Progressive groups demand Justice Department stop defending Trump policies

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A new letter to President Joe Biden takes aim at his Department of Justice's defense of "anti-democratic" decisions from the Trump era.

A group of progressive organizations sent a letter to President Biden this week criticizing his administration's Department of Justice and accusing Attorney General Merrick Garland of "deep flaws in judgment" for defending policies and legal precedents carried over from former President Donald Trump's "lawless" administration.

"Merrick Garland's Justice Department has maintained flawed legal positions of the Trump administration which contravene not only the administration’s goals, but basic norms of American democracy," the groups wrote in the letter, first reported by the 19th News and independently obtained by the American Independent Foundation.

"While the Attorney General may be motivated by an attempt to maintain the appearance of impartiality at the DOJ, the institutional goal must be to achieve just outcomes; deference to the Trump DOJ under the guise of impartiality is not only unwarranted, it is unjust," they added.

The signatories of the letter include government accountability group Demand Progress Education Fund, environmental organization Climate Hawks Vote, progressive justice organization People's Parity Project, Latinx advocacy group Presente.org, human rights group Project Blueprint, government watchdog Revolving Door Project, and women's advocacy group UltraViolet.

Among the issues the groups raised is the DOJ's continued defense of Trump in an ongoing defamation case brought by E. Jean Carroll, a longtime journalist and writer who alleged in a 2019 essay that Trump sexually assaulted her in the mid-1990s.

"Survivors of sexual assault were hurt to learn that the Department of Justice chose to continue to defend Donald Trump in E. Jean Carroll's defamation suit against the former president," the groups wrote.

Though Trump quickly denied Caroll's allegation — saying that Carroll was "totally lying" and "not my type" — Carroll sued him for defamation, arguing that he damaged her reputation and career by dismissing her allegations.

As the case made its way through New York state court, then-Attorney General William Barr made the unusual move of stepping in and transferring the case to federal court, substituting the U.S. government as the defendant rather than Trump in his personal capacity.

Though a federal judge blocked Barr's move, the DOJ appealed that decision before Trump left office, continuing to argue that the government should defend him in this case, a position Biden's DOJ agreed with.

A spokesman for the White House told CNN last month that Biden was "not consulted by DOJ on the decision to file this brief or its contents." Representatives for the White House and DOJ did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the defense of Trump or the letter more broadly.

The Justice Department's defense of Trump is not the only matter the groups point to in criticizing Garland's tenure as attorney general.

"From the environment to immigration, and from criminal justice to presidential accountability, Garland has effectively continued the disastrous legacy of the Trump Administration in the name of maintaining the fiction of a DOJ independent of politics," the groups wrote.

They point to the DOJ's efforts to fight the release of documents related to the Mueller probe, the seizure of land through eminent domain for Trump's border wall, and the defense of policies barring Puerto Ricans from receiving Social Security benefits as evidence of Garland's "short-sighted" efforts to maintain "consistency with the policies of a demagogue simply for consistency’s sake."

A spokesman for Climate Hawks Vote, one of the groups who signed the letter, said his organization signed on "not because of the Carroll case but rather the Biden admin's defense of indefensible Trump decisions, notably the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Willow oil project." The letter chastises Biden's DOJ for "pushing forward with much of Trump's incredibly destructive legacy" on climate.

Biden has spoken frequently of the need to restore independence to the Justice Department.

"We need to restore the honor, the integrity, the independence of the DOJ of this nation that has been so badly damaged," Biden said at an event introducing Garland and his other picks to lead the department.

"You won't work for me. You are not the president's or the vice president’s lawyer. Your loyalty is not to me," Biden added. "It's to the law, the Constitution, the people of this nation."

Yet the progressive groups behind the letter see it differently.

"Attorney General Merrick Garland is treating the Trump presidency as if it were business as usual," they say. "In reality, it was deeply anti-democratic, consistently undermining accountability and the rule of law. Garland’s DOJ should not defer to the legal judgments made by such a lawless administration."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.