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Portland, Seattle, New York sue over Trump's 'anarchy' label, threat to defund cities

After President Donald Trump threatened to cut funding to cities he deemed "lawless," the three cities filed a lawsuit.

PORTLAND, Ore — Portland, Seattle and New York, — three cities recently labeled “anarchist jurisdictions” by the U.S. Justice Department — filed a lawsuit Thursday to invalidate the designation and fight off the Trump administration's efforts to withhold federal dollars.

President Donald Trump issued a memorandum last month that sought to identify localities that permit “anarchy, violence and destruction in American cities” following riots that took place during anti-police and anti-racism protests after George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police. 

The Justice Department last month identified New York City, Portland, Oregon, and Seattle as three cities that could have federal funding slashed.

The lawsuit ridiculed the designation, calling the president's action “offensive to both the Constitution and common sense” and describing the notion of anarchist jurisdictions “an oxymoronic designation without precedent in American jurisprudence.” But it also noted that the consequences of withholding federal money during a pandemic are “deadly serious.”

RELATED: Portland is 'permitting violence and destruction of property', DOJ says

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, argues that unless Congress says otherwise, the president can’t add conditions to money Congress has appropriated. The cities say the designation was arbitrary and capricious, and based on vague and subjective factors. The lawsuit also alleges that the administration violated due process rights and the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, which specifies that powers not given to the federal government — such as local policing authority — are reserved for the states.

“It is the Defendants, not the Cities, who are engaging in lawless behavior and threatening the democratic order established by the Framers,” the lawsuit said.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

New York City Corporation Counsel Jim Johnson, who joined de Blasio at the mayor's daily briefing Thursday, said the cities are suing now because the federal government has begun taking concrete steps to withhold funds. “They’ve actually taken this anarchist designation and started to include it in applications for federal grants,” Johnson said.

As much as $12 billion in federal money affecting health, transportation and law enforcement programs could be at stake, Johnson said.

In one example cited in the lawsuit, the Federal Transit Administration announced this month that it will consider applications for a current COVID-19 public transportation research grant “in accordance” with the anarchist memo, which says the Trump administration "will not allow Federal tax dollars to fund cities that allow themselves to deteriorate into lawless zones."

The Trump administration is also considering cutting millions in funding for COVID-19 relief, health care and other programs in "anarchist jurisdictions", according to a report in POLITICO. The grants under review include a $1.8 million grant for Multnomah County and a $880,000 grant to King County, Washington, to help community and migrant health centers care for COVID-19 patients, according to the report.

The Justice Department said the three cities were designated as “anarchist” jurisdictions because they met criteria including “whether a jurisdiction forbids the police force from intervening to restore order amid widespread or sustained violence or destruction” and whether the city “disempowers or defunds police departments.”

Portland, according to the Justice Department, meets the criteria for an "anarchist jurisdiction" for the following reasons: 

  •  In September, Portland marked 100 consecutive nights of protests marred by vandalism, chaos, and even killing.
  • Those bent on violence regularly started fires, threw projectiles at law enforcement officers, and destroyed property. Numerous law enforcement officers, among others, suffered injury.
  • Shootings increased by more than 140% in June and July 2020 compared to the same period last year.
  • In the midst of this violence, the Portland City Council cut $15 million from the police bureau, eliminating 84 positions. Crucially, the cuts included the Gun Violence Reduction Team, which investigates shootings, and several positions from the police team that responds to emergency incidents.
  • In August, Portland Mayor Wheeler sent a letter to President Trump expressly rejecting the administration’s offer of federal law enforcement to stop the violent protests.

All three cities have previously challenged Trump administration actions successfully. Those include Seattle and Portland's efforts against the administration's plan to withhold money for so-called “sanctuary cities” and New York's efforts against adding a citizenship question to the census and excluding undocumented immigrants from the census count.

RELATED: Trump says government will withhold funds from sanctuary cities after court ruling

MORE COVERAGE: Protests in Portland (YouTube playlist)