WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department on Monday threatened to revoke federal funding for New York City, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, saying the three liberal cities were allowing anarchy and violence on their streets.
“We cannot allow federal tax dollars to be wasted when the safety of the citizenry hangs in the balance,” Attorney General William Barr said in a statement.
In a joint statement, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan accused the Trump administration of playing politics and said withholding federal funds would be illegal.
“This is thoroughly political and unconstitutional. The president is playing cheap political games with congressionally directed funds. 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,” they said.
Many cities across the United States have experienced unrest since the May death of George Floyd. In some cases the protests have escalated into violence and looting.
The federal government has mounted a campaign to disperse the violence, including by sending federal agents into Portland and Seattle and encouraging federal prosecutors to bring charges.
Last week, the Justice Department urged federal prosecutors to consider sedition charges against protesters who have burned buildings and engaged in other violent activity.
Monday’s threat to revoke federal funds was the government’s latest escalation in its quest to curb the protests.
It comes after President Donald Trump earlier this month issued a memo laying out criteria to consider when reviewing funding for states and cities that are “permitting anarchy, violence, and destruction in American cities.”
The criteria include things such as whether a city forbids the police from intervening or if it defunds its police force.
In all three cities, the Justice Department said, the leadership has rejected efforts to allow federal law enforcement officials to intervene and restore order, among other things.
In a press briefing earlier on Monday, New York City Corporation Counsel Jim Johnson promised a court battle if the Trump administration proceeds to cut off the funds.
“The president does not have the authority to change the will of Congress,” he said.
“The designation of ‘anarchy’ doesn’t even pass the common sense test. If need be we can send, in addition to our legal filings, a dictionary. Because what we have in New York is not anarchy.”
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg and Maria Caspani in New York City; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Cynthia Osterman)