clean energy battlegrounds

Washington state’s top attorney is taking on the White House

Who can stop President Trump?

Donald Trump started signing executive orders to put his stamp on the country hours after he became president. Some got a lot of press, like his decision to bar people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. But moves to erode environmental protections largely slipped by without notice.

The thing is, these quiet moves could cause plenty of damage.

President Trump overruled the advice of scientific advisors who suggested banning one of the most dangerous pesticides on the market, chlorpyrifos. He greenlighted the excavation of new coal mines on public land — something Barack Obama had blocked. And around the same time, Trump scrapped a study gauging the health risks of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Bob Ferguson, Washington state’s attorney general, is trying to put a stop to all this. Ferguson gained national prominence for suing the White House just days after Trump issued his travel ban. The courts sided with Ferguson and blocked the order, forcing Trump to backpedal.

Since then, Ferguson has launched a defense of environmental rules, joining other attorneys general from across the country in 12 lawsuits over methane emissions, chemical manufacturing disasters, and energy-wasting light bulbs. (Read Grist’s in-depth story about another AG leading the fight against Trump in court, California’s Xavier Becerra.) Ferguson has also challenged Trump’s attempts to bar transgender people from the military as well as the president’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

In total, Ferguson has filed 18 lawsuits against the administration. It’s early, but his record so far on cases that have gone before judges is a spotless 3-0.

In a recent interview, Grist talked to Ferguson, a chess champion and mountaineer, about his efforts to derail Trump’s agenda. Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q. How much power do state attorneys general have to shape policy coming out of the executive branch?

A. When I first ran for attorney general in 2012, whenever someone was hosting coffee at their house or something for the campaign, I would say attorney general is the most consequential office in government. And folks always gave me a strange look. They don’t give me that funny look anymore. They understand the role and the power of the office of the attorney general in a way that was not so clear just a handful of years ago.

Can AGs solve every problem in the Trump administration? Of course not. Elections do have consequences. But we have the ability to hold him accountable in a way that other politicians simply can’t, by virtue of the office we hold.

The travel ban proved to be a roadmap for how to do it, right? Trump had to rescind that first travel order and draft a much narrower one. I think that was a wake-up call for a lot of folks that, “Hey, this is a way to prevent some of the worst excesses of the administration.”

Q. You had a strategy to counteract Trump’s action on immigration before it even happened. Were you similarly prepared on the environment?

A. Not in the same way. But after Donald Trump got elected in November, and before he took office, I said to my team, there are three areas I’m particularly focused on with this new administration, in terms of potential legal challenges: immigration, the environment, and consumer protection.

We created an environmental unit of attorneys and professional staff, and what they do is focus on the administration and this nation’s environmental policy.

Q. How closely have you worked with the other state attorneys general?

A. I’ve got to know them in a deeper way since Donald Trump became president. You bet.

Our staffs are talking all the time. That includes me picking up the phone and calling my colleagues to talk about potential legal action or get an update on what’s going on. I think it’s fair to say that there is a higher level of coordination going on than I’ve seen before.

Q. What do you talk about?

A. What state is best equipped right now to take the lead on a case, how can other states be helpful in a supporting role — is it by joining a lawsuit, is it by filing an amicus brief? Do we have standing to bring a lawsuit?

I don’t want to suggest that each decision is being vetted with other AGs. It’s very fluid. The travel ban was signed on a Friday night. We filed our lawsuit on Monday. Sometimes there’s not time for those conversations.

We’ve done a far better job than I could have anticipated not stepping on one another’s toes and coordinating our resources.

Q. What’s your strategy moving forward to push back on Trump?

A. Well, look, I’m in this for the long haul. I’m adding resources to this work in the office. It’s part of my day each day I come to work.

Moving forward, while there will be other big lawsuits on high profile issues, much of our work is going to be in the trenches, contesting sometimes obscure environmental provisions from the EPA to make sure that environmental protections remain in place. Those will not end up on the front page of the newspapers, but those are important.

To give you the baseball analogy, if the travel ban was a home run, much of this litigation may be getting a guy on base working him around the bases. Small ball.


My team knows we can’t swing at every pitch. We don’t have the resources for that. I’m not just filling lawsuit after lawsuit to muddy up the works.

Q. That’s like the Texas model, where Texas kept suing Obama. And some of those lawsuits were pretty clearly more about political rhetoric than realistic legal arguments.

A. Yeah, exactly. Instead, I want to file lawsuits that I think we can win. And, you know, we haven’t lost one yet. We are going to lose some before this is over. That’s going to happen. But my team knows that I want to win more than we lose.

I think it’s become clear that it’s a systemic effort from the Trump administration; no two ways around it. They have a strategy to roll back protections on issues that, again, may not be front-page news, but they are important to our environment and our future.

Q. In theory, the Trump administration can make all these executive changes by following the normal process and avoid violating the law and getting sued. It seems like — and correct me if I’m misunderstanding this — they’re trying to take shortcuts.

A. I think that that’s a fair observation, and the courts have agreed so far.

As I said before, elections do have consequences. And the president does have a lot of authority. Whether we agree with those decisions or not, our role is just to make sure he’s following the law. We can do a lot of good in that arena.