President Trump's Fake Signing Ceremony is Part of a Disturbing Pattern

June 6th 2017

Mike Rothschild

On Monday, President Trump held another of the elaborate ceremonies he's previously employed for signing executive orders. After announcing his plans to privatize the nation's air traffic control system and put it in the hands of a privately funded non-profit organization, he sat down with pens, a circle of admirers around him, and cameras clicking.



With people like Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Ted Cruz standing there, Trump signed documents, handed out pens, and reveled in rounds of applause for the bold step he'd just taken.

Except the papers Trump signed didn't represent legislation passed by Congress, or even an executive order written by his White House staff. What Trump actually signed was, according to the White House, "a decision memo and letter transmitting legislative principles to Congress." Essentially, Trump signed a letter announcing his intent to overhaul the air traffic control system.


As Time Magazine put it after the ceremony, "he wasn't actually signing something that would have any tangible impact on what he had just proposed." Congress is free to disregard any or all of what Trump is proposing, and it's likely that any bill eventually put forth in Congress will face broad bipartisan opposition, as a 2016 bill attempting to privatize air traffic control did. 

Moreover, a "decision memo" is not one of the traditionally recognized presidential signing vehicles, such as an executive order, executive memorandum, or presidential proclamation. Decision memos have been used in past administrations literally as ways for a president to make a choice between options that had been worked up for them. None have ever been signed with the ceremony or flourish that Trump used.


For example, economist Steven Rattner, in his book describing the process by which the Obama administration bailed out the auto industry, wrote that he and his team had to "formalize our recommendations in a 'presidential decision memo' and presumably sit down with Obama as he made up his mind." 

There are also examples of decision memos written for Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan relating to mundane personnel and organizational matters. They're generally seen as part of the flood of paperwork that every president deals with, and none were celebrated as causes to hand out pens and take pictures.



Monday's signing reflects a deeper and more troubling trend in the Trump administration: the emphasis on show over substance, to the point where observers have openly wondered if anything he says can be trusted. Trump has touted fake bills and deals, used theatrical tricks to convince the media he was doing something, and failed to deliver on showy public promises he made.

Some of these include:

  • He spoke glowingly of Congress passing a tax bill that doesn't exist
  • The administration brokered  a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia that was later found to be almost entirely based on previous letters of intent for future sales
  • Before his inauguration, he held a press conference announcing his "divestiture" from his businesses, using what were almost certainly folders full of blank paper
  • He tweeted that "his people" would have a full report on Russian meddling in the election within 90 days of his inauguration—a deadline that came and went with little notice

Whether Trump's decision memo has any impact on future legislation remains to be seen. But it served as an effective way for a president who has accomplished little in the way of passing law to make it look like he was taking bold action. In that regard, it was almost entirely for show.