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Trump's Campaign Rhetoric Signals Possible Shift On Civil Rights


Under President Obama, the U.S. Justice Department has focused on civil rights. For the past eight years, its lawyers have made investigating discrimination in police departments and advancing protections for LGBT people top priorities. Once Donald Trump becomes president in January, the Justice Department's agenda could be very different. Here's NPR's Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Transitions between Democratic and Republican administrations always usher in big changes for civil rights, but Donald Trump's campaign rhetoric makes this handoff especially sensitive. Without providing credible evidence, Trump blasted the voting system is rigged.

At one point, he proposed banning Muslims from entering the country. And Trump's pick for attorney general, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, was rejected for a judgeship in 1986 because he made racially insensitive statements. Sherrilyn Ifill directs the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

SHERRILYN IFILL: It would be shocking to me at this moment in our country, particularly in this very divided moment in our country, to imagine that the person who would become the chief enforcer of the nation's civil rights laws would be a person who has the record of Senator Jeff Sessions.

JOHNSON: The current leader of the Justice Department's civil rights unit knows morale there is uncertain at best. At a recent conference sponsored by The Atlantic magazine, Vanita Gupta sought to calm nerves with this advice to her workers.


VANITA GUPTA: To not give into fear and anxiety and to wait to see what happens. There has always been in every administration core aspects of federal civil rights work that frankly only the Civil Rights Division can do in this country.

JOHNSON: Republican lawyers who have worked in the civil rights unit say they believe the new president will not upset the legal and political consensus in favor of same-sex marriage. In a recent interview, Trump said that's settled law. One lawyer even suggests Trump might propose legislation to protect the rights of gay and lesbian people in the workplace so long as there's a strong exemption for religious employers.

But conservative civil rights experts say they expect the Trump administration to reject Obama legal interpretations that would allow transgender students to use bathrooms of their choice. Hans von Spakovsky is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: Look; it's one thing if Congress wants to change the Civil Rights Act to cover this area, but what the administration has done is taken a 40-year-old law and basically bent the language to fit what their current policy preferences are. That's not the way our system works.

JOHNSON: Republican civil rights lawyers flagged another area of major change on the way - how the Justice Department handles police departments and officers accused of discrimination or excessive force. The Obama team launched more than two dozen investigations of police, but Donald Trump says he wants to work with local law enforcement agencies, not against them.

Von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation urges the transition team to review ongoing police investigations and wrap up the ones where there's little evidence of wrongdoing. As for federal investigations of police shootings involving unarmed civilians, Republican lawyer Robert Driscoll says those cases didn't get very far anyway.

ROBERT DRISCOLL: The last time I checked, the Holder-Lynch DOJ is 0 for the eight years (laughter) in terms of convicting any officer of shooting an unarmed black man in any of the high-profile cases. None have resulted in a conviction.

JOHNSON: And about Trump's campaign rhetoric on Muslims, Driscoll says he and other Republican civil rights lawyers worked with Muslims after the 9/11 attacks, and Driscoll says he thinks the Trump team will do the same thing.

DRISCOLL: Whoever the administration is - and I think that the George W. Bush administration did actually an excellent job of this - needs to reach out to existing Muslim citizens and make sure they don't feel persecuted and make sure that crimes against them are prosecuted. And I think there really was no hesitation to do that in previous Republican administrations.

JOHNSON: Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund says she plans to hold the Trump administration accountable for its words and its actions.

IFILL: When they talk about becoming law-and-order officials, they should understand that civil rights laws are laws also. And if they're to be a law-and-order attorney general and a law-and-order president, then their obligation is to enforce the nation's civil rights laws.

JOHNSON: She says the confirmation fight over Trump's attorney general nominee in January could be an early test. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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