The man aspiring to be the new face of the resistance is a practicing Sikh who likes to call attention to his turban and happens to have jurisdiction over 20 of President Donald Trump’s properties, including Bedminster.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal says he sees an opening in the continuing wake left by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s surprise resignation, and he’s ready to take it.
“If with him not being there, there’s a gap, we’ll fill that gap to make sure there’s no backsliding,” said Grewal, ticking off a list of active or potential lawsuits against the administration over immigrants, the stripping down of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, threats to the state coastline, the proposed citizenship question on the Census and more.
In four months on the job, Grewal has joined or started 30 actions against the federal government, from debt collection to carbon emissions. He has embedded himself with the Democratic attorneys general who’ve banded together since last year to take on Trump, and which Schneiderman had been a national leader on.
Last week, Grewal added another, writing to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos saying that if she wasn’t going to investigate fraud at for-profit colleges, he would.
Then there’s the other aspect of what Schneiderman had been doing — talking with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team about de-conflicting investigations that the New York office could pursue. The overlap stemmed from how much of the president’s business and campaign had been based at Trump Tower, and the number of financial transactions that pass through New York.
Grewal’s jurisdiction doesn’t cover the banking transactions, and he’d only be able to prosecute crimes if they happened in his state. But Trump has spent many key moments during the transition and most weekends last spring and summer at his Bedminster residence in north Jersey. Those include a visit last May when Trump and his team plotted to fire FBI Director James Comey and complained in an unreleased letter that he wouldn’t publicly exonerate the president.
“Much like Attorney General Schneiderman, we have more contact with properties in New Jersey, and if there’s any indication of any criminal activity, or anything like that, we’ll use the powers at our disposal to investigate,” Grewal said. “We have a lot of tools at our disposal.”
He declined to answer specifics, including whether he’s been in touch with Mueller’s team.
“There’s a nexus between the administration and New Jersey,” he said, “beyond that, I’m not going to touch on that issue at this point.”
Grewal also wouldn’t discuss whether he’ll pursue statute changes. Schneiderman had been pushing the Albany legislature to change the law to enable state-level charges against people who might be pardoned out of federal charges by the president.
A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment on whether there have been communications with Grewal or his office over de-conflicting investigations of backstopping pardons. Most legal experts, though, have trouble seeing how a state-level obstruction of justice charge would work, if it comes to that.
Unlike in most states, New Jersey’s attorney general is appointed, not elected, and Grewal says that’s a relief. He said he has no political ambitions to drive him to the kind of performing for the cameras that Schneiderman often did. But he is a committed Democrat, and he does think in terms of politics.
“We organize. We vote. We push relentlessly for progress — that, after all, is the beauty of America,” he said, in a speech to the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies last week in Washington.
And he loves the public role he now has as the highest ranking Sikh in the history of American government.
Based on his reputation as a lawyer but also as a conscious statement about diversity in response to Trump, Grewal was plucked by new Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy out of a county prosecutor job he’d been appointed to by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. He had spent years building his reputation as a lawyer at a firm in Washington, in New York’s Eastern District U.S. attorney’s office and then in the New Jersey U.S. attorney’s office.
(Christie, an outside Trump adviser who’s been offering some tips to the president on legal strategy, did not return requests to comment on the attorney general.)
“A lot of what Trump is doing and isn’t doing has an implication for us, positive or negative. We clearly needed someone who not only knew New Jersey cold, [but] understood the scope of the job as prosecutor,” Murphy said. “We needed someone clearly who could help us punch our weight on the stuff that mattered to our residents, on the stuff that was happening on the national agenda.”
Murphy said in an interview that he gave Grewal a mandate to take on the Trump administration wherever makes sense — “he absolutely has all the latitude he needs to take on the administration.”
Grewal talks regularly and openly about the discrimination he’s faced: The extra TSA screenings he always seems to get, the internet commenters who make jokes about where he’ll park his elephant, and the children who think he’s a genie and ask him to grant their wishes while their parents look on. He assumes that as he takes a bigger role against Trump, who he argues has increased the culture of hate in America — “people were afraid to say it in the public space, but now you see it everywhere,” he said — the hate emails and threats will increase.
To which Grewal says: Bring it on, it can only help.
“It’s a stark juxtaposition when you put those on the split screen,” Grewal said. “It’s not going to change what I’m doing, but it might amplify it. Maybe it gives people hope that you have somebody leading the charge who looks like me, who believes like me.”
Paul Fishman, the U.S. attorney in New Jersey who was Grewal’s boss before being abruptly dismissed along with the other Obama appointees last year, said it‘s “fortuitous that someone of his religious and ethnic background is in that chair right now.” Fishman called the situation “a chance for the governor, for him to make a statement that somebody who looks like him can be just as American, and is as American, as anybody else.”
Last week at the dinner in Washington, Grewal told a story of a recent trip to give a speech about diversity and inclusion at a Fortune 500 headquarters which he didn’t specify. His staff went in. He was stopped at the gate, told he wasn’t on the list. He said he spent 15 minutes explaining to the guard that he was the chief law enforcement officer in the state, realizing as he did that this was just the latest in a lifetime of “small indignities and humiliations” that can’t help but define him.
“Given my background, my beliefs as a Sikh — that I wear my religion not just on my sleeve, but on my head and my face, it’s naturally a part of everything I do. Having had those experiences, having dealt with hate, having dealt with intolerance, having dealt with violence all throughout my life, it certainly gives me a different perspective than most,” Grewal said. “Now having a platform where I can do something about it, really motivates me to take advantage of whatever opportunities are available to me.”
His office has been flooded with top prosecutors, many of them Democratic refugees from Washington — his executive assistant attorney general, for example, came to the job after serving as Sally Yates’ chief of staff. They’ve allocated resources to take on Trump, and in the past few weeks since the Schneiderman revelations, have been looking at new options.
It takes Grewal away from other aspects of the office’s portfolio — a big focus is police relations, and on his trip to Washington he made an unannounced visit to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, where he made etchings of two names to take back to Trenton with him.
But he believes what’s coming out of Washington requires this.
“I’d rather be improving police-community relations, I’d rather be working on the opioid crisis, I’d rather be in schools taking about bias or addressing those types of issues,” Grewal said. “We have to do this.”
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere, Politico