President Donald Trump
Jabin Botsford | The Washington Post | Getty Images
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has ordered federal agencies to look for ways to restrict funding to Democrat-led cities, an unprecedented use of federal power that legal experts say is extremely unlikely to be upheld in court.
“It is imperative that the federal government review the use of federal funds by jurisdictions that permit anarchy, violence, and destruction in America’s cities,” Trump says in a five-page memo released late Wednesday and addressed to Office of Management and Budget director Russell Vought and Attorney General Bill Barr.
The memo comes as Trump, trailing Democrat Joe Biden in polls, seeks to shift the national focus away from his administration’s failed response to the coronavirus pandemic and toward racial justice demonstrations against police brutality that have occurred in cities and towns across the country this summer.
Some of the protests have turned violent, offering Trump an opportunity to present himself as the “law and order” candidate, much the same way he did in 2016.
The White House memo represents an official, taxpayer funded escalation of the criticism Trump has been leveling at Democratic mayors and governors for weeks, as he tries to blame them for a rise in crime and violence this summer in some cities.
The official title of the memo claims state and local officials are allowing harm to be done to their cities: “Memorandum on Reviewing Funding to State and Local Government Recipients That Are Permitting Anarchy, Violence, and Destruction in American Cities.”
According to the memo, federal agencies will be given two weeks “to submit a report to the Director of OMB detailing all federal funds provided to Seattle, Portland, New York City, Washington, D.C., or any components” of those four cities — all of which have Democratic mayors who have criticized the president in the past.
Legal experts and former White House officials agree that Trump’s directive was unlikely to survive legal scrutiny. “This is a campaign document coming out of the White House,” Sam Berger, a former senior official at OMB, told The Washington Post. “Any actual restriction on funding in court will immediately be sued and almost certainly struck down.”
The memo instructs Barr to identify “anarchist jurisdictions,” where elected officials have “permitted violence and the destruction of property to persist and have refused to undertake reasonable measures.” The memo does not explain what “reasonable measures” means in this context.
After Barr has identified these places, the memo says, Vought then has 30 days to direct “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.”
On Thursday, mayors of the four cities that Trump mentioned repeatedly in the memo released a joint statement, condemning “attacks that are unlawful, unconstitutional and will be undoubtedly defeated in court.”