WASHINGTON — As President Donald Trump’s campaign pushes law and order, Attorney General William Barr said that New York City, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, have become anarchies that aren’t performing basic governmental functions to keep people safe.
The three cities, all led by Democrats, are “jurisdictions permitting violence and destruction of property,” according to a Justice Department press release Monday. The designation stems from a Sept. 2 memorandum by the White House calling on the department and the Office of Management and Budget to identify such areas and restrict federal funds they receive.
The cities’ mayors — Bill de Blasio of New York, Ted Wheeler of Portland and Jenny Durkan of Seattle — rejected the threat as “thoroughly political and unconstitutional.”
“The President is playing cheap political games with Congressionally directed funds,” they wrote in a joint statement. “Our cities are bringing communities together; our cities are pushing forward after fighting back a pandemic and facing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, all despite recklessness and partisanship from the White House.”
Barr’s memorandum said Portland and Seattle had handled protesters seeking racial justice too gently, and criticized New York for shifting part of its police budget to other agencies as shootings increase.
“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,” Barr said in the release. “We cannot allow federal tax dollars to be wasted when the safety of the citizenry hangs in the balance.”
Barr has faced criticism for investigations and statements that seem calculated to boost the president, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday also dismissed the threat of withholding funds as a campaign stunt.
“Is it going to happen? No, because it’s illegal and it’s unconstitutional,” Cuomo said in a call with reporters. “But it’s politics. It’s politics for the next few weeks going up to the November election. That’s all this is.”
The governor compared it with the administration’s previous threats to withhold money from so-called sanctuary cities that help immigrants. New York challenged that move as unconstitutional, winning a lawsuit over the issue.
“If they actually do this, we will challenge it legally, and he will lose again,” Cuomo said.
New York City officials also questioned the legality of the administration’s action. Jim Johnson, who heads the city’s Law Department, said the city will fight if federal funds are withheld.
“The president does not have the authority to change the will of Congress,” Johnson said. “We’re prepared to fight this in court if he actually takes concrete steps to withhold federal funds. What we have in New York City is not anarchy. What we have is a city moving forward under difficult circumstances.”
Story by Tina Davis and Henry Goldman. Bloomberg’s Keshia Clukey contributed to this report.