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What's the Difference Between Executive Orders, Memoranda, and Proclamations, Legally Speaking?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on January 30, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It was a busy first week for President Trump. In its first seven days, the new administration issued 17 executive orders, memoranda, and proclamations, taking action on issues from public schools and pipelines to immigration and national security.

So what do all these presidential actions actually do, and how to they differ?

Executive Orders

An executive order is an official, legally binding mandate from the president to federal agencies under the executive branch, advising them on how to interpret and enforce federal law. Under the Constitution, presidents have "executive power" to direct the day-to-day operations of the federal government, and although executive orders aren't specifically addressed in the document, most agree that such orders are legal as long "as the president has authority in the policy area, and those policies are a reasonable interpretation of court precedent."

But some courts have issued temporary or permanent stays on the enforcement of certain executive orders. Executive orders are printed in the Federal Register and consecutively numbered for publication, and are thought to be a way to keep the public informed of policy directives.


An executive memorandum is -- effectively -- an executive order. They also interpret existing legislation and precedent, and advise agencies on how to act. The only real difference is that there is no established process for how presidents issue or publish executive memoranda. For example, memoranda do not have to be submitted to the Federal Register and may be issued without publication.


Proclamations are largely used for ceremonial purposes and generally don't carry any legal impact. For example, Trump's first proclamation was to designate last week as "National School Choice Week," during which parents should "evaluate the educational opportunities available for their children," and state and federal lawmakers should work to "expand school choice for millions of additional students." (The proclamation was issued on January 26, just two days before the designated week was over.)

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