‘In the Foxhole’: Tennessee Takes on Biden Admin, Wall Street, Big Tech

‘In the Foxhole’: Tennessee Takes on Biden Admin, Wall Street, Big Tech

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Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti predicts that 2024 will be “a year of clarity,” in which the progressive agenda, which had previously advanced behind the scenes, in government agencies and corporate boardrooms, will come to light.

In his first year as state attorney general, Mr. Skrmetti elevated Tennessee to a state that’s taking the lead in pushing back against the expanding powers of the federal government, racial discrimination, and antitrust violations from the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) movement; addressing social media health threats to children; and stopping transgender medical procedures on minors.

His actions have included suing asset manager BlackRock in December 2023 for what Mr. Skrmetti charged was misleading investors regarding its alleged leveraging of clients’ money to further climate and social justice causes. In September 2023, he led a group of 22 state attorneys general in warning Wall Street companies that their collective action against fossil fuel companies likely violated U.S. antitrust laws.
In October 2023, he led a coalition of state attorneys general in taking action against the tech industry over alleged psychological harm to children caused by social media apps.

Mr. Skrmetti has bumped heads with the Biden administration on several occasions, including in a court battle over a Tennessee law that bans transgender medical procedures on minors.

In April 2023, the Department of Justice sued to block the newly enacted Tennessee law, sparking a legal battle with the state; and in November 2023, Mr. Skrmetti threatened to sue the federal Department of Health and Human Services over its directive that foster parents must affirm a child’s gender identity.

The Epoch Times spoke with Mr. Skrmetti about what his first year in office has brought and what he sees coming down the road in the year to come.

The Epoch Times: Prior to your appointment to office, we didn’t hear much from Tennessee. And now, it seems that Tennessee has taken a leadership role on so many issues. What’s motivating you to take action?

Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti: It’s the state’s interests that drive the litigation choices. The attorney general’s job in Tennessee—because it’s not an elected position—is not to decide what the right policy outcomes are. The elected officials make those decisions, as they should, and then it’s the attorney general’s job to provide legal support for that.

We have seen a lot more litigation coming out of the federal government, directed at the states. We’ve seen a lot more federal overreach that impacts the ability of the states to make their own decisions, so that’s driven a good bit of it.

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The Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville on March 29, 2023. (Chase Smith/The Epoch Times)

The other issue is, I think the elected officials in Tennessee have seen what some of the other attorneys general have been doing, both on the Democratic and Republican sides, depending on which party is in the White House, engaging in push-back against that overreach. And I think there was an expectation that whoever the new Tennessee attorney general was, they were going to be actively engaged in asserting federalism and separation of powers.

If Tennessee is not pushing back, then the system doesn’t work. Our checks and balances built into the Constitution require each actor to do their part to protect the integrity of their piece of government.

The Epoch Times: But you’re going up against some pretty powerful adversaries, whether that’s the federal government or some of Wall Street’s largest firms. What do you think, realistically, are the chances of success for a state attorney general?

Mr. Skrmetti: It’s a little daunting when you take on a trillion-dollar company. They have better resources and they can afford the best lawyers in the world.

We try to be careful in case selection, to make sure we’re putting the state on the best possible grounds for winning. In some of the big corporate cases, it’s a multi-state effort.

It’s a little comforting to be in the foxhole with some other states when you’re up against these titan companies.

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The Epoch Times: Going back to something you said earlier, I think we are looking at a tug-of-war between Washington and the states over decision-making authority. We’ve seen so many new mandates and directives coming down from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Treasury Department, the Education Department, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the list goes on. Who do you see winning this?

Mr. Skrmetti: I think the victory is bright lines. The victory is everybody knowing what their lane is and knowing they have to stay in it. There are plenty of things that the federal government needs to do, and I think the fact that they’re trying to do too many things is undermining their ability to perform the core functions of the federal government.

Given what the Constitution says and given the composition of the courts, where you have a very originalist interpretation coming down from the United States Supreme Court, I think we have the legal opportunity to check the federal overreach.

It’s a little curious to me that we see this flurry of federal regulatory activity that just doesn’t have a good basis in law. I don’t know if it means that the federal government is hoping that its vision of a more regulatory state will ultimately prevail, and they’re just trying to break down the existing legal barriers against it; or if the goal is more political in nature, just to make these statements and then see it hashed out in litigation, without much regard for the ultimate policy impact.

The Epoch Times: The purpose of government according to our founders is to secure Americans’ rights and liberties. Do you believe our civil liberties are at risk today?

Mr. Skrmetti: They are always at risk. Every generation sees risks to our fundamental liberties, and there’s always some justification offered by overreaching government as to why it’s necessary at any given time.

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People are seen on screens from closed circuit television security cameras at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai, China, on July 6, 2023. (Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images)

I think you’ll see opportunities to have a more profound impact on human freedom than you’ve seen in a long time because of the ability to leverage technology. Here, the potential for some sort of overarching, very intrusive mechanism is bigger than anything we’ve seen.

And you look at the Chinese social credit system, and it shows some hints of the potential for abuse here. We’re in a particularly sensitive inflection point right now where I think everybody needs to be very cautious about the scope of technology and ensure that we don’t see any permanent losses to our freedom.

The Epoch Times: So many people have moved to Tennessee in the past decade, and many of them came for jobs or low taxes, but I think a lot of them came for personal freedom. Tennessee was ranked the sixth freest state in America by the Cato Institute, but can people feel secure that their civil rights will be protected simply by moving to a state like Tennessee?

Mr. Skrmetti: You’re seeing a lot of sorting right now geographically, and we’ve had a huge influx of people to Tennessee. We’ve had a huge influx of people who moved here, not just for the taxes, not just for the economic opportunities, although Tennessee is very strong on both fronts.

We see people move here because this is where they want to raise their families. That seems to be the biggest driver, in my experience, for why people come here. They want to raise their kids in a place that shares their values, and it gives them the opportunity to put family at the center of their lives in a way that’s consistent with their core beliefs.

We have a dynamic system, and anytime there is a move toward more expansive government, people need to push back. And if we don’t push back, if the other institutions of government don’t check individual branches of government that are getting bigger than they’re supposed to be, then we’re going to see a gradual erosion of our ability to govern ourselves and our ability to be free.

There’s never any guarantee that any place is going to be perpetually liberty-oriented, but I think in Tennessee, you have some deeply embedded cultural values that are well established. And you’ve seen a lot of pushback from Tennessee; it is a traditionally ornery state.

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Snow falls on Broadway, a popular tourist street in Nashville, Tenn., on Dec. 22, 2022. (Seth Herald/AFP via Getty Images)

The Epoch Times: You’ve fought the ESG industry from various angles, suing BlackRock, protesting the Treasury Department’s Net Zero principles, and warning companies against racial discrimination. Meanwhile, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink has gone from “forcing behaviors” a few years ago to now saying he’s not going to use the term ESG anymore. What do you see happening with the ESG movement in 2024?

Mr. Skrmetti: I think, with respect especially to environmental factors, what we’re going to see is clarity. And that was the goal of the lawsuit.

Over the last couple of years, there was this big trend toward corporations, and particularly the big financial corporations, engaging in policymaking. And I think people got out over their skis.

We just need to make sure that there’s clarity for investors. There’s no law prohibiting a company from offering ESG-laden products. There’s no law prohibiting a company from saying we are going to tailor these investments to try to advance a particular environmental, or any other, policy.

The key is, it has to be transparent. And I think things have gotten muddled over the last few years, I think you have seen a number of companies make statements or take actions to try to get back on track. I think they realize that they’ve gotten off track and gotten tangled up in some things that probably aren’t in the best interests of their long-term success.

And so, 2024, I expect, will be the year of clarity. We’re not going to see ESG go away, but I think we’re going to see a world in which consumers and investors are able to make informed choices, and where the people who are managing their assets and are engaged in determining how their shares are voted are going to renew their interest in open communication, clear articulation of where they’re coming from.

And the people who own these investments are going to have more of a voice.

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Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti. (Courtesy of Jonathan Skrmetti)

The Epoch Times: America’s political divisions appear to only be getting wider. In your view, can federalism and more state autonomy keep America united while letting people choose for themselves which laws they want to live under?

Mr. Skrmetti: Absolutely. I think federalism is essential for that purpose.

There are so many strategic advantages that we enjoy, that nobody ever thinks about, because of the ongoing success of the United States. But the country was founded on the idea that it is made up of different components with different interests. And we’ve lost that over the years.

But for a lot of these really controversial, especially culture-war issues, it’s clear that there’s a big difference of opinion. And you see federal efforts just overwhelming any opposition to some of these ideas that are best determined at the state level.

Instead of letting federal bureaucrats resolve major policy questions that significantly affect individuals in their day-to-day lives, that’s something where government closer to the people is better. And if we can take some of the contention out of the federal process, if we can remove some of the things that people are disagreeing about there and send them to the states where they appropriately belong, and let the states have differences of opinion, which are perfectly okay under our constitutional system, that in turn should help develop a more competent, more effective federal government.

The Epoch Times: Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn has said repeatedly there’s a two-tiered system of justice today—one for the right, one for the left. What are your thoughts on that?

Mr. Skrmetti: It is incredibly pernicious to have a double standard in the criminal justice system. I think we see evidence of people who have engaged in violent and destructive protest in furtherance of issues on the left get either lionized or minimized. And I think we have seen everybody who commits any similar conduct on the right lumped together with the worst of the worst.

The narrative is clearly that anybody on the right who’s protesting is trying to overthrow the government, regardless of the facts on the ground; anybody on the left is basically a cheerful hippie from the ‘60s.

We’ve seen the type of thinking that drives this come to a head with the Israel–Gaza conflict, where, because there’s this anti-colonialism narrative that Hamas has been really working to promote, you end up with these horrific atrocities that are excused by a shockingly large percentage of the American population. You’re talking about mass rape and torture and the murder of babies, and well over 1,000 people killed, and there are a bunch of people who shrug their shoulders and think that this is just the necessary process of liberation.

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Supporters of Israel face people rallying in support of Palestinians in Times Square in New York City on Oct. 8, 2023. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images)

So that double standard leads to a terrible place. I think we’ve seen that terrible place in Israel, and we need to make sure that we don’t get there in America.

Ultimately, if the system is not treating people equally, it loses its legitimacy.

The Epoch Times: What do you think will be the most important issues that you will face in the new year?

Mr. Skrmetti: I anticipate substantial additional federal regulatory action.

We don’t know what’s going to happen in the 2024 election, and as a result, I think you’re going to see the administration really ramp up efforts to push through regulations. Given their prior track record, I anticipate that we‘ll have constitutional concerns, and we’ll likely end up litigating some of those issues.

I think in social media, which is a consumer protection area where I’ve been very concerned and very active along with every other state, we’re going to see some more clarity and hopefully see some positive moves toward protecting kids.

The mental health impact of social media is increasingly identified as a significant source of youth mental health issues. And there are things that companies can do to improve the situation of kids in America, so I’m optimistic that we will see developments on that front. If not, we’ll keep litigating.

One other thing that I do want to mention is the Colorado Supreme Court decision. You talk again, about threats to liberty—there are a number of legal issues that President Trump is dealing with, but the other ones don’t impact the ability of the American people to pick their leader.

But the Colorado decision is an escalation of lawfare that I have real concerns about. And particularly because if you look back at the history of the 14th Amendment, in 1869, you had an opinion from the chief justice that said Congress had to make the determination of whether someone was disqualified.

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Former President Donald Trump during a campaign event in Waterloo, Iowa, on Dec. 19, 2023. (Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images)

There are many arguments that we could have about the definition of insurrection and whether that applies to anything that President Trump has been accused of. But as a matter of process, the states can’t willy-nilly disqualify presidential candidates.

I think the magnitude of that decision of stripping the ability of the people to vote for somebody who has already been elected, and who is very likely to be one of the major party candidates for president, is a really dangerous expansion of the judicial role.

The more the government takes the decisions away from the people, the less likely the government will be able to do that for long because it’s going to see its legitimacy completely erode.

So, the Colorado decision is particularly dangerous, and I think the United States Supreme Court will likely be taking it up. You’re seeing similar actions in other states.

All the rest of them have been unsuccessful at removing him from the ballot, but this is, I hope, the high watermark of government efforts to limit voter choices because this is a precipice that we need to step back from.

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