Once a week, Karl Racine gets on the phone with the other Democratic attorneys general from around the country to talk. Sometimes they talk about what local cases their offices are working on, but mostly they just talk about various issues affecting the country, “be it environmental, be it student debt, be it immigration, be it guns,” Racine says. From there, it’s all strategy. They ruminate and then figure out whose office has the resources, time, and availability to work on these issues.
And as the co-chair of the Democratic Attorneys General Association, Racine often leads the charge on the lawsuits that develop from these conversations, most of which are against President Donald Trump’s administration. Since Trump took office, Racine’s office has been involved in at least 16 lawsuits, or motions to intervene in existing lawsuits, against the president and his administration. The most recent one is a July 30 lawsuit to stop an effort by the administration that would, in essence, make 3D-printed guns accessible to anyone with access to a 3D printer—no ID, background check, or permit required.
As D.C.’s first elected attorney general, Racine has emerged as a fierce defender of the District, taking on campaign finance reform, juvenile justice, and slumlords—and winning many supporters across the city in the process. But in the last two years, Racine’s office has made it clear their number one target is D.C.’s least popular new resident: Trump.
D.C.’s attorney general has become one of the most dogged public officials to go after a sitting president. But for Racine, dipping into national politics is a local issue. Since Trump took office in 2017, a good number of his policies have had direct effects on the residents of D.C., he says—from immigration to healthcare to student loan debt.
“In a broad way, the issues that the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia are engaged in—and there are numerous in terms of national issues—they also impact the District of Columbia,” he says. “Both in terms of the Trump administration policies and the impact on D.C. residents, as well as frankly running just afoul of what I’ll call the spirit of the District of Columbia.”
“It establishes him as a national figure,” says political consultant Chuck Thies. “The last politicians to do that were [Marion] Barry and [Adrian] Fenty,” whose national spotlights were for more notorious reasons, Thies says. “He’s taking a different approach to becoming a national figure … by going after the president of the United States.”
Though Racine himself has been coy about having ambitions to run for mayor of D.C., local politicos are—and have been—quick to point to him as the next serious candidate to challenge Mayor Muriel Bowser.
Of all the current lawsuits Racine is involved in, the emoluments one has the potential to have the biggest impact.
Filed with Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh in June of 2017, the lawsuit alleges that Trump is violating a little-known foreign and domestic emoluments clause in the U.S. Constitution. According to the complaint, the president’s continued business stake in his Trump International Hotel in D.C. violates two constitutional anti-corruption clauses that restrict a president’s ability to accept or receive financial benefits from foreign or domestic governments. Racine and Frosh’s lawsuit alleges that the Trump hotel often does business with foreign and state officials, and that the president profits because he still has a business stake in it.
The emoluments lawsuit is unique because, for starters, it’s unprecedented: Never before has a sitting president had a stake in a business that could potentially profit from other governments. But it’s also not the most obvious path to taking down Trump; one would need to be intimately familiar with the nooks and crannies of the U.S. Constitution to realize that the president might be in violation of the constitution through his business dealings.
Like most of the Trump lawsuits Racine and the other Democratic attorneys general are involved in, the emoluments lawsuit came from hours of discussion and scrutiny.
“I did not wake up on November, whatever the date of the election was, and think, ‘We have an emoluments issue here,’” Racine says. “What did happen is that both the D.C. office, the Maryland office, and other thinkers around the nation started talking about ethics and this president. And sure enough, discussion centered on this clause. We studied it independently … it took us a little time as it should to convince ourselves that, number one, that we would have legal standing.”
Since filing the lawsuit, Trump’s lawyers filed a motion to dismiss in September of last year, which a federal judge deferred on July 25, allowing Racine and Frosh’s lawsuit to move forward.
Prior to the 2016 election, the Democratic Attorneys General Association wasn’t nearly as prolific as it is these days.
Sean Rankin is the Executive Director of the DAGA and worked as a consultant for Racine’s 2014 campaign. He credits Racine for building up the DAGA. Before Rankin’s 2016 appointment to lead the committee, he says it was just a part-time gig.
“We built a platform that allows for a greater level of engagement for attorneys general,” Rankin says. “And it’s this level of engagement and the sharing of information where the people of the District of Columbia have a champion who is going out and getting information to help them.”
Currently, 23 democratic attorneys general work together as part of these weekly phone calls. Rankin says that, as co-chair of the DAGA, Racine “has been at the center of the work” the committee has done in the last two years. “We talk about how issues nationally can be addressed locally,” Rankin says, citing wage theft and housing lawsuits as examples.
In the last two years, the D.C. Council has provided Racine’s office with the budget resources to expand the scope of its work, so that the national issues don’t take away from the local lawsuits. In early 2017, Racine’s office launched a Public Advocacy Division to focus on D.C.-specific issues like housing lawsuits against slumlords, wage theft, antitrust, and drug and firearm cases in different communities.
“What I tell friends is, ‘Oh, the national stuff, that’s like my second job,’” Racine says.
Even as rumors of mayoral aspirations grow, Rankin says “he truly believes he still has work to do as attorney general” before considering such a run.
But four years is a long time, and a source tells City Paper that on primary election day this past June, Racine mentioned this is his “last term as attorney general.” Establishing himself as a noted foil to Trump in a city where more than 90 percent of its voters voted against him is a smart move for someone who wants to be D.C.’s next mayor.
Thies suspects it may also be personal for Racine, recalling the time Trump referred to Africa and Racine’s home country of Haiti as “shithole” countries. “To have your struggling country referred to as a shithole by the president of the United States when you have a few grenades to throw?” Thies says. “Of course he’s going to go after him: ‘Well fuck you, I’m going to shit all over your hotel.’”
Due to a reporting error, this article originally said there are more than 30 democratic attorneys general. There are 23. Additionally, this article originally stated Sean Rankin worked as a spokesman for Karl Racine’s 2014 campaign; he worked as a consultant.