8 ways Biden would use the Trump playbook to unravel the Republican president's legacy

  • Joe Biden has big plans to torpedo President Trump’s policies on everything from healthcare to the environment if he wins in November.
  • He’ll use the same tactics Trump did to topple the policies of President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Biden, according to former presidential transition team and executive branch officials interviewed by Insider.
  • Expect a Biden administration to freeze pending rules, rewrite existing regulations, reverse course in lawsuits, and wipe out Trump executive orders if he wins.
  • “I certainly expect that a Biden administration would use … all the tools that were available,” said John Cruden, who was an assistant attorney general during the Obama administration.
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There's an obvious playbook waiting for Joe Biden should he win the White House with a mandate to tear down President Donald Trump's legacy. 

It's the same one Trump used four years ago.

Trump's early days in office were largely devoted to obliterating everything President Barack Obama accomplished over two terms. 

Each step of the way, the Republican president relished his moves to pull the US out of Obama-negotiated international agreements, dramatically shift priorities at federal agencies, and issue a spate of executive orders.

"Don't forget, President Obama — they say he was a great president," Trump said in August. "Well, you can't be a great president when much of what he's done we've undone." 

But a Biden win means there's nothing stopping him from undoing all of Trump's work too. 

"Every administration as they come into office will have identified guidance, rules, regulations, executive orders that they want to change and they'll go in with a plan and make changes as rapidly as the process will allow," said Mike Leavitt, a former Utah GOP governor and George W. Bush administration Cabinet official who led Mitt Romney's  presidential transition planning effort during the 2012 White House campaign.   

"That's part of what you win when you win an election is the ability to do that," Leavitt added. 

You can bank on Biden's team using the exact same tactics to shred Trump's policies, according to former presidential transition team and executive branch officials interviewed by Insider. 

"I certainly expect that a Biden administration would use …  all the tools that were available," said John Cruden, who was stationed at the Justice Department as an assistant attorney general during the Obama administration. "A lot of things were done by executive orders and policy statements and guidance documents" under Trump, Cruden added. "Those are way easier to undo." 

Indeed, the Democratic presidential nominee is campaigning on big promises that he'll demolish pretty much everything that Trump and his allies have spent the past four years putting in place. Biden's campaign slogan is "Build Back Better," and he's pledging major reversals on Trump policies on healthcare, immigration, environment, LGBTQ rights and education. 

"Joe Biden will consider every tool available, including Congressional and executive actions, to reverse Trump's damaging policies and restore critical environmental and public health protections for the millions of Americans and communities facing the pandemic and economic crisis," said Jamal Brown, national press secretary for the Biden campaign. 

It's the job of Biden's transition team — more than three dozen staffers already are working behind the scenes to prepare for Democrats winning back the White House — to scrutinize everything Trump has done over the past four years. They're mapping out which policies they want to torpedo and how they want to do it. 

Freezing rules

Here's how Biden's administration would get things started rolling back the Trump legacy: On day one, January 20, 2021, the new Democratic president's White House chief of staff issues a memo that halts all federal regulations that are still pending. 

This won't be a surprise to any Washington veterans. Republican and Democratic administrations alike have issued these memos, which make it easier for new political appointees to change or unravel rules they don't like. 

"You can be utterly confident," Cruden said, "that the new administration within a day or two would pull every rule that was not final." 

Trump's first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, issued the most recent regulatory freeze with his memo on the president's first day in office. That stalled last-minute rules issued under the Obama administration like Endangered Species Act protections for bumblebees and energy efficiency standards aimed at combating climate change. Obama's top aide, Rahm Emanuel, did it right after George W. Bush left office; as Andrew Card in the new Bush White House did it to Bill Clinton. 

Such a freeze would give Biden's team time to review policies if Trump loses in November and his team issues any last-minute or "midnight" rules between the election and Inauguration Day. 

Trump world isn't talking about its plans if it gets the boot in November. For now, the president is governing as if he'll win a second term. But GOP veterans anticipate there could indeed be last-minute deregulatory actions.

"I don't know if they're cooking those up, but it's a possibility," said Myron Ebell, who worked on Trump's 2016 transition and is director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. 

Killing rules on the books 

The Biden team is also eyeing a tool that allows Congress to reject any Trump administration rules that were recently put on the books before Trump leaves office. 

It's allowed through a law called the Congressional Review Act, which was seldom used before Trump entered the White House. By May 2017, the Trump administration — backed by a GOP-led US House and Senate — had used the CRA 14 times to unravel Obama rules. 

Prior to Trump's tenure, it had been used once, when the George W. Bush administration axed a 2001 ergonomics rule issued by the outgoing Clinton administration. 

"That was an unprecedented degree of regulatory rollback," Daniel Esty, a law and environmental professor at Yale University who worked on Obama's 2008 transition team, said of Trump's moves. If Biden wins, he expects "a significant attempt to pull back on a lot of that agenda." 

Using the CRA would depend in large part on the makeup of Congress next year. If Biden is in the White House and Democrats hold the House and Senate, the CRA is far more likely to be effective than if the GOP controls either chamber. 

Democrats are keeping close tabs on which Trump rules could be ensnared by the CRA if Biden wins. A big one for environmental advocates is Trump's policy to speed up federal permitting of infrastructure projects like highways and pipelines. Because it was finalized so late in Trump's term, it could be rescinded by Congress and a Biden White House. 

Writing new rules 

A Biden administration would also be in a position to scrap or rewrite any Trump rules that are already on the books. Those include policies dealing with air and water pollution, healthcare, technology, and every other issue that the alphabet soup of federal government agencies has the power to regulate. 

Every presidential administration issues a steady stream of new regulations, but the pace of rulemaking could be even more frenzied than usual under a Biden administration aiming for swift reversals from the Trump era. 

Still, writing federal rules (or scrapping existing ones) takes time. Agencies under federal law must give public notice, allow anyone to submit comments, and also explain why changes to existing rules are necessary and legal. Mess any of that up and the Biden administration's policies become highly vulnerable to the inevitable challenges that come in court.

The Biden campaign's informal policy groups are already compiling lists of Trump rules that they think should be proposed for reversal come Inauguration Day. 

About-face on international deals

Biden has promised to reenter the US into the Paris climate agreement "on day one" of his administration. Trump has moved to pull America out of that major United Nations-negotiated global warming accord, which the Obama administration signed in 2016.

But Trump's attempt at a unilateral exit won't be formal until the day after the 2020 presidential election. 

Biden has also pledged for the US to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, another big Obama foreign policy legacy agreement aimed at preventing Tehran from securing a nuclear weapon. Trump revoked the deal in 2018, calling it "a horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made." 

Legal 180s

Another powerful option for the Biden administration: reverse the federal government's position in ongoing lawsuits. 

Like any new administration, Biden's would have the authority to change course in any active litigation over major Trump-era policies. For example, where the Trump Justice Department may have been asking a court to uphold a policy held up by legal maneuvers, a Biden-led DOJ could argue that that same policy is actually illegal. 

Federal judges don't typically take kindly to such reversals. But Trump and other presidents before him have used this approach after a transition in power where the party controlling the White House also changes. 

In a high-profile Supreme Court case early in 2018, Trump's lawyers argued that Ohio could cancel citizens' voting registrations if they hadn't confirmed their eligibility within two years. Obama's lawyers had said the opposite — that Ohio was acting illegally purging eligible voters from the rolls. 

The Justice Department had changed course in at least 10 major federal cases during Trump's first year in office on issues like labor law, voting, immigration, and health care, The Wall Street Journal reported. 

Obama did it, too. In 2009, for example, Obama's lawyers asked a federal appeals court to pause a legal battle over a contentious Bush-era air pollution standard that critics said was too weak. The new Democratic-led administration later told the court it planned to reconsider the regulation itself. A very similar fight with the roles reversed also played out during Bush's term when its EPA shifted away from the Clinton administration's more aggressive approach to curtailing power plant emissions. 

Executive orders

One of the fastest ways for a new administration to enact policies is with the president's pen. Those orders are also by nature extremely easy for the next president to toss out, and Biden could change or revoke any Trump executive orders if he's in charge of the White House. 

In his first few weeks in office, Trump signed piles of executive orders signaling his priorities on everything from directing the construction of a U.S.-Mexico border wall to suspending the entry of immigrants from certain Muslim-majority countries into the United States. 

Some of Obama's first executive orders in 2009 were new ethics guidelines for his administration and an order directing the closure of the Guantánamo military prison within a year (that didn't happen and the prison remains open). 

Obama relied heavily on executive orders for his policies, too, after some of his big-ticket legislative efforts — like climate change and immigration reform — failed to win the necessary support on Capitol Hill. "I've got a pen to take executive actions where Congress won't," he said after Democrats lost control of the Senate in the 2014 midterms. 

New administrations often roll out rapid-fire executive orders in their early days to show that they're following through on their campaign trail promises. Many of Trump's early orders unraveled Obama policies; early Biden orders could similarly undo Trump's work. 

"You could do 100 executive orders if you wanted on day one," said Chris Lu, a former Obama White House official who was executive director of the Obama-Biden transition team in 2008. 

A new administration will typically roll them out over time, however, as a way to placate its political base and even to galvanize support for more aggressive actions down the line. "A lot of these are messaging opportunities as well, so you want to send a clear signal," Lu said.   

New leaders

Personnel is policy, and a new Biden team would send a clear signal — as Trump did — about his policy plans as he announces new appointments to lead federal agencies. 

A president installs about 4,000 people throughout the federal government — including more than 1,000 with jobs that require Senate confirmation. 

The Trump administration signaled its priorities for environmental agencies by installing leaders who promoted a deregulatory agenda. For example, Energy Secretary Rick Perry had long called for abolishing the Department of Energy before he got the job leading it at the start of Trump's term. 

A Biden team would likely draw upon former Obama administration officials, presidential campaign staff, Biden's former campaign trail rivals, and progressive activists. 

New department leaders offer fresh plans and directions for their own agency staffers and for the public. They can send clear signals about what issues the federal workforce should be prioritizing and can issue guidance documents about how they plan to enforce the law. 


Getting a new law passed is the best way a president can ensure that his policies will endure. But congressional gridlock and partisan sparring has made major legislation hard to come by in recent years. 

Of course, Biden would enter the Oval Office with a long legislative wish list packed with items like infrastructure spending, climate change bills, healthcare overhauls, and immigration reform. 

Notably, Biden hopes to convince Congress to spend a whopping $2 trillion to rebuild infrastructure, combat global warming, and kickstart an economy reeling from the coronavirus pandemic. He also pledged to make Roe v. Wade "the law of the land" if he's in the White House. 

The Democrat's chances for success on the legislative front would depend in part on whether his party also holds majorities in both chambers, and also on whether lukewarm Senate Democrats would really go along with a move to ax the filibuster rule that requires 60 votes to advance most controversial bills. 

Biden would also have to prioritize his legislative goals amid the inevitable 2022 midterm political pressures that begin immediately after he takes office, all while grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout. And like every other White House resident, a president Biden wouldn't get all the big bills on his wish list. 

"Campaigns are almost always based on the assumption that they'll get exactly what they want," Leavitt said. "That isn't always the case." 

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