Attorney General TJ Donovan On The End Of The Trump Administration
State attorneys general, especially Democratic ones, have repeatedly challenged executive orders issued by the Trump administration in court. As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office, those top law enforcement officials, including Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan, will likely see their work change.
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with TJ Donovan about his strategy under the Trump administration and what comes next. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: You've frequently joined multi-state lawsuits against the Trump administration over the last four years. One early example was a suit attempting to halt the travel ban that barred travelers from several majority-Muslim countries. And it's worth noting that Biden intends to overturn that ban on his first day in office. Why did you feel it was necessary to join lawsuits like that early in Trump's tenure?
"I do not regret for one minute any action that we took these last four years against the Trump administration." — Attorney General TJ Donovan
Attorney General TJ Donovan: Well, it was important because what we saw from the Trump administration within days of taking office on Jan. 20, 2017 was an attack on our democracy, was an attack on our civil rights, was an attack on our American values that this country is a beacon, and hope for immigrants. And that travel ban was nothing more than [an] order that I believed not only was unconstitutional, but was un-American.
This was the first of many lawsuits that were filed over the years. Looking back at these four years, do you think the strategy of multi-state lawsuits among state attorneys general has been effective?
Absolutely. Here's why: I think when we look back at this Trump presidency and these last four years, what we're going to recall is that the rule of law prevailed; that our institutions held; that they worked; that these orders, whether it was the DACA repeal, whether it was the Muslim travel ban, whether it was the public charge or the issues of family separation, that we stopped President Trump and his cronies every step of the way.
Now that Joe Biden is taking office, do you intend to, or could you foresee, a situation where you would join a similar lawsuit against the Biden administration if you see it overstepping its bounds?
Well, we'll see. I mean, I'm very hopeful and optimistic about the Biden-Harris administration. And what I'm hoping for, Henry, is really a return to normalcy where, if we have our disagreements, we have our disputes, we have our debates, but we have those debates the American way, which is in the halls of Congress and in our state legislatures, and if we can't resolve them there, that we go in and utilize the courts. This is really about the restoration of our democracy and the rule of law, which has been under assault.
Well, if things go back in the way you've just described, what would that mean for your office? I mean, would you be able to approach your job differently with a different kind of administration in place at the federal level?
I joke often that I'm looking to have a little bit more free time, because it really, I think, has been unprecedented the number of orders and rules that the Trump administration put out. So, every single day, Henry, things would come to my attention about, what is our position on this issue of this environmental rollback or this issue challenging transgender rights?
I think I can say with a degree of certainty that politically and philosophically, I’m much more aligned with Joe Biden than I ever would be with Donald Trump, and certainly support Joe Biden, and do not anticipate the level and the volume of work for Vermont and my Democratic colleagues with a Biden-Harris administration.
That being said, if there's an issue that comes up that I disagree with, that I think impacts the state of Vermont, that I think is in the interest of our state, of course, I always reserve the right to take legal action on behalf of our state.
Well, I wonder if you think you perhaps have created a template for Republican states attorneys general to follow in a way that could potentially hinder the Biden administration, as you in many ways sought to hinder priorities of the Trump administration that you saw going beyond the bounds of the federal government's purview?
Yeah, I mean, I think, unfortunately, that template was created by the Republicans against the Obama administration. I am not trying to be overly political here, but I think that's exactly what occurred. That being said, I do not regret for one minute any action that we took these last four years against the Trump administration. That this will really was an attack on our democracy and our American values and our way of life.
We have a lot of work to do. And frankly, what it was, Henry, was trying to preserve and maintain all the progress and the gains that we have made as a country these last 50 years. That's what they tried to undo.
Are there any outstanding lawsuits against the federal government that you're a part of and what happens to those once Trump leaves office?
Well, I think that's going to be a major question for Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice when he is confirmed as the next attorney general. And really the issues of the integrity of the Department of Justice, the credibility of our system, there is going to have to be a major assessment of many cases, of many actions that DOJ is going to have to revisit. And I would hope that they don't continue with some cases, whether it's the public charge case or certainly the family separation policy.
We're now almost two weeks out from the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Do you know of any Vermonters who participated in that riot or could potentially face prosecution here?
I'm not aware of any Vermonter who breached the Capitol. And I've been asked this question numerous times about this group of Vermonters that traveled down via bus to attend what's called the rally or the protest.
And it's certainly one thing to go down and exercise your constitutional rights to engage in a peaceful protest or a rally, and I certainly disagree with him politically, but they have the right to do that. It's an entirely different thing to storm the Capitol and to commit criminal acts. That was not a protest. That was a crime. And anybody who breached and stormed the Capitol should be prosecuted, including any Vermonter who was part of that group that breached the Capitol.
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