WASHINGTON — Four criminal indictments of Donald Trump have ignited his followers and spurred his House Republican allies to try to use the upcoming government funding deadline of Sept. 30 as leverage to undermine the prosecutions.
The bad news for them: A government shutdown wouldn’t halt the criminal proceedings against the former president.
Trump’s indictments in New York and Georgia would not be affected, while his federal indictments — for allegedly mishandling classified documents and for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection — are criminal matters that have been exempted from shutdowns in the past. The Justice Department said in a 2021 memo that in a shutdown, “Criminal litigation will continue without interruption as an activity essential to the safety of human life and the protection of property.” The Justice Department’s plans assume that the judicial branch remains fully operational, which it has said in the past can carry on for weeks in the event of a funding lapse.
Special counsel Jack Smith’s office is funded by a “permanent, indefinite appropriation for independent counsels,” the department said in its statement of expenditures. Given its separate funding source, the special counsel would not be affected by a shutdown and could run off of allocations from previous years.
As a result, Republicans are looking at ways to insert provisions in government funding legislation that would hinder federal and state prosecutors who have secured indictments of Trump, based on unproven claims that he’s being politically targeted.
It won’t be easy to achieve. The demands, spearheaded by hard-right Republicans, have sparked internal party divisions over reining in law enforcement power and will struggle to pass the House. The Justice bill is one of two appropriations measures the House GOP hasn’t yet passed, out of 12 total, a Democratic aide noted, which could signify splits about how to proceed. And Democrats, who control the Senate and the White House, are pushing back on those calls to derail law enforcement as interference in Trump's cases.
The tension looms over negotiations to keep the government funded as Congress returns next week.
Appropriator targets three Trump prosecutors
Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., a Trump ally who sits on the Appropriations Committee, said Monday he will introduce two amendments to eliminate federal funding for all three of Trump’s prosecutors — Smith, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. His office said the measures would block their prosecutorial authority over “any major presidential candidate prior to” the 2024 election.
“Due to my serious concerns about these witch hunt indictments against President Trump, I intend to offer two amendments to prohibit any federal funds from being used in federal or state courts to prosecute major presidential candidates prior to the 2024 election,” Clyde said in a statement.
The GOP desire to use Congress’ “power of the purse” to defend Trump, who is running for president again, took hold over the last two months and escalated after the latest indictment in Atlanta in connection with the ex-president’s attempt to overturn his 2020 election defeat based on fabricated claims of fraud.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., is pushing to cut off funding for Smith's office, which has indicted Trump in the Jan. 6 criminal investigation and a Florida case over his handling of classified documents. “The House of Representatives must defund Jack Smith’s office and end the witch hunt,” Gaetz said in a statement. Another Trump ally who has the ear of Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., is supporting that push.
House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, is publicly calling for party leaders to insert provisions into government funding legislation that changes how the Justice Department can use money. That includes barring it from conducting “a politically sensitive investigation” — which includes political candidates and family — “until the Department of Justice establishes a policy requiring non-partisan career staff to oversee such investigations.”
Jim Jordan probes Willis and Bragg
Republicans are also examining their leverage to constrain state prosecutors. Last week, Jordan opened an investigation into Willis after she indicted Trump, questioning her motivations and demanding all documents pertaining to her office’s “receipt and use of federal funds.”
“Given the weighty federal interests at stake, the Committee is conducting oversight of this matter to determine whether any legislative reforms are appropriate or necessary,” Jordan wrote in a letter to Willis, giving her a Sept. 7 deadline to respond. “Such reforms could include changes to the federal officer removal statute, immunities for federal officials, the permissible use of federal funds, the authorities of special counsels, and the delineation of prosecutorial authority between federal and local officials.”
Far-right Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., is taking a blunter approach by proposing legislation “to strip taxpayer funding from the Fulton County DA Office,” referring to federal money that goes to local prosecutors, accusing Willis’ team of waging “politically motivated witch hunts.” Biggs did not substantiate his claim, but his plan has been heavily promoted by Trump on his social media platform.
Republicans, under political pressure from their pro-Trump voters, have sought to belittle all four indictments brought against the former president, which include detailed allegations of illegal activities presented to grand juries in multiple jurisdictions. The specter of criminal trials beginning as early as March comes as Trump maintains front-runner status for the Republican nomination to challenge President Joe Biden in the 2024 election.
Also on Sunday, Biggs tweeted: “Defund the FBI.”
GOP divisions and Democratic pushback
Republicans are divided on whether to use the funding process as leverage to rein in law enforcement. Rep. David Joyce, R-Ohio, an appropriator, told NBC News that Jordan’s law enforcement policy demands are “just requests,” and they won’t “get prioritized just because you're Jim Jordan.” In the Senate, Appropriations Vice Chair Susan Collins, R-Maine, recently said, “Reforms may be needed, but I strongly oppose defunding the FBI and the Department of Justice.”
Democrats are firmly rejecting GOP efforts to constrain law enforcement and warning against interference in Trump's legal dramas.
“It is shameful that the majority’s baseless attacks on federal law enforcement have made the leap from irresponsible rhetoric into appropriations language,” House Appropriations Ranking Member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said recently, blasting proposed cuts to the FBI and U.S. attorneys. “Apparently, the majority does not like an independent Department of Justice investigating the alleged criminal activity of certain individuals. This is naked politicization of our criminal justice system, and we cannot allow political influence over law enforcement activity to become the norm.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said the four indictments show “a repeated pattern of criminal activity by the former president.”
In a recent joint statement, the two top Democrats urged Trump, as well as his supporters and critics, to “allow the legal process to proceed without outside interference.”