- The American Civil Liberties Union has filed more than 100 legal actions against the Trump administration.
- The ACLU’s membership has soared since President Donald Trump was elected, and the group has received millions of dollars in fundraising.
- Many people remain divided over the ACLU’s tactics. The group received widespread criticism after defending neo-Nazi protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, for example.
Three days after Donald Trump was elected president, the American Civil Liberties Union wrote a memo urging him to reconsider several controversial campaign promises.
Trump’s plans to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, ban Muslims from entering the US, reduce women’s access to abortion services, reauthorize torture tactics, and open up libel laws were “not simply un-American and wrong-headed,” the ACLU said, but “unlawful and unconstitutional.”
“If you do not reverse course and endeavor to make these campaign promises a reality, you will have to contend with the full firepower of the ACLU at your every step,” the civil liberties law group cautioned the incoming president.
Trump ignored the warning. The ACLU, in response, has kept its word. On the one-year anniversary of Trump’s election, the ACLU wrote a full-page letter in The New York Times, vowing to continue its fight against many of his policies.
Since Trump’s inauguration, the ACLU has filed at least 112 legal actions, including ethical complaints, calls for investigations, Freedom of Information Act requests, and 56 full-scale lawsuits against the sitting president and his administration, ACLU spokesperson Thomas Dresslar told Business Insider.
As a nonpartisan organization, the group has a long history of targeting presidents. It fought former President Barack Obama on mass surveillance and drones, former President George W. Bush on the torture program and deportation policies, and former President Bill Clinton on the lack of prisoner rights and indefinite detention of noncitizens.
When Business Insider asked the ACLU to provide a comprehensive list of lawsuits filed against Obama and Bush during their presidencies, the group said it does not “have any such list.” But Dresslar said the number of actions filed against the Trump administration is far higher.
“Trump’s policies … coupled with his lack of understanding and respect for the rule of law amount to a constitutional crisis, the likes of which we have never seen,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero.
Many liberals and never-Trumpers welcome the aggressiveness. Within Trump’s first five months in office, the ACLU’s membership nearly quadrupled to 1.6 million, according to Romero. The newfound publicity also helped with fundraising. When Trump formally announced his first travel ban, the ACLU hauled in a record $24 million from 356,000 online donations.
The ACLU has critics on both sides of the political spectrum. In August, many were outraged after the ACLU announced it would defend the right of white supremacists and neo-Nazis to march in Charlottesville, Virginia.
While the ACLU’s willingness to defend anyone, regardless of political affiliation, has won it praise from people on both the right and the left, it has also divided the group internally over how it should approach some of today’s most controversial issues. These organizational challenges — as well as efforts to hold the president accountable — are unlikely to go away anytime soon.
Here’s a recap of some of the ACLU’s most prominent legal challenges against the Trump administration so far:
The travel ban
Just weeks after assuming office, Trump implemented his much-criticized travel ban on people from seven majority-Muslim countries: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia.
The ACLU fired back immediately, suing the Trump administration on behalf of foreign travelers detained at US airports and questioning the constitutionality of the president’s order.
The ACLU settled the original suit with US Department of Justice officials in August.
The rejection of the first travel ban prompted the Trump administration to introduced a revised, temporary version. This time, Iraq was removed from the list and special exemptions were given to permanent residents and religious minorities.
Just before the second ban was about to expire in October, Trump officials unveiled a third version that would permanently ban people from the original seven countries, excluding Iraq and Sudan. North Korea, Venezuela, and Chad were added to the list. The ACLU has continued to challenge the orders.
“This third Muslim ban is yet another attempt to … paper over the president’s plain religious animus, which he has never disavowed,” Cody Wofsy, an ACLU staff attorney said. “The courts have not been fooled and have rightly seen the previous versions of the order as unreasonable, immoral, and unconstitutional. The same is true of this one.”
On October 17, a federal judge struck the bulk of this version down as well. The ACLU, meanwhile, says it has challenged all versions of Trump’s travel ban through at least 13 different lawsuits and more than 19 FOIA requests.
The firing of former FBI Director James Comey
Less than a week after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who was at the time leading the investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign, the ACLU filed a FOIA request with the Justice Department and FBI seeking records related to the firing.
“Political meddling with law enforcement investigations is a recipe for abuse of power,” said Hina Shamsi, an ACLU expert on national security. “The public has a right to know why Comey was fired so the president can be held accountable for any abuse of his position.”
The ACLU also called for a special prosecutor to be appointed to continue the Russia investigation. Former FBI Director Robert Mueller assumed the role on May 17.
A controversial raid in Yemen that left 12 civilians dead
In January, Trump approved a US military raid on a suspected Al-Qaeda base in Yemen that ended up killing up to 25 civilians, including nine children. Among the victims was Navy Seal William Owens and Nawar al-Awlaki, an eight-year-old girl who was a US citizen.
Human Rights Watch confirmed that at least 14 civilians were killed, calling for a thorough US government investigation.
The ACLU filed a FOIA request in March with the CIA and Departments of Defense, Justice, and State seeking documents related to the decision-making process that led to the botched military operation as well as the internal review of civilian deaths the US government was supposed to undertake.
In May, the ACLU filed a lawsuit demanding the government comply with the original FOIA request. The CIA refused to comply, arguing that doing so would put national security secrets at risk. The ACLU is now taking the intelligence agency to court to force the release of relevant records. Oral arguments will begin in December.