A former lawyer at the Department of Justice (DOJ) is speaking out about the work she did under President Donald Trump’s tenure which she claims “nearly ended” the nation’s democratic system of government.
Erica Newland, who worked in the Office of Legal Counsel from 2016-2018, penned an op-ed in The New York Times over the weekend to share her account of what it was like working in the office of the DOJ “where presidents turn for permission slips that say their executive orders and other contemplated actions are lawful.”
Newland began by noting that she joined the department in 2016 and “never harbored delusions about a Trump presidency.”
“Mr. Trump readily volunteered that his agenda was to disassemble our democracy, but I made a choice to stay at the Justice Department — home to some of the country’s finest lawyers — for as long as I could bear it,” she said.
However, she explained that she believed she could serve the country better by “pushing back from within than by keeping my hands clean.”
In her role, Newland says she worked to minimize the “immediate harmful impacts” of Trump’s executive orders and make them more acceptable to courts.
She provided the example of how lawyers in her office worked on Trump’s efforts to ban travel from “predominantly Muslim countries.” She noted that the first order was “rushed out the door” and struck down by the courts.
However, in 2018, a third travel ban order, which “benefited from more time and attention from the department’s lawyers,” was upheld by the Supreme Court.
The decision by the Supreme Court that year, along with a review of her work under Trump, led her to “fear that I was doing more harm than good” and leave the department.
Still, she said she urged DOJ lawyers to stay in their positions to provide pushback and that she was encouraged by “news reports about meaningful pushback.”
“I was wrong. Watching the Trump campaign’s attacks on the election results, I now see what might have happened if, rather than nip and tuck the Trump agenda, responsible Justice Department attorneys had collectively — ethically, lawfully — refused to participate in President Trump’s systematic attacks on our democracy from the beginning. The attacks would have failed.”
Newland went on to argue that if career officials at the DOJ had left in the early years of the administration and were replaced with “second-rate lawyers” — which she said the Trump campaign hired to try to overturn the election — then judges might have “dismantled the Trump facade from the beginning.”
“Before the 2020 election, I was haunted by what I didn’t do. By all the ways I failed to push back enough. Now, after the 2020 election, I’m haunted by what I did. The trade-off wasn’t worth it.”
She said she is haunted by the work she did do under Trump as she argued she gave a voice to “those trying to destroy the rule of law.”
“No matter our intentions, we were complicit. We collectively perpetuated an anti-democratic leader by conforming to his assault on reality,” she said, adding, “No matter how much any one of us pushed back from within, we did so as members of a professional class of government lawyers who enabled an assault on our democracy — an assault that nearly ended it.”
“We owe the country our honesty about that and about what we saw. We owe apologies. I offer mine here.”
Finally, she said, “And we owe our best efforts to restore our democracy and to share what we learned to help mobilize and enact reforms.”