On the campaign trail, Trump said that he preferred to get things done by passing legislation through Congress, but that if they weren't up to the task of Making America Great Again, he would sign executive orders all day long -- both to undo or counter-sign those of Obama, as well as his own distinctive orders.
When he first took office, he did indeed sign one major executive order after another, complete with photo ops and Twitter updates. But it seems like it's been awhile since we've seen one of those. Sure enough, check out the list of executive actions so far.
Within the first 10 days, he ordered The Wall to be built, sanctuary cities to be defunded, and a travel ban placed on seven countries with jihadist problems. Then the ban on executive branch employees from becoming lobbyists (end the revolving door of corruption), looking at a new Glass-Steagall Act, the revised Muslim travel ban, and the last Trumpian order on March 13 -- a comprehensive plan to drain the swamp in the entire executive branch of government. Among others.
Since then, two and a half months ago, the only Trump-themed orders have dealt with America-first trade policies. That was a yuge part of his appeal during the primaries and general, particularly in Rust Belt states that he narrowly carried. This is the one issue where the Establishment has caved, since the GOP does actually want to control the executive branch at the national level, and that's not possible unless they give the Rust Belt voters something to turn out for. Even Establishment Republicans like Tom Cotton are speaking on behalf of "Buy American / Hire American".
And of course there have been other orders that will please Republican / Trump voters, such as ones favoring more lenient energy / oil policies and boilerplate about respecting religious freedom in health services, but those would have been implemented under any old Republican president. Jeb, Marco, Ted, all would have signed those if they'd ridden into the White House on the protectionist trade platform.
The same pattern holds in the presidential memoranda: immediately he issued memos on withdrawing from TPP, defeating ISIS, re-organizing the NSC to reduce the Pentagon and intel agencies' influence (later overturned), and the last Trumpian memo on March 6 -- extreme vetting of immigrants. At the end of April, several memos address trade imbalances.
Compared to the rapid-fire pace of major orders early on, the flatlining of the past two and a half months on everything except for trade, and the standard Republican fare (oil pipelines, deregulation), looks striking. Trump is a man of action who sleeps at most six hours each night, and came into office intent on not wasting a day when there's so much to do in so little time. At the very least he could spend part of each day counter-signing a bunch of Obama's orders (that list should have been researched and drawn up by Inauguration Day).
And when was the last time you remember those photo ops of Trump signing the order, with others watching nearby, him flashing the order to the cameras, and handing the pen to some lucky official? It's been since March for me. Those photo ops really established an image of experience for a man who came into office without ever working in government or the military, as well as emphasizing his own authority apart from that of Congress.
Indeed, rather than continue to pursue the MAGA agenda through executive orders, the White House has gotten bogged down in the boring and pointless legislative agenda of the do-nothing Congress. It got sucked into the healthcare quagmire beginning in March, and then various budget and tax code reform battles since then. That's all you hear about in the media -- healthcare, tax cuts -- and that's all there is from the White House's own team, because the White House has ceded the setting of the agenda to Congress (and to the Pentagon on war).
It's obvious that the GOP Congress plans to stall for time by pursuing issues that Trump did not win the primary or the general on, so that they'll never have to get around to the Trumpian issues, while he signs whatever BS they churn out on healthcare and taxes -- assuming they ever hammer out an agreement in Congress. They're going to keep sending bills back and forth on those two issues until Trump's term is over. That way, they don't outright defy the President by pursuing contrary policies, but they also don't have to get their cuckservative hands dirty with populist and nationalist outcomes either (aside from trade).
The timing of the shift from Trump the Order-Giver to Trump the Congress-Herder coincides with the general withdrawal of focus on Trumpian issues, other than trade. Most notably the total 180 on foreign policy, but also the non-results on immigration / deportations / refugees, draining the swamp, prosecuting leakers, the topic of illegal campaign surveillance, etc.
Sometime toward the end of March, he got The Talk from the Pentagon boarding party, letting him know that The Blob were through tolerating Trump being Trump, and either he get on board with the Establishment's agenda -- except for their one concession, trade -- or be marginalized, delegitimized, and perhaps even shoved out of office. The first key signal there was the Pentagon's strike on Syria in early April and insistence ever since on regime change, contradicting what the Secretary of State, UN Ambassador, Press Secretary, and of course the President himself had been saying less than a week before the strike.
The entire Establishment has let the anti-Russian witch hunt grow, fester, devour more and more of the news cycle, and threaten Trump's political capital in DC. If Trump goes back to the issues of his first two months, and all of the campaign season, they will ratchet up the intensity even more and begin impeachment proceedings. It's clear by now that they don't care about what the lowly voters want -- otherwise, they would be implementing the Trump agenda.
As the witch hunt only grows and grows, it is more necessary than ever for Trump to simply change the topic by signing one major executive order after another. If he cannot, for threat of impeachment, then just keep hammering on the trade theme over and over. Or counter-signing Obama's orders to gain favor with the GOP Establishment.
If he's feeling bold, take the sledgehammer to one of the Democrats' interest groups, so as to not upset the GOP Establishment. Order the Antitrust Division at DoJ to break up each of the five media monopoly companies into 10 apiece, of similar market share size. That ought to tie up the media from whining about Russia, and focus on their own very survival for once.
Anything to drive the news cycle away from the witch hunt -- and more importantly, to drive the actual goings-on in the government away from the witch hunt. Leave his enemies dealing with a stream of executive orders, rather than the constant defense against the witch hunt charge du jour.
Both Trump fans and Trump haters came into the new administration thinking he would be dictatorial, unrelenting, and a bull in a china shop. That lasted for about two months, before The Talk, and now it has become clear that if anything, the swamp will be dictating to him, as he has no leverage other than the size of his supporter base (useless in DC unless he wants to really mobilize us against the swamp, or until it's time for us to vote again). And he will have to wait as Congress and the courts drag their feet, while executive branch agencies including the Pentagon block his path with "leave this to the professionals".
Trump is not a powerful dictator, as he has stopped signing his style of decrees long ago, and many of them have been over-turned (travel ban, call for Glass-Steagall, anti-Pentagon structure for NSC, border wall). Instead, he is David trying to slay the totalitarian Goliath that is not only sidelining his agenda but actively trying to over-turn the election results and kick him out.