“Donald Trump Was Doing Things That Were Illegal and Unconstitutional”: Massachusetts A.G. Maura Healey on Prosecuting a President
As a new era dawns in Washington, state attorneys general, who have filed nearly 140 lawsuits against President Donald Trump’s administration over the last four years, are also preparing for what is to come in the next administration. It’s a welcome change for someone like Maura Healey, Massachusetts’s attorney general, who has joined more than 100 of those suits, on everything from Trump’s family-separation policy to census issues to environmental protections. “I don’t think you can overstate how much energy and effort it took to hold the line against the Trump administration that was doing things so entirely unprecedented and in violation of so many norms and the rule of law,” she said in an interview with Vanity Fair earlier this month.
The work, however, is not done, as the country reckons with coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement, and issues around free, fair, and trusted elections continue, even after Joe Biden’s decisive win. Healey discussed what lies ahead, what Republicans need to do to help bring our country together, and what she thinks should happen to a post–White House Donald Trump: “I’m going to be limited in what I can say,” she told me, “but it is important that Donald Trump, his enablers, those who acted in concert with him and furthered actions that may have been illegal, criminal or otherwise, are held accountable.”
Vanity Fair: Are you bone-crushingly exhausted?
Maura Healey: I certainly feel much better now that we’ve gotten past the election, but it has been a really difficult and full year when you think about COVID, when you think about the moment of racial reckoning that we’re having in our country, when you think about all the work that led up to protecting a free and secure election.… This is just the reality that we’re in. So many people have endured so much this year and continue to. It’s an incredible time that we’re living in. When you look back on the last four years, I don’t think you can overstate how much energy and effort it took to hold the line against the Trump administration that was doing things so entirely unprecedented and in violation of so many norms and the rule of law.
State attorneys general filed multistate suits against the Trump administration nearly 140 times. That’s compared to the 78 and 76 times the Obama and Bush administrations were sued in eight years. You yourself were involved in dozens of those. Is that right?
More than 100. What a sad commentary that in order to defend the Constitution, to protect the rule of law, we found ourselves taking Donald Trump and his administration to court over 100 times, but it was absolutely necessary. The good news is we won over 80% of those cases…The numbers are staggering, but when you have a president looking to gut health care or roll back environmental protections or reverse years of progress and reproductive freedom, that’s why it’s been really important for us to be active. I’m fortunate that as a state attorney general, I was able to do something.
What is it like to be part of those suits, to have personal feelings about them, and to have to channel those feelings into action?
There were moments that I found myself saying, I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t believe that the law is being pushed and tested this way…We really were prepared for this battle. I think our success rate shows that. For me, what I always went back to, I remember meeting a mother who had crossed the border with her young daughter and been picked up by ICE agents in Texas. She was separated from her young daughter, who ended up celebrating a birthday cold and alone in a facility far away from her mom. Her mom made her way to Massachusetts, and we ended up filing a lawsuit on her behalf when we ended up challenging the Trump administration’s separation of children from their parents at the border. I remember hugging her as she cried in my arms. I said to her, “We’re your government too.” I’ve felt that to my bones, that I have an oath and an obligation as an elected official to make sure we abide by the Constitution, that we stand by our principles, and I felt really satisfied that shortly after we took that case to court, that girl was on a plane to be reunited with her mother…. These aren’t just fights about principles and policies and laws and rhetoric. It involves humanity. You think about so many degradations—it does leave you weary sometimes, but it makes you appreciate the role of state and local officials doing their jobs. That’s what makes democracy survive. And our democracy will be all the better, too, now that more people are engaged. I look at Georgia, I look at the number of voters who came out…We said throughout the election that your vote is your voice. To see people’s enthusiasm is so important because the Constitution is “we the people.” It was never “I, the president.” It’s “we the people.” Hopefully now more people, as we turn to a Biden–Harris administration, as we move forward, will have more participation from more people, and our government and society will be much better as a result.
You talk about the success rate that you had in court. What was it like arguing against the Trump Justice Department?
I felt like we went up against a high caliber of legal talent. The problem for them was that they actually didn’t have the defense. Donald Trump was doing things that were illegal and unconstitutional. That’s why we had the success rate that we had. These really weren’t even close calls. You had a president doing things that had never ever been done before, contemplated before. What we need to get back to is restoring normalcy, restoring the rule of law, restoring a lot of these government agencies where a lot of the brainpower has fled. There’s a real morale issue. It’s going to be really important that the Biden–Harris administration gets the support it needs. We had a Justice Department that completely abdicated their responsibility. As a result, state A.G.s like myself became the de facto U.S. Department of Justice. They weren’t there to protect people. We had to be there. I’m looking forward to that being different.
I also want to say that I’m really proud of the people who did stand up and do their jobs. We just talked about the election—that didn’t just happen. That took a lot of effort. People don’t realize how much it took to make sure this election was safe and free and fair. Donald Trump tried to play games from the very beginning. He tried to tinker with the Postal Service because he didn’t want mail-in ballots. We had to sue to stop that from happening. Time and time again, A.G.s had to be in court, whether it was defending voting laws or the time [period] in which ballots would be counted. The role of state A.G.s was never more important than in protecting the vote and upholding the will of the people…. As we look forward, we have got to have more people working together, irrespective of party, who believe in building. We’ve got to get rid of the disease of mistrust and distrust. Donald Trump needs to exit. One of the major problems we have now is that for the 70 million people who voted for Donald Trump, the vast majority of them believe that he won, that Joe Biden came by this through fraud. That’s a problem when we know there’s absolutely no evidence of that. That’s not healthy for the government and for society.
Let’s talk about the party line. Only 6 of the 138 lawsuits brought against the Trump administration were joined by Republican attorneys general. How do you assure people that the job you’re doing is not political when the other side is playing politics?
There are any number of reasons why some Republicans chose not to join. Some of it is a matter of philosophy. That’s okay. You cannot underestimate the amount of intimidation and fear in the way that Donald Trump took over the Republican Party. If you look at the paltry number of Republicans who have been willing to speak up even with the bogus allegations of fraud in the election…This was a guy and a family that attempted to wield control through all sorts of bullying tactics. That’s a little bit of the context. As for our lawsuits, when I take action, I take action because I see a wrongdoing, a legal violation…I’m very comfortable standing by our efforts to prevent health care from being ripped away from millions of Americans. I’m very comfortable standing up in court to fight Donald Trump trying to use the census to undercount people. I’m hopeful that we can get to a place where Democrats and Republicans work together. I think that the Republican Party is going to go through a moment of self-realization once Donald Trump leaves and needs to figure out who it’s going to be and what it’s going to stand for. I hope we have a very different Republican Party.
Another thing Republicans have done is court packing. The federal judiciary has been wildly overhauled, on top of the transformation we’ve seen on the Supreme Court. What will the impact be like, and is there a way to go back?
I say to people that elections matter. We see now just how consequential they are. Over 25% of federal judges are Trump appointees, and they’re there for life. That impact is lasting. We’ve already run into the situation where we have decisions by appointees, and you see how it makes a real difference. I think the Republicans, Mitch McConnell, and Donald Trump did a tremendous job—I don’t say that in a qualitative sense; I say that in a quantitative sense—of ramming through as many justices as possible. They moved with such speed and were able to get confirmations done. As a lawyer, I understand the importance of courts. It was the height of hypocrisy to hold up the nomination of Merrick Garland. It’s just beyond the pale and shameful. But it’s also the case that a better job could have been done of making sure other seats could’ve been filled, and that’s certainly something that this administration has to pay attention to.
Do you think a President Biden should add justices to the Supreme Court?
I’m not sure that’s the solution. We have a system in place. It’s worked for a long time. I think people get fed up with efforts to play politics. It’s also the case that if Mitch McConnell continues to try to hold up confirmation processes, it’s understandable why some would think of other means to deal with that. You have real obstruction there. What do you do in the face of that?
People are sick of Washington politics. But if one side is playing into those politics, what does the other side gain from staying on the sunny side of the street?
I understand the premise of that question. I don’t think we should debase ourselves and engage in tactics we’ve seen from the RNC…I have no tolerance for that. You don’t fight fire with that kind of fire, but you do have to fight. You have to fight against misinformation and disinformation campaigns. We need to be smart and strategic. I think the Democratic Party spends a lot of time talking and debating amongst ourselves, sometimes not seeing the bigger picture, sometimes not being prepared to get beyond the party differences within our ranks to actually get things done…It doesn’t mean we give up on our values and principles, but we also need to look for ways to be strategic—how strategic and effective McConnell was with judicial appointments. I think of Stacey Abrams. We had years of building up voter registration and engagement, and look at that victory. There are ways to get there, but it can’t be politics or business as usual.
Are you going to push ahead with pending lawsuits against the Trump administration? What happens next?
We are looking at what the existing legislation is and what we want to do. A lot can change over the next few months, hopefully with the Justice Department withdrawing from some of the lawsuits and changing its positions. I do think that any number of efforts by President-elect Biden to issue executive orders to undo the Trump policies will be met with litigation, so the Justice Department needs to be prepared to defend that. I certainly want to do everything I can to help the Justice Department in that fight because we know what it takes, having had similar fights over the last four years. I would hope the state A.G.s will help.
What do you think state A.G.s should do when Trump leaves the White House? Should they investigate his finances? Should the Biden Justice Department investigate him?
As a state A.G., I’m going to be limited in what I can say, but it is important that Donald Trump, his enablers, those who acted in concert with him and furthered actions that may have been illegal, criminal or otherwise, are held accountable just as anyone else needs to be held accountable. Much of this will depend on facts and law. Obviously there are investigations underway, and I’m confident that the right offices will do their jobs. I couldn’t care less about Donald Trump. I am very happy to see him go. I think about his incompetence as there are tens of thousands of COVID-19 cases every day. It’s outrageous what he’s done—his callousness, his incompetence, his narcissism, his bullying, how he’s hurt so many people. Either he’s ignorant or callous or both, and I think members of his family are as well. They’re very good at emotionally appealing to people and saying things that resonate. But he only cares about keeping himself in power. I’m about moving forward. It’s not for one government to do alone. It’s not for one party to do alone. It’s going to require collective action. It’s going to require a reset in this country. Everyone has to think about the challenges and think about them as opportunities. It was really affirming to see people stand up, the Republican secretary of state in Georgia making sure that he did his job in the face of pressure.
You were early to sound the alarm about what could go wrong in this election. What tipped you off, and what were you doing to protect it?
It wasn’t rocket science. Donald Trump always operated with a view that the law didn’t apply to him. Looking ahead to the election, my concern was that he was going to do whatever he needed to do to hold on to that power, whether to escape future accountability or future abilities to monetize his persona. As we know, he’s facing boatloads of debt. Whatever the reason was, I believed that he was going to do everything he needed to do to try to win this election…We were very clear from the beginning as state A.G.s that it’s not about who you’re voting for. No one should have the ability to interfere with your vote. We need to protect that. Not only was it about exercising your right to vote, but about making sure that it was counted. You gotta know what you’re up against. You have to prepare for it. That’s why we saw the success we did in the courts. Folks were ready to go and people did their jobs.
What needs to happen in the next two to four years, and in the longer term, so that we don’t have these concerns going forward?
The first thing we need to do is to deal with the fact that the vast majority of people who voted for Donald Trump believe that he won this election and that Joe Biden got there through fraud…How do you deal with people’s lack of faith in a process? The other thing is that there are ways to make it easier to vote. More people voting is a great thing for democracy. How do we deal with innovations—mail-in balloting, earlier voting—to make it easier for people to have a voice in democracy? I think we need more training in civics education. One of the ways to beat disinformation is through education. We need to make sure we have the best systems in place. Operationally, are there things we can do that improve the ability to process and count votes? It’s a really important discussion, and it’s one that I’m going to be engaged in. We want to do everything we can right now to make sure we aren’t running into any issues with respect to conduct that would undermine our elections.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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