With just weeks to go before the 2020 presidential election, the Justice Department is once again attacking elected Democratic officials, this time by designating New York City, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon, as “anarchist jurisdictions” and suggesting their federal funding may be in question.
The Justice Department, responding to a memo from President Donald Trump that attacked all three cities, said the cities have “permitted violence and destruction of property to persist and have refused to undertake reasonable measures to counteract criminal activities.” The news was leaked early to the conservative-leaning New York Post.
“When state and local leaders impede their own law enforcement officers and agencies from doing their jobs, it endangers innocent citizens who deserve to be protected, including those who are trying to peacefully assemble and protest,” Attorney General William Barr said in a statement. “We cannot allow federal tax dollars to be wasted when the safety of the citizenry hangs in the balance. It is my hope that the cities identified by the Department of Justice today will reverse course and become serious about performing the basic function of government and start protecting their own citizens.”
Under Trump’s memo, the director of the Office of Management and Budget is now supposed to “issue guidance to the heads of agencies on restricting eligibility of or otherwise disfavoring, to the maximum extent permitted by law, anarchist jurisdictions in the receipt of Federal grants that the agency has sufficient lawful discretion to restrict or otherwise disfavor anarchist jurisdictions from receiving.”
Any such decision would undoubtedly be challenged in court, which would likely push the process past the presidential election. So for now, the primary impact of the designations will be political.
The Justice Department took an aggressive posture against the demonstrations that have unfolded across the United States in the months since George Floyd’s death, often targeting defendants whose conduct was already in violation of state law.
DOJ’s press release on the designations names New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, all of whom are Democrats.
“This is just another one of President Trump’s games,” de Blasio said Monday. “It’s part of his campaign strategy ... It’s insulting to the people of New York City and his effort to withhold our funding is unconstitutional.”
News stories have also indicated that Trump administration officials at the Justice Department were considering charges against certain mayors for their response to unrest in their cities. Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec told The Associated Press last week that DOJ had done research about whether it could bring criminal or civil rights charges against city officials in Portland. It is unusual for the Justice Department to publicly suggest elected officials were potentially engaged in criminal conduct unless they are bringing charges, though Kupec didn’t specify which officials DOJ has considered charging. Kupec did not respond to HuffPost’s inquiries on the topic.
The Justice Manual that guides actions by Justice Department officials states that “DOJ generally will not confirm the existence of or otherwise comment about ongoing investigations,” and that “DOJ personnel shall not respond to questions about the existence of an ongoing investigation or comment on its nature or progress before charges are publicly filed.”
A 2012 memo from then-Attorney General Eric Holder stated that Justice Department employees must work at “safeguarding the Department’s reputation for fairness, neutrality, and nonpartisanship.”
“Simply put, politics must play no role in the decisions of federal investigators or prosecutors regarding any investigations or criminal charges,” Holder’s memo stated. “Law enforcement officers and prosecutors may never select the timing of investigative steps or criminal charges for the purpose of affecting any election, or for the purposes of giving an advantage or disadvantage to any candidate or political party.”
The Justice Department has also gone after four Democratic governors for their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division sent letters tied to their authority under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, which applies to jails and prisons as well as public nursing homes. While only a small percentage of America’s nursing homes are publicly run, one official hinted at much broader implications, writing that the tens of thousands of people who died of COVID in New Jersey and New York “deserve to have an investigation to determine if their Governors are responsible for their deaths.”