By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – When Johnathan Smith resigned from the United States Department of Justice on the day of his inauguration, he expected to spend time with his young son, but that plan was undone a week later when President Donald Trump revealed his explosive ban on Travel abroad.
Within two weeks, Smith had a new job as legal director for the civil rights group Muslim Advocates and was writing reports for a successful court challenge to the ban, joining other former high-ranking Obama administration attorneys now fighting Trump.
Not surprisingly, Smith and some of his colleagues, political appointees of Democratic President Barack Obama, left the now Republican-run Justice Department. What’s unusual is how quickly they have signed up to be Trump’s adversaries.
Some Republican lawyers say they were less rushed to take on opposition roles after the election. George Terwilliger, a senior Justice Department official during George HW Bush’s presidency, described the actions of Obama’s lawyers as “unprecedented in my memory and really in bad shape.”
One reason for the swift actions by Obama’s lawyers, some said, was Trump’s aggressive use of executive authority from day one, which was guaranteed to attract legal challenges.
Obama faced legal fights for the executive branch and some of his opponents were former attorneys for President George W. Bush, on issues such as immigration and Obamacare. But those came later in the Obama presidency.
In addition to Smith, other attorneys who have jumped into the fray include former Attorney General Eric Holder, who is advising the California legislature in challenging Trump on immigration, environmental regulations and health care; and former Acting Attorney General Neal Katyal, who is helping Hawaii challenge Trump’s revised travel ban.
Influential Manhattan prosecutor Preet Bharara and 45 other Obama-era US prosecutors were out of work after the Trump administration asked them to resign on Friday.
Many of Obama’s lawyers keep in touch, but reject the idea, offered by some Republicans, that Obama is behind the resistance efforts. Some of the lawyers attribute his rapid transition to Trump’s hard-line positions on key issues and ethical concerns about his presidency and his business interests.
“There is a unique threat to our democracy and Constitution that we see in the assault that the president is mounting against the Muslim community,” said Smith, who worked on religious discrimination issues at the Justice Department.
Norman Eisen, who was Obama’s top ethics lawyer and later ambassador to the Czech Republic, hoped to focus on his work in a think tank after Trump’s election. But instead, he said, “the ethical emergence of constitutional dimensions has propelled me back to my initial role as Obama.”
Eisen now also chairs Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group he co-founded. The group has already sued Trump for alleged ethical violations.
Others appointed by Obama who will take on Trump include former White House attorney Ian Bassin, who founded United to Protect Democracy, a new group investigating Trump on ethics; and James Cadogan, who worked with Smith at the Justice Department, and is now at the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, a civil rights group already at odds with the new administration.
Some career government attorneys, who are not political appointees and typically do not resign in power changes, have also resigned to oppose Trump. One is Sharon McGowan, who worked on LGBT issues at the Justice Department.
On the opening day, she was offered a job as a strategy director at Lambda Legal, an LGBT advocacy group. McGowan said he decided to leave justice when Trump appointed Jeff Sessions, a hardline conservative senator from Alabama, as attorney general.
That was a “game changer,” he said. “I knew I would have no chance of preserving what I’ve been working so hard on.”