The Blue State Attorneys General Resisting Trump
With Democrats outnumbered in Congress, a coalition of blue state attorneys general has emerged as the strongest resistance to Donald Trump’s conservative agenda. Together they’ve notched back-to-back victories against Trump’s two attempts to instill a travel ban against several Muslim-majority nations. They now hope to build on that success to form a united front against Trump’s expected efforts to roll back financial and environmental regulation, plus the GOP’s planned repeal of Obamacare.
In February, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Minnesota’s Lori Swanson led the way in derailing Trump’s first immigration order by persuading a panel of federal judges to block it from being enforced. Trump, rather than keep fighting, issued a revised order. That, too, was halted on March 15 when a federal judge in Hawaii ruled in favor of the state’s attorney general, Doug Chin, who’d sued on the grounds that the order was discriminatory. Both suits benefited from an increased level of coordination among Democratic state attorneys general, an effort that began before Trump’s inauguration.
“We had anticipated the administration might do something like this, and we’d already started collaborating weeks before,” says Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who joined the initial suit in February, along with New York’s Eric Schneiderman and Maryland’s Brian Frosh. When news broke of Trump’s initial travel ban on Jan. 27, Healey, along with about 20 other Democratic AGs, was at a luncheon in Florida discussing how to join forces to take on the president.
“We are now perceived by many to be the front line of defense,” says Schneiderman, who clashed with Trump even before the election, when he sued Trump University for alleged fraud. (Trump agreed to pay $25 million to settle without admitting guilt.) “The solidarity among Democratic AGs and the mutual support has been tremendous.”
That solidarity was also on display in February at the National Association of Attorneys General winter conference at the Ritz Carlton in Washington, where a handful of Democratic AGs, including Healey, Schneiderman, and California’s newly appointed Xavier Becerra, met privately on the sidelines and out of earshot of their Republican counterparts to talk strategy and tactics. Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who co-chairs the Democratic Attorneys General Association, says that since the election, Democratic AGs have almost daily conference calls.
Blue state AGs are also teaming up to fight Trump’s efforts to cut environmental regulations. On Feb. 7, seven states with Democratic AGs joined California’s Environmental Protection Agency in a joint letter to Congress challenging a plan to roll back safeguards for controlling methane leaks from oil and gas wells on public lands.
Democratic AGs are trying to replicate the success that their Republican counterparts had during the Obama administration, when a handful of red state AGs worked to thwart what they saw as the overreaching agenda of a president from the opposite party. Suing Obama on issues including immigration and health care boosted the political fortunes of a number of Republican AGs, including Scott Pruitt, who was Oklahoma’s top law enforcement official when Trump tapped him to run the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Greg Abbott, who spent 12 years as Texas’ attorney general before being elected governor in 2014. Serving as a state attorney general is “probably the most direct path to higher office,” says Chris Wilson, founder of WPA Research, a political strategy firm.
He should know: His firm did polling and data analytics for Abbott’s gubernatorial campaign. In Texas, Abbott was able to run on his record of suing a locally unpopular president more than 30 times. “You can build an entire campaign for higher office around that,” says Wilson. “The flip side is that you’re going to see a lot of Democrats angle for the same thing.”
Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic strategist who teaches political science at the University of Southern California, says that by notching wins against Trump, state AGs can help make up for Democrats being in the minority in Congress. “They can’t upend the power relationship in Washington,” he says. “But they can certainly impact it.”
The bottom line: With Democrats out of power in Washington, state attorneys general have taken up the fight against Trump and the GOP.