WASHINGTON — Attorney General William P. Barr on Monday escalated the Trump administration’s attacks on Democratic-led cities by threatening to withhold federal funding from New York, Seattle and Portland, Ore., over their responses to protests against police brutality, portraying them as inadequate as President Trump seeks to make the unrest a cornerstone of his re-election campaign.
The cities “permitted violence and destruction of property to persist and have refused to undertake reasonable measures to counteract criminal activities,” the Justice Department said in a statement announcing its response to a directive by the president this month to find ways to cut funding from such cities.
“We cannot allow federal tax dollars to be wasted when the safety of the citizenry hangs in the balance,” Mr. Barr said in a statement. “It is my hope that the cities identified by the Department of Justice today will reverse course and become serious about performing the basic function of government and start protecting their own citizens.”
Democrats threatened legal action should the administration move to curtail their federal funding. New York, Seattle and Portland called any move by the Trump administration to defund their cities unconstitutional and noted that Congress, not the president, controls federal funding.
“This is thoroughly political and unconstitutional,” the three cities said in a joint statement. “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.”
In his directive, Mr. Trump accused cities of allowing “anarchy” to take hold and said that the local officials who had permitted crime to persist should face punitive financial measures. His memo threatened to withdraw billions of dollars from some of the country’s largest cities and cited New York, Seattle and Portland.
“My administration will not allow federal tax dollars to fund cities that allow themselves to deteriorate into lawless zones,” Mr. Trump said in his memo, which gave Mr. Barr 14 days to identify potential target jurisdictions.
Critics said the administration’s threats to withhold funding were of questionable legal standing. An earlier effort by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to defund so-called sanctuary cities is winding its way through the courts with mixed results.
No federal statute says “a city can have federal funding withheld based on a subjective determination by federal officials that it underenforced local law,” said Stephen I. Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas.
But the effort is in keeping with Mr. Trump’s attempts to shift focus on the campaign trail from his administration’s flawed response to the coronavirus pandemic to what he portrays as unmanageable levels of violent crime in American cities. He has cast himself as a friend to the police and Democrats as aiding and abetting lawlessness by not cracking down on violence at protests.
The Justice Department said that it had made its determinations by looking at whether a jurisdiction forbade police from intervening to restore order amid widespread or sustained violence and whether local authorities withdrew protective forces from any areas or structure that law enforcement officers were lawfully entitled to access.
The department also examined whether jurisdictions withdrew funding or otherwise “disempowered” police departments, or refused aid from federal law enforcement, acts that all three cities have undertaken.
The criteria seemed aimed directly at the three cities Mr. Trump had cited in his memo. Mayor Jenny Durkan of Seattle, a Democrat, allowed the police to abandon a station near the city’s downtown and let some city residents establish a police-free protest zone this summer. The police-free zone operated with the tacit approval of city officials, enraging Mr. Trump, and it was not cleared until after two teenagers were fatally shot in the area.
New York and Portland have said that they do not want federal forces patrolling their streets, and they diverted financial and other resources from their police departments to other parts of their governments.
But the Justice Department said it would also consider any factors that Mr. Barr deemed “appropriate” in determining whether a city should lose funding, leaving the attorney general broad authority to urge the White House to crack down as he saw fit.
At a news conference on Monday, New York officials struck back. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York said he saw “anything but anarchy” in the city, and Attorney General Letitia James warned that Mr. Trump would have to defend the order in court.
“This outrageous policy violates the Constitution’s separation of powers, which entrusts Congress, not the president or his out-of-control attorney general, with the power of the purse,” said Representative Nita M. Lowey, Democrat of New York and the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee. “New York officials are right to take the Trump administration to court over these threats.”
Democrats also sought to cast the administration’s efforts to take away their federal funding as a stunt to divert attention from what they described as a botched response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly 200,000 people in the United States.
“Amidst COVID19’s devastation, people need more relief — not less,” Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat whose district includes Seattle, said on Twitter on Monday. “Yet Trump would prefer to turn your attention away from real crises by fearmongering and fanning racism.”
Ms. Durkan called the announcement “a gross misuse of federal power and blatantly unlawful.” She said she would remain focused on addressing the four crises that faced her city: the coronavirus, the resulting economic downturn, the civil rights reckoning that has gripped the country and the threat of climate change, which is seen as a major factor in the wildfires that are raging across the West Coast.
Reporting was contributed by Mike Baker, Emma G. Fitzsimmons, Jesse McKinley and Daniel E. Slotnik.