Democratic lawmakers and rights advocates voiced outrage and contempt overnight in response to a new five-page memo from the Justice Department sanctioned by President Donald Trump late Wednesday that would restrict federal funding to U.S. cities determined by Attorney General William Barr to be so-called "anarchist jurisdictions"—a term that made clear to critics the move is nothing short of an election-year canard designed to bolster the president's "law and order" campaign message.
"It's not 'anarchists' that will be hurt by this power grab; it's the residents."
—Katie Phang, legal analystAccording to the Washington Post's Jeff Stein—who characterized the move as an "extraordinary attack on political opponents just months ahead of the 2020 election" by Trump—the DOJ memo "directs the White House Office of Management and Budget [OMB] to give guidance to federal agencies on restricting funding to cities that 'defund' their police departments. The memo also directs the Justice Department within 14 days to come up with a list of localities that qualify as 'anarchist jurisdictions' and post that list publicly."
While Black Lives Matter protesters and others have called for "defunding" police departments in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and other victims this year, there has been little political purchase for the demand—which polls have shown remains largely unpopular—among most Democratic lawmakers. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has adamantly opposed cutting budgets as part of the solution to otherwise much-needed police and criminal justice reforms.
As Stein reports:
The memo comes as the president seeks to intensify his attacks on Democratic mayors of cities that have faced civil unrest amid protests against police brutality. It specifically calls for a review of federal funding that goes to Portland, Ore.; New York City; Seattle; and D.C. Legal experts said the White House maneuver to restrict funding would almost certainly be met by an immediate challenge in court.
Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, was gobsmacked over the latest threat by the president—especially as it arrived directly through the Justice Department.
Gupta cited the DOJ's memo—which broadly defines "anarchist jurisdictions" as an area "that unreasonably refuses to accept offers of law enforcement assistance by the federal government" or "any other related factors the Attorney General deems appropriate"—to express disbelief.
"This is actually happening. On our watch," Gupta said. "I can't imagine what four more years of Trump-Barr would mean for our democracy."
DOJ’s definition of “anarchist jurisdictions” includes “any other related factors the Attorney General deems appropriate”
This is actually happening. On our watch. I can’t imagine what four more years of Trump-Barr would mean for our democracy. https://t.co/jDmgNmSC4Z
— Vanita Gupta (@vanitaguptaCR) September 3, 2020
Kanya Bennett, senior legislative counsel with the ACLU, said the president's order and the DOJ memo should be seen as deeply troubling and misguided.
"There is an urgent need to divest from programs like the Department of Defense 1033 program, which gives military weapons to local police and suggests it's okay to treat communities like war zones and their residents like enemies," said Bennett. "But instead, this president wants to broadly strip funding from those cities that may dare to resist his lawless agenda."
"[Trump] should not hold hostage taxpayer funds as part of yet another campaign stunt that, at its core, seeks to suppress demands for racial justice and transformational changes to our policing institutions."
—Kanya Bennett, ACLUTrump, added Bennett, "should not hold hostage taxpayer funds as part of yet another campaign stunt that, at its core, seeks to suppress demands for racial justice and transformational changes to our policing institutions." She further vowed that the ACLU "will be closely monitoring any actions resulting from this unfounded and irresponsible memorandum, which accomplishes nothing more than to stoke the flames of racism and division across this country."
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Sam Berger, a former senior OMB official during the Obama administration, told the Post that legal action would be nearly certain if and when Trump follows through with the memo's threat and said: "This is a campaign document coming out of the White House."
Mayor Ted Wheeler of Portland, Oregon—who has clashed repeatedly with Trump—warned that the withdrawal of federal funds could possibly include money for "health, education and safety net dollars Americans need to get through the pandemic and economic crisis."
Trump threatens to withdraw federal funds, possibly including health, education and safety net dollars Americans need to get through the pandemic and economic crisis. Again, he targets cities - including ours - with democratic Mayors, which he calls “anarchist jurisdictions.”
— Mayor Ted Wheeler (@tedwheeler) September 3, 2020
"This is a new low, even for this president," said Wheeler in a statement late Wednesday. "He continues to believe that disenfranchising people living in this country to advance his petty grudges is an effective political strategy. The rest of us know it is dangerous, destructive, and divisive."
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York denounced the DOJ memo and the president's support for it. "We will not allow President Trump's malicious infantile ways to hurt New York City," Schumer tweeted. "Instead of these foolish stunts he ought to be focused on getting our country out of the COVID crisis."
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivered a similar message:
President Trump has actively sought to punish NYC since day one.
He let COVID ambush New York.
He refuses to provide funds that states and cities MUST receive to recover.
He is not a king. He cannot "defund" NYC.
It's an illegal stunt.
— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) September 2, 2020
Katie Phang, a legal analyst for NBC News, was among those who noted: "It's not 'anarchists' that will be hurt by this power grab; it's the residents."
And Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director of counsel for the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, said in response to the DOJ order: "Ironically the one instance in which the federal government is actually required to withhold fed funds from local programs is missing. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which should prohibit federal funding to police departments engaged in racial discrimination."