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Trump signs memo to defund ‘lawless’ Democratic Party run cities but experts raise legality doubts

  • Legal scholars says Trump has little power make good on the document in which he threatened to cut funding to Democratic-led cities

Maanvi Singh and agencies@maanvissingh, The Guardian (UK), Thuursday 3 September 2020

Protesters march in a rally in Seattle. Trump has threatened to cut funds to ‘anarchist jurisdictions’.

Protesters march in a rally in Seattle. Trump has threatened to cut funds to ‘anarchist jurisdictions’. Photograph: Amy Harris/REX/Shutterstock

Donald Trump signed a memo on Wednesday that threatened to cut funding to Democratic-led cities that the administration has characterized as “lawless” and “anarchist jurisdictions”, using his office to launch an extraordinary – if legally ineffective – attack on his political opponents ahead of the November election.

“My administration will not allow federal tax dollars to fund cities that allow themselves to deteriorate into lawless zones,” the memorandum reads. “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.”

The document compels William Barr, the attorney general, to develop a list of jurisdictions that “permitted violence and the destruction of property to persist and have refused to undertake reasonable measures to counteract these criminal activities” within the next fortnight. It also instructs Russell Vought, the White House budget director, to issue guidance in the next month on how federal agencies can restrict or disfavor “anarchist jurisdictions” in providing federal grants.

The president has often suggested that his political opponents, including Joe Biden, want to defund the police departments, despite the fact that most Democrats, including Biden, have said they do not endorse that approach to police reform. Pushing hardline “law and order” rhetoric, Trump has also pushed baseless conspiracy theories about leftwing violence amid protests against police brutality and systemic racism while refusing to condemn rightwing and white supremacist vigilantism.Trump reportedly seeks to block testing funds as Covid-19 surges across south and westRead more

The memorandum that the White House shared on Wednesday night, which specifically names Portland, New York City, Seattle and Washington DC as examples of jurisdictions might lose federal funding, is unlikely to result in any of those cities losing significant funding, according to legal experts. Congress determines how funding is distributed, and agencies cannot “willy nilly restrict funding”, said Sam Berger, a former senior policy advisor at the Office of Management and Budget during the Obama administration.

The five-page memorandum “reads like a campaign press release”, Berger told the Guardian. “The first two pages are a bizarre diatribe – that’s not what a government document looks like.”

Even if federal agencies are able to find justification to reduce funding to certain cities, perhaps via grants linked to law enforcement, any funding restrictions are unlikely to hold up to legal challenges, he added.

“The president obviously has no power to pick and choose which cities to cut off from congressionally appropriated funding,” said Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law scholar at Harvard, and recently the co-author of To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment. Trump “has no defunding spigot. The power of the purse belongs to Congress, not the Executive. Donald Trump must have slept through high school civics,” Tribe said in an email.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo said the memo was “an illegal stunt”, noting that Trump “is not a king. He cannot ‘defund’ NYC.”

This latest move from the president follows through on his growing disdain for American cities run by Democrats. During his speech at the Republican National Convention last week, Trump railed against “rioters and criminals spreading mayhem in Democrat-run cities” and spoke of “left-wing anarchy and mayhem in Minneapolis, Chicago, and other cities”.

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