The city won a battle with the Trump administration. Or did it?

This morning, the Mayor’s Office announced that the Trump Administration had backed down from its threats to withhold federal funding from so-called “sanctuary cities” and moved forward with a 2017 grant of $252,000.  “Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions blinked, Seattle won, and public safety prevailed,” Durkan said.

The fine print suggests otherwise.

In a letter dated October 10, the Department of Justice informed the city that it had approved a grant from the Byrne JAG program for $650,000, to be split between SPD and other local jurisdictions. Seattle’s share is $252,000, which will be spent on three Crime Prevention Coordinators.

This is the latest chapter of a story that began shortly after Trump took office, when he signed an executive order instructing the executive branch to withhold all federal funding for “sanctuary cities.” Specifically, it requires compliance with 8 USC 1373, which prohibits local jurisdictions from preventing their employees from sharing (or requesting) immigration-related information with the federal immigration service. The order immediately drew several lawsuits, because under the Spending Clause of the Constitution, the executive branch does not have the power to withhold or place conditions on funds that Congress appropriates.  Those cases have been working their way through several courts simultaneously. There is broad consensus among those courts (so far) that the executive order is unconstitutional; there is less consensus over whether an injunction blocking the Trump administration from implementing the executive order should apply nationally or just to the jurisdictions that have sued.

In the meantime, the DOJ has largely ignored the injunctions and has kept saber-rattling and threatening to withhold funds. Technically, that puts it in contempt of court.

On the surface, the DOJ’s letter approving the funding appears to be a victory for Seattle as the Trump administration admits defeat. But the letter has 63 “special conditions” listed for acceptance of the funds, and sure enough #53, 54 and 55 collectively require Seattle to certify its compliance with 1373 and ensure continued compliance moving forward. In fact, the city must affirmatively accept the award and before doing so must submit its certification of compliance. So in practice, the Trump administration has conceded little ground — yet. And it is still in contempt of court by ignoring the injunction.

Dan Nolte, spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office, told me in an email this afternoon that the city plans to submit its formal acceptance of the grant without certifying its compliance with 1373 (though it has long believed that it is in compliance anyway). And so the game of “chicken” escalates: the DOJ continues to ignore the injunction and demand compliance, and the City of Seattle ignores the DOJ’s demand for compliance and demands the money. The decisive next move is the DOJ’s: does it fork over the money, or actively withhold it? Or is it playing a different game: will it argue that by affirmatively accepting the grant with the special conditions, the city has knowingly and voluntarily agreed to comply with 1373 and thus undermined its own legal argument? It’s a stupid argument, but so far the Trump administration has offered up a litany of stupid arguments in defense of the executive order and lost every one.

In fact, the Trump administration has actively damaged its own cause, as now multiple U.S. district courts have ruled that 1373 itself is unconstitutional because it commandeers local jurisdictions into the enforcement of federal laws in violation of the Tenth Amendment.  In the end, that might be the real victory for Seattle and other sanctuary cities: not the money, but overturning  the entire law requiring local cooperation with immigration enforcement. But the final word on that will have to wait for appeals courts — and possibly the Supreme Court — to weigh in.

Your move, DOJ.

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