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Fact check: No, Biden didn't say that signing lots of executive orders makes you a dictator

Posted January 29, 2021 1:42 p.m. EST

— President Joe Biden has signed more than 35 executive orders, actions and memorandums in his first week-and-a-half in the Oval Office. And some of Biden's critics are saying or suggesting that his frequent early use of the presidential pen contradicts a dramatic statement he made on the campaign trail in October.

"Biden signed off on a record number of executive orders during his first week -- but just three months ago, according to Biden himself, that's something only a dictator would do," Fox News host Sean Hannity said on air Tuesday.

"As recently as October, now-President Biden said you can't legislate by executive action unless you're a dictator. Well, in one week, he's signed more than 30 unilateral actions, and working Americans are getting short shrift," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday in the Senate.

"By his own definition, Biden is already governing like a dictator," read a headline on an opinion column in The Hill by commentator Joe Concha. Biden signs more executive orders despite claims he once said they were for dictators," read a headline in the conservative Washington Examiner. "Joe Biden admits he is governing like a 'dictator,'" said a caption posted on Instagram by Charlie Kirk, founder and president of conservative student group Turning Point USA.

Facts First: These Biden critics are taking his "dictator" remark out of context. Biden explicitly campaigned on signing various executive orders, including those to rescind some of then-President Donald Trump's own executive orders, and he didn't say in October that signing a large number of orders means a president is a dictator. Rather, after Biden rejected the idea of using an executive order to raise taxes on corporations and wealthy people, he said there are "things you can't do by executive order unless you're a dictator." In other words, Biden was saying what he had said before and has said since -- that executive orders are unconstitutional for some particular purposes.

In an email, McConnell spokesman David Popp forcefully rejected CNN's conclusion that McConnell had inaccurately characterized Biden's "dictator" remark. Popp said that given the full text of what Biden said in October, and other campaign comments Biden made about his belief in a consensus-seeking philosophy of governing, "your fact check doesn't check out."

We respectfully disagree. Let's go through some relevant history.

Biden's comments

Biden argued during the campaign that other politicians, including some of his rivals in the Democratic primary, were proposing to use executive orders in situations where orders could not properly be used. He told the New York Times editorial board in December 2019 that it would be unconstitutional to sign an executive order to ban possession of assault weapons or to make substantial changes to the judiciary.

At an ABC News town hall event in Philadelphia in October 2020, Biden was asked by host George Stephanopoulos if it is wise to carry out his proposals to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy at a time when the economy is weak. After Biden defended his plan, Stephanopoulos said, "So there's not going to be any delay on the tax increases."

Biden responded: "No, well, I've gotta get the votes. I gotta get the votes. That's why -- you know, the one thing that I -- I have this strange notion. We are a democracy. Some of my Republican friends and some of my Democratic friends even, occasionally say, 'Well, if you can't get the votes, by executive order you're going to do something.' Things you can't do by executive order unless you're a dictator. We're a democracy. We need consensus."

This was familiar Biden rhetoric. Like his previous comments to the Times, the "dictator" remark was a criticism of proposals to use executive orders for initiatives that require congressional approval, not an assertion that signing a lot of executive orders is inherently tyrannical.

Popp argued that Biden's subsequent sentence about the need for "consensus" shows that he was making a broad statement about his philosophy of governing, not just speaking narrowly about executive orders for a change to tax policy. And Popp noted that Biden had repeatedly spoken, including in the Times interview, about the importance of bringing people together and working through Congress.

That's fair enough. But McConnell still went too far when he implied that Biden signing a bunch of executive orders means he contradicted the "dictator" comment in particular.

There's also some additional important context.

Biden's campaign promises

Multiple Biden executive orders simply rescind policies Trump had imposed through his own executive orders without public complaint from McConnell and other Biden critics. And, critically, Biden promised during the campaign that he would sign significant executive orders. In fact, many of Biden's early-presidency executive orders fulfil explicit campaign pledges.

For example, Biden signed a series of orders aimed at combating climate change -- just as his campaign climate plan, which is still on his website, said he would: "On day one, Biden will sign a series of new executive orders with unprecedented reach that go well beyond the Obama-Biden Administration platform and put us on the right track."

Biden's order to rescind Trump's ban on transgender people serving openly in the military was another campaign promise. So were his orders to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration program Trump tried to eliminate, to pursue a "Buy American" purchasing policy, to halt Trump's withdrawal from the World Health Organization and rescind Trump's Muslim-focused travel ban.

After a Washington Examiner correspondent brought up the "dictator" comment on Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted to reporters that Biden has also proposed major legislation on pandemic relief and immigration. She said Biden is "going to use the levers that every president in history has used: executive actions. But he also feels it's important to work with Congress -- and not just one party, but both parties -- to get things done."

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