By Larry Neumeister & Michael R. Sisak
NEW YORK — The nearly century-old American Civil Liberties Union says it is suddenly awash in donations and new members as it does battle with President Donald Trump over the extent of his constitutional authority, with nearly $80 million in online contributions alone pouring in since the election.
That includes a record $24 million surge over two days after Trump banned people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. The organization said its membership has more than doubled since the election to a record of nearly 1.2 million, and its Twitter following has tripled.
“It feels like we’re drinking from a fire hydrant,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero, adding that the election has brought immigration, refugee, reproductive, civil and voting rights “to a high boil.”
“What’s really heartening is people are paying attention. They’re aware of the crisis on the horizon,” he said. “There’s a real sense of urgency.”
After Trump’s election, the ACLU greeted the age of Trump on its website and magazine with a fresh slogan: “See you in court.” That was the same expression Trump used in his tweeted response to a federal appeals court’s decision refusing to reinstate the travel ban.
The ACLU has won court orders in New York, Massachusetts and Maryland against the president’s travel ban. It has also filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents on the billionaire’s potential conflicts of interest. And it intends to bring a legal challenge accusing him of violating the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause by accepting payments from foreign governments at his hotels and other properties.
Trump has defended the travel ban as critical to keeping America safe, saying terrorists could otherwise slip into the country. He predicted the courts will eventually find his order constitutional. Also, Trump’s business empire has said it will donate profits from any foreign governments that use his hotels.
The ACLU said it has raised $79 million online from nearly 1 million individuals since the election. It had no immediate figures for contributions made by other means.
The boost to the ACLU’s $220 million budget will allow it to spend more on its state operations, which Romero said became critical after some legislatures took Trump’s election as a license to promote anti-immigrant, anti-civil rights and anti-abortion legislation.
The 1,150-employee ACLU also plans to hire more lawyers and staff in New York and Washington and spend $13 million more on citizen engagement, including protests and lobbying. That is a new front for an organization that has primarily been a policy and legal group.
Sheryl Douglas, receptionist at the ACLU’s New York City headquarters since 1972, has been collecting some of the recent emails, letters and postcards.
“Sic ’em! Thanks!” read one.
“We commend your heroic efforts,” said another.
“You give me hope,” yet another said.
Among the new donors was Andrew Mcdonald, 52, of Odessa, Missouri.
“I’m ashamed to say I haven’t donated to any organizations in the past,” he said. “But things haven’t felt so threatening before either. … This time I felt like I couldn’t just sit here and do nothing.”
Another donor, Steve Berke, 35, of Miami Beach, Florida, said: “I think the ACLU is going to be a huge thorn in the side of the Trump administration. Trump has already demonstrated that he has a thin skin when it comes to anyone challenging his authority or power, but I’m confident that the ACLU will fight to protect American civil liberties.”
Over the years, the ACLU has been bitterly criticized for taking up unpopular causes, such as defending the rights of neo-Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan to demonstrate.
Geraldine Engel, ACLU deputy development director, said the recent outpouring has been heartening. “We were always unpopular, misunderstood,” she said.
The ACLU was born in 1920 when a small group of idealists challenged then-Attorney General Mitchell Palmer’s order that thousands of people branded foreign anarchists or communists be arrested without warrants. Many were deported.
Soon the organization was defending people’s constitutional rights to due process, privacy and freedom of assembly, speech and religion and looking out for society’s vulnerable, including minorities, women, gay and transgender people, immigrants, prisoners and the disabled.
In 1925, ACLU lawyers helped defend John Scopes, a schoolteacher prosecuted for teaching evolution in Tennessee. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the ACLU protested the detention of 110,000 Japanese-Americans in camps.
In the 1950s, it joined the NAACP to fight segregation in public schools. And it had a role in the 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion.
More recently, it helped persuade the Supreme Court in 2003 to strike down a Texas law outlawing gay sex and forced the government after 9/11 to divulge information about torture and the National Security Agency’s surveillance of Americans.
Esha Bhandari, an ACLU attorney in New York, said the public’s reaction lately is encouraging to those who gave up bigger salaries to work for the nonprofit organization.
“This is why we’re here,” said the Columbia Law School graduate. “The importance comes into sharp relief. We exist for moments like this. Lives are on the line.”