Justice Department labels Portland ‘anarchist jurisdiction,’ threatens cuts to federal funding

By Rebecca Ellis (OPB)
Sept. 21, 2020 7:52 p.m. Updated: Sept. 21, 2020 10:16 p.m.

President Donald Trump’s administration announced Monday that it has designated Portland as an “anarchist jurisdiction” and threatened to revoke potentially millions of dollars in federal funding.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced in early September that it planned to limit federal funding “to the maximum extent permitted by law” in cities where they felt local leaders were not coming down hard enough on criminal activity. On Monday, the department announced Portland made the list, as did New York and Seattle. All three cities are dominated politically by Democrats.


With less than two months until the November election, the president has sought to stoke fear around the large-scale racial justice protests that have taken hold in all three cities this summer. Portland, in particular, has become a favorite talking point of the president, who routinely paints the city as a lawless “beehive of terrorists” plagued by wanton vandalism and violence. In his speech accepting the Republican nomination, Trump said his opponent Joe Biden would “make every city look like Democrat-run Portland.”

On Day 79 of protests against systemic racism and police violence demonstrators went to Penumbra Kelly building in East Portland.

On Day 79 of protests against systemic racism and police violence demonstrators went to Penumbra Kelly building in East Portland.

Jonathan Levinson / Jonathan Levinson

In a release announcing Portland as one of the three anarchy-allowing jurisdictions, Attorney General William Barr scorned city leaders for not responding aggressively enough to the protests and tying the hands of law enforcement. The city has forbidden local police to work with federal officers and Mayor Ted Wheeler recently banned the police’s use of a common type of tear gas.

“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,” wrote Attorney General William Barr. “We cannot allow federal tax dollars to be wasted when the safety of the citizenry hangs in the balance.”

The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon declined to comment.

The DOJ release pointed to several factors that had led Portland to be one of the three cities at risk of getting their funding slashed: Sustained protests “marred by vandalism, chaos, and even killing,” a spike in shootings, an August letter in which Wheeler rejected the deployment of federal officers, and a $15 million cut from the Portland Police Bureau budget.

The release specifically mentioned cuts to the SERT team, which responds to emergency incidents, and the Gun Violence Reduction Team, a unit that investigates shootings.


It’s not clear what legal backing Trump has for stripping funding from American cities. Tracy Reeve, Portland’s city attorney, said the city is evaluating the memo and hasn’t yet determined next steps. Wheeler, in a joint statement with the mayors from New York City and Seattle, called the plan “thoroughly political and unconstitutional.”

“The President is playing cheap political games with Congressionally directed funds,” the mayors wrote. “What the Trump Administration is engaging in now is more of what we’ve seen all along: shirking responsibility and placing blame elsewhere to cover its failure.”

Attorney General William Barr listens during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the oversight of the Department of Justice on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, July 28, 2020 in Washington.

Attorney General William Barr listens during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the oversight of the Department of Justice on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, July 28, 2020 in Washington.

Chip Somodevilla / AP

The mayors are not alone in their belief that the Trump Administration stands on weak legal ground. When the plan was first announced, New York Attorney General Letitia James called it a last-ditch election strategy and said her state planned legal action. Some legal scholars in Oregon voiced extreme skepticism that the policy would stand up in court.

“This is an electoral year stunt, and he doesn’t really care about Portland losing any money,” said Norman Williams, professor of law at Willamette University and director of the Willamette Center for Constitutional Government. “This is not about trying to conserve federal dollars. This is entirely about Trump trying to look tough on liberal Democratic cities.”

Williams said he believed Trump’s plan had little to no chance of being upheld in a federal court. He said case law dictates that if the federal government wants to withhold money from a jurisdiction, the rationale for doing so has to be connected to the reason the funding is being distributed in the first place.

“It has to be linked why the money is being given. You can’t just say, ‘Hey state, we’re giving you all these billions of dollars for Medicaid or highways, but we would like you to spruce up your state parks,’” he said. “Or in this case ‘Hey states we’re giving you all these millions of dollars through various federal grants but we’d like you to take a stronger arm in regard to First Amendment rights of peaceful protest.’”

Even if the chances of funds being choked off are small, it’s one more legal and financial obstacle the city must grapple with amid many others. The city attorney’s office is currently facing so many lawsuits surrounding the police’s conduct at protests that they’re asking to bring on an additional attorney, as the Portland Mercury reported. And the city’s general fund has shrunk with the economic fallout of the pandemic.

It’s not immediately clear how much money the city stands to lose if this went into effect. According to the city’s Office of Management and Finance, the city is expected to receive over $340 million in awards from the federal government this fiscal year. That includes $114 million coming from the Department of Treasury for coronavirus aid, $115 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation, and $7.5 million from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The federal government has not publicly released any information about what grants or funding sources they want to revoke. But the Trump administration’s memo gave the impression they might paint with a broad brush, noting that the federal government provides funding for “a wide array of programs including housing, public transportation, job training, and social services."

“These funds have been collected from American taxpayers who entrusted their money to the Federal Government to serve our communities and our citizens,” the memo read. “My Administration will not allow Federal tax dollars to fund cities that allow themselves to deteriorate into lawless zones.”

It’s not the first time the Trump administration has tried to pull federal money from politically liberal cities. In 2017, Trump attempted to block federal grant money to so-called “sanctuary cities” that refused to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement. The effort faced significant legal challenges with three appeals courts ruling the administration did not have the authority. In May, another federal appeals court ruled the administration could withhold some grants.