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This Bipartisan Bill Could Give Trump Huge Power Against His Enemies

The House has overwhelmingly passed a bill empowering the executive branch to strip organizations of their nonprofit status with little due process. The Senate is now considering its own version.

Donald Trump raises his fist.
Former President Donald Trump after speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2021

On April 15, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill with a title so boring it escaped most people’s attention: “To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to terminate the tax-exempt status of terrorist supporting organizations.” House Resolution 6408 was one of a trio of bills rushed through in response to Iran’s retaliatory attack on Israel days before, the premise of which seemed straightforward enough: Organizations that support terrorism should not be exempt from taxes.

In reality, the bill could be used to target a huge number of nonprofits. While clearly imagined by its sponsors as a means of targeting pro-Palestinian organizations, civil liberties organizations warn it could have sweeping consequences for groups working on climate and environmental causes (among several other issues) should the next occupant of the Oval Office choose to use it as a means of attacking his political enemies. And as Democrats and Republicans alike berate university administrators for not cracking down harder on pro-Palestine protests on their campus, even colleges’ tax-exempt status could be threatened.

Several wide-reaching statutes already bar organizations, corporations, and individuals from supporting terrorism. H.R. 6408, by contrast, hands the Department of Treasury broad new authority to strip nonprofit organizations of their charitable tax status by creating a new category of “terrorist-supporting organization.” Only 11 House members voted against it.

“There are absolutely no guardrails in terms of its potential impact,” Brad Parker, associate director of policy at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said of the bill. “Even if it were seen as a legitimate approach and tool, without those guardrails, it really can be weaponized to criminalize any disfavored group at any time that the administration deems worthy of silencing or eliminating as a political threat.”

H.R. 6408, Parker explains, builds on what CCR and other civil liberties groups consider an overly broad definition of what it means to provide “material support” to designated foreign terrorist organizations, as determined by the State Department. That can refer to both tangible and intangible forms of support, including legal training and expert advice. That support needn’t be related to any illegal activities so long as U.S. authorities can establish a link to a designated foreign terrorist organization. In some cases, those ties can be thin. In 2006, for instance, the Justice Department arrested graduate student Fahad Hashmi for providing material support to Al Qaeda on the grounds of having let an acquaintance, Junaid Babar, stay in his apartment. “The government never presented evidence that Hashmi knew that Babar or his associates were members of Al-Qaeda; nor did it allege any direct contact between Hashmi and Al-Qaeda,” Human Rights Watch wrote of the case. Hashmi was sentenced to 15 years in prison after spending three years in pretrial solitary confinement.

In 2010, the Humanitarian Law Project challenged this policy, arguing that such provisions endanger third-party peace-building efforts, work to combat human rights abuses, and disaster relief in conflict zones where designated foreign terrorist organizations are in government or quasi-governmental roles. The Supreme Court, however, upheld the law as is. The White House used similar logic earlier this year to stop funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, after Israel asserted without evidence that UNRWA employees were affiliated with terrorist organizations, including Hamas.

Under H.R. 6408, the treasury secretary would need to establish some link between a targeted nonprofit and a designated foreign terrorist organization. But the executive branch determines who’s on that list of designated organizations. The bill also offers little recourse to nonprofits that might want to challenge the validity of the treasury secretary’s accusation. What’s unique about H.R. 6408 isn’t its definition of material support, Parker says—which is already expansive—but that it “creates the specific authority and discretion within the executive branch to target specific organizations.”

You might not think that climate or environmental groups would fall into this category. But Republican legislators in 19 states have already significantly enhanced penalties for protesters challenging pipelines and other “critical infrastructure.” Demonstrators who participated in direct action against the Mountain Valley Pipeline have been threatened with domestic terrorism charges, not unlike those brought against anti–Dakota Access Pipeline activist Jessica Rezniceck. Forty-two people working to stop a law enforcement training facility known as Cop City, construction of which would raze part of Atlanta’s Weelaunee Forest, have been charged under Georgia’s domestic terrorism law. In 2019, the Trump administration followed the example set by fellow Republicans and proposed making “inhibiting the operation” of oil and gas pipelines punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Republicans, moreover, regularly refer to climate and environmental advocates as radical extremists—in fact, this is the subject of a House Natural Resources Committee scheduled for Tuesday.

It isn’t out of the question, in other words, that a Trump administration would find an excuse to declare environmental protests eco-terrorism. Should H.R. 6408 ever become law by passing the Senate, a president’s future pick for treasury secretary would enjoy wide-ranging powers to target green groups that have been a thorn in the administration’s side. Bafflingly, several progressive members of Congress who’ve been outspoken about climate and environmental issues voted in favor of the bill, including Congressional Progressive Caucus, or CPC, leaders Pramila Jayapal, Mark Pocan, and Greg Casar. None responded to requests for comment in time for publication. Ro Khanna, a CPC deputy whip who voted for H.R. 6408, said he supported the bill to “ensure we curtail foreign terrorist organizations that, if unchecked, jeopardize our national security and could entangle us in another endless war. I wish that protections for climate, peace and other non-profits had been included to protect their work and will push for that.”

The Senate’s companion measure to H.R. 6408, referred to the Senate Finance Committee last week, doesn’t seem to have the same momentum. Still, the bill’s passage through the House comes amid a spate of bipartisan efforts to criminalize particularly pro-Palestinian dissent, often in the name of fighting antisemitism.

After H.R. 6408 was first introduced last fall, Anti-Defamation League director Jonathan Greenblatt urged the IRS “to look at and conduct a thorough review” of American Muslims for Palestine and Students for Justice in Palestine. He has accused the latter—without evidence—of “supporting” Hamas. Led by Democrats Josh Gottheimer and Dan Goldman, several House Democrats sent a letter to Columbia University that called the student antiwar encampment on campus a “breeding ground for antisemitic attacks on Jewish students.” The group called on the university’s trustees to shut down the encampment or “resign so that they can be replaced by individuals who will uphold the University’s legal obligations.”

Last week, President Biden signed legislation to reauthorize and expand Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act after it passed the House and Senate. Though it was ostensibly designed to collect intelligence on foreign subjects, U.S. residents have also been caught up in collection efforts via “backdoor” searches that have been used in recent years to surveil Black Lives Matter protesters. “We have a lot of concerns about how some of those powers were expanded in the most recent reauthorization of 702,” Kia Hamadanchy, senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, told me. “Not enough Democrats, in particular, were thinking about whether they trust the office of the presidency, which may be held by Donald Trump or somebody else down the line. You’ve basically left a loaded gun on the table for them.”