When a long list of comments from President Trump, his surrogates and his spokespersons shows up in a federal court ruling,Â itâs fair to say it can only mean one thing: a constitutionally questionable executive order is about to get a judicial smackdown.
That was true in March, when federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland suspended Trumpâs travel ban, saying the administration had showed a clear animus toward Muslims, despite government lawyersâ claims to the contrary.
And it was true on Tuesday, when U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick of California temporarily froze Trumpâs executive order on sanctuary cities,Â ruling that it likely violated the Constitution.
Trumpâs order, signed Jan. 25, threatens to cut off funding from local governments that refuse to cooperate with immigration authorities. Santa Clara County and the city of San FranciscoÂ challenged the order arguing, among other things, that the president doesnât have theÂ power to withholdÂ federal money. Orrick found the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on all their claims, as The Washington Post reported.
The 49-page ruling focused largely on an all-to-familiar theme for the young administration: bragging and bluster by Trump and top administration officials.
Just like the judges who ruled on Trumpâs travel ban, Orrick homed in on the vast discrepancies between what government lawyers defending the sanctuary cities order argued in court and what administration officials said about it in public.
The government tried to make the case that the order doesnât actually do anything, at least not at the moment, because the administration has yet to define what exactly a sanctuary city is. It was their way of convincing the judge to toss out the lawsuit on the grounds that no city or county has yet suffered any harm.
But in public, administration officials boasted about how the order would force sanctuary cities to their knees. The order described in court as essentially an empty shell was portrayed in news conferences and television interviews as a powerful tool to protect the public from dangerous undocumented immigrants being shielded by wayward cities and counties.
It was that gap that disturbed Orrick.
In his ruling, the judge pointed to a February interview between Trump and former Fox News host Bill OâReilly, in which Trump called the order âa weaponâ to use against cities that tried to defy his immigration policies.
âI donât want to defund anybody. I want to give them the money they need to properly operate as a city or a state,â Trump said in the interview. âIf theyâre going to have sanctuary cities, we may have to do that. Certainly that would be a weapon.â
The judge alsoÂ cited news conferences in which Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatened to âclaw back any fundsâ awarded to a city that violated the order.
And the judge brought up remarks by White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who said in no uncertain terms that âcounties and other institutions that remain sanctuary cities donât get federal government funding.â
On top of that, the judge said, Trump and Sessions had repeatedly held up San Francisco as an example of the supposed dangers sanctuary cities pose to ordinary, law-abiding citizens.
It was more than enough to show the intent of Trumpâs order, Orrick wrote.
But government lawyers sang an entirely different tune.
According to Orrick, the government contendedÂ that the order was merely an example of TrumpÂ using the âbully pulpitâ to âhighlight a changed approach to immigration enforcementâÂ â in essence, something much more benign than what Trump and company had described.
The argument was lost on the judge, who ridiculed the governmentâs position as âschizophrenic.â
âIf there was doubt about the scope of the Order, the President and Attorney General have erased it with their public comments,â Orrick wrote.
âIs the Order merely a rhetorical device,â heÂ added, âor a âweaponâ to defund the Counties and those who have implemented a different law enforcement strategy than the Government currently believes is desirable?â
The ruling continued: âThe statements of the President, his press secretary and the Attorney General belie theÂ Governmentâs argument in the briefing that the Order does not change the law. They have repeatedly indicated an intent to defund sanctuary jurisdictions in compliance with the Executive Order.â
If all that sounds familiar, itâs because other federal judgesÂ reached similar conclusions about the administrationâs credibility in lawsuits challenging Trumpâs travel ban.
In March, judges in Hawaii and Maryland issued rulings that temporarily halted the executive order, which seeks toÂ bar new visas for people from six Muslim-majority countries. In both cases, judges found that what government lawyers said in court didnât line up with remarks fromÂ Trump and some of his closest advisers, who had previously called for a âMuslim ban.â The administrationâs intentÂ was obvious, the judges said.
âPlainly-wordedâ statements by Trump and his surrogates âbetrayed the Executive Orderâs stated secular purpose,â one judge wrote, using language strikingly similar to Orrickâs.
The Trump administrationÂ has vowed to fight rulings in the travel ban and sanctuary cities cases all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary.
In a statement Tuesday, it called Orrickâs decision âone more example of egregious overreach by a single, unelected district judge.â The ruling puts the order on hold while the judge weighs the full evidence in the case.
As long as the administration continues to issue broad executive orders, it should expect to have statements by its top officials to come up in court, said Jayashri Srikantiah, an immigration law professor at Stanford.
âItâs hard to imagine not seeing more of these kinds of legal challenges,â she said. âThe president is the president and the attorney general is the attorney general, and we have to take seriously what they say about an executive order with such sweeping implications.â
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