New Suit From NYC, Seattle & Portland Paints Trump as the Anarchist

(Courthouse News photo / Josh Russell)

SEATTLE (CN) — Challenging President Trump’s threats to withhold federal funding from cities he labeled “anarchist jurisdictions,” New York City joined Portland and Seattle on Thursday in a federal complaint.

The three Democratic cities have been host for months to frequent civil rights demonstrations since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. After spending months demanding that local leaders clamp down, Trump threatened their grant dollars on September 2.

His presidential memorandum named Portland, Seattle and New York as examples of so-called “anarchist jurisdictions” where “persistent and outrageous acts of violence and destruction” had been allowed to surge. 

But the constitutional challenge brought Thursday in the Western District of Washington rejects what it calls Trump’s “an oxymoronic designation without precedent in American jurisprudence.”

“The Anarchist Memo is right about one thing: ‘Without law and order, democracy cannot function.’ But it is the defendants, not the cities, who are engaging in lawless behavior and threatening the democratic order established by the Framers,” says the 51-page complaint, which is signed by three city attorneys. 

It adds: “Defendants … disregard all constitutional limits on their authority as they seek to force cities to adopt the President’s vague preferences on policing policies. Democracy demands far better.”

The cities allege that the Trump administration’s actions “violate bedrock principles of American democracy,” including the Administrative Procedure Act, the 10th Amendment, and various clauses of the U.S. Constitution including ones on separation of powers, spending and due process.

Several weeks after Trump’s anarchist memo, the Department of Justice followed up with a memo that said the federal government will declare municipalities “anarchist” if they “disempower or defund police departments, unreasonably refuse to accept offers of law enforcement assistance from the federal government, and any other related factors the attorney general deems appropriate.” 

The cities seek an injunction to block any of Trump administration agencies from taking further steps to carry out the September memo. 

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who earlier this summer scolded Trump to “stay the hell out of the way” of the Oregon city’s civil unrest, said Thursday that the president had singled out three progressive cities and threatened federal support critical to protecting vulnerable residents. “These threats include restricting federal funds for coronavirus relief, funds for HIV treatment, and funds for newborn screenings,” Wheeler said. “That’s why Portland, Seattle and New York will fight this illegal designation to preserve federal investments designed to help our most vulnerable residents,” Portland’s mayor added. 

At a City Hall news conference with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasioon Thursday, city attorney Jim Johnson said that the Trump administration could withhold more than $12 billion from New York City. “We’re bringing this action because they have taken concrete steps. They’ve actually taken this anarchist designation and started to include it in applications for federal grants,” Johnson said on Thursday. “We’re not going to wait for them to include it in more. We’re moving now.” 

In September, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo rebuked Trump’s designation and plans to withdraw funding from their shared home city.  

“He’s going to stop funding for New York City — he’s not a king. He thinks he’s a king but he’s not. He’s a president,” Cuomo said last month. “But there’s the Constitution and there are laws, nothing that he knows anything about. But the federal budget is appropriated by law with conditions of funding by law.” 

Cuomo added: “The statutes contain the conditions and he can’t override the law. I suspect it’s more of a political statement that he’s making than anything else, but it’s also illegal what he’s talking about.”

While recovering from Covid-19 earlier this month, Trump included a barb against the city in a string of early morning tweets. “New York has gone to hell. Vote Trump!” he wrote

Seattle Mayor Jenny A. Durkan said on Thursday that the Trump administration’s political threats against the Democratic cities are unlawful and an abuse of federal power. 

“I’m confident the courts will reign him in again. Seattle and people across America need help fighting a pandemic that has claimed over 220,000 American lives, fixing an economic crisis that has left hundreds of thousands unemployed, and bringing America together during this civil rights reckoning,” Durkan said in a statement. “Instead, the president chooses to ignore science, divide Americans, and threaten the lifeline for many struggling in this time. It’s immoral, unconstitutional, and shameful we are forced to expend resources on this political theater,” she added. 

In addition to President Trump, the suit also names as co-defendants the Office of Management and Budget; OMB director Russell Vought; the Department of Justice; Attorney General William Barr; the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; Acting DHS Secretary Chad F. Wolf; the U.S. Department of Federal Transit Administration; and that agency’s acting administrator, K. Jane Williams. 

A representatives for the Justice Department declined to comment Thursday afternoon on the lawsuit. 

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