for outreach, and might now be planning to undermine protections for people with preexisting conditions. Currently, it’s illegal for insurers to provide “skinny” plans with limited coverage or charge sick people more, but a proposed executive order would create a loophole for certain plans offered by small employers. If it becomes law, healthy people looking for cheaper insurance could join these skimpy plans at lower rates, leaving the rest of the market overfull with sicker people — which could dramatically drive up prices.

The key thing to understand about all these changes is that they’re not legislative proposals whose fate will be determined in Congress. These are things the administration has done — or can do — unilaterally, using executive orders and agency rule-making.

Such was always the danger of Obama’s go-it-alone approach. When one president makes policy, his successor can undo it. Only the courts stand in the way, and that’s where the next phase of these fights is likely to happen.


Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the U.S. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.