Top Obama Administration Officials Say Justice Department Will Keep Defending Muslims Under Trump

Top officials in the White House and Department of Justice held a conference call with Muslim leaders nationwide on Monday, weeks before Donald Trump is inaugurated.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Vanita Gupta and Attorney General Loretta Lynch

Top Obama administration officials sought to reassure Muslim American leaders in a conference call on Monday, saying that members of the government, mainly career civil servants, will continue to fight for their civil rights after political appointees leave office in January.

“While I may be leaving in January, the men and women that investigate and prosecute these hate crimes are deeply committed and are career attorneys and investigators who will stay on and are committed to ensuring the continuity of this work,” said Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general at the US Department of Justice.

“We are not letting go, letting down — we are continuing to be as vigorous and aggressive as we possibly can be,” Gupta said during the call, which also included Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama.

The purpose of the call was to discuss a spate of alleged hate crimes around the country. Many have been reported after Donald Trump won the presidential election in November.

A BuzzFeed News reporter identified himself as a reporter in the call sign-up. Officials at the start of the call said it was off the record, but BuzzFeed News never agreed to that condition. The White House didn't immediately answer a follow-up request for comment. A copy of the call sign-in sheet was given to BuzzFeed News by a source.

“I wanted to reiterate what was said and mentioned, that those of us in the career service will continue to execute our mission,” Kareem Shora, ‎section director for community engagement at the US Department of Homeland Security, said on the call. "We have taken an oath to make sure that we protect and defend the constitution of the United States."

Jarrett said she empathized with Muslim Americans, who have seen a 67% increase in hate crimes in 2015, according to the latest FBI Hate Crimes statistics released in November.

"I know the past year has seen an unprecedented increase in attacks against your families, from bullying and harassment of your children to threats against houses of worship,” Jarrett said. “And I want you to know that we feel the pain of the Muslim American community very directly.”

Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

President Obama with senior adviser Valerie Jarrett

Jarrett added that on behalf of the president and the team at the White House, “we stand proudly and profoundly besides you.”

“And we are at your service,” Jarrett said. "Please do not think you face these challenges alone. We are here."

Other participants on the call were Zaki Barzinji, the White House American Muslim community liaison, and Paul Montero, in charge of community relations service at DOJ.

At the conclusion of the talks, officials took questions from various Muslim American community leaders.

Many wondered if Obama would give a statement before leaving office to denounce the increased attacks on the Muslim American community, which accounts for roughly 1% of the US population. A direct answer to that question was avoided by everyone on the call — instead, various officials referenced, again, the fact that career public servants in the federal government would ensure civil rights and civil liberties.

Other questions, all of which expressed gratitude to the Obama administration and the DOJ, became statements instead of inquiries. Some were statements about Trump's cabinet picks.

“I think it’s no secret that now the whole cabinet that’s being formed, the one common element is an anti-Islam vibe that’s very strong and concurrent,” said John Ederer, an imam at the Islamic Society of Tulsa.

“I think it’s a big deal, that we can just simply shelf it and hope that the people who are career people working in this field are going to solve this,” Ederer said. "We really feel that the president should come out and make an unequivocal statement that this is unacceptable, that this movement should not continue and gain momentum."

Gupta, in response to a question about protections of Muslim Americans deteriorating when Trump becomes president, said meetings with Trump’s transition team have already been occurring, and that the current administration was highlighting work around addressing hate crimes, discrimination, and bullying.

“We are talking about the importance of this work and highlight it [to Trump’s transition team] to really stress why it’s so vitally important, not just for directly impacted communities, but really for everyone in this country,” Gupta said. “This is work we want to pass forward and we really are emphasizing that is important for the next administration.”

Trump's transition team did not immediately respond to requests for comment.