The Slatest

Trump Instructs DOJ to Classify Democratic Cities as “Anarchist Jurisdictions” to Help Him Win Reelection

Trump and Barr walk down the stairs of Air Force One.
Trump asks Attorney General William Barr for a helping hand. Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

President Donald Trump, on Wednesday, signed a memo threatening to withhold federal funding from Democrat-run cities the White House deems “anarchist jurisdictions” because of their handling of ongoing civil unrest that continues to ripple around the country. The five-page presidential memo, officially titled “Memorandum on Reviewing Funding to State and Local Government Recipients That Are Permitting Anarchy, Violence, and Destruction in American Cities,” is more of a political document than a policy one. The real point of the memo is for Trump to sow division between his decidedly non-urban, white political base and the other two-thirds of the country. To do that, the Trump memo aims to “defund” cities that “defund” their police departments. Since American cities haven’t really defunded anything other than in an extraordinary case or two—and even in those cases overhaul would be a better descriptor than defund—the memo also targets “cities” that do not meet some vague bar of law and order (read: hyperaggressive policing tactics) that the Trump administration will set.

“Unfortunately, anarchy has recently beset some of our States and cities,” the memo reads. “For the past few months, several State and local governments have contributed to the violence and destruction in their jurisdictions by failing to enforce the law, disempowering and significantly defunding their police departments, and refusing to accept offers of Federal law enforcement assistance. As a result of these State and local government policies, persistent and outrageous acts of violence and destruction have continued unabated in many of America’s cities, such as Portland, Seattle, and New York.”

This memo is more about the appearance of action than actual action, more about snagging a coded headline or two than finding a solution to a summer of civil unrest. To help impress upon his supporters and potential supporters that protests in distant cities are a threat to them, even if really aren’t, the memo instructs the Department of Justice to publish a list of “anarchist jurisdictions” in 14 days. What jurisdictions would those be? “State and local jurisdictions that have permitted violence and the destruction of property to persist and have refused to undertake reasonable measures to counteract these criminal activities,” the memo states. Basically, any place the Trump administration deems not aggressive enough, not violent enough, in its handling of local communities grappling with anger and grief.

“My Administration will do everything in its power to prevent weak mayors and lawless cities from taking Federal dollars while they let anarchists harm people, burn buildings, and ruin lives and businesses,” Trump tweeted Wednesday night. “We’re putting them on notice today.” Since the White House does not technically control much of the federal funding that goes to state and local jurisdictions, and any attempt to block funding would surely get tied up in court, it’s the performative part of “putting them on notice” that is the point.

For more of Slate’s news coverage, subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts or listen below.