The crackdown by federal law enforcement in some American cities is on the verge of going national, according to knowledgeable Trump administration sources.
As previewed by White House chief of staff Mark Meadows over the weekend and President Donald Trump on Monday, the administration intends to send federal law enforcement into Democratic-run cities—whether those cities want federal police help or not. Multiple sources expected Chicago, a flashpoint of white anxiety, to be a focus, as the Chicago Tribune first reported.
The Department of Homeland Security is taking the lead in Portland, where federal agents are assaulting unarmed and largely peaceful protesters. After Trump issued his June 26 executive order to protect “monuments”—a culture war initiative as protesters toppled and vandalized statues, many of openly white supremacist, Confederate figures—DHS put together a task force called PACT of federal officers on the pretext of protecting federal property.
Two senior administration officials described that task force as a working group focusing on identifying cities and towns experiencing the vandalization or destruction of federal property. One of those senior officials said the department has spent the last several weeks tracking “data” related to the destruction of monuments and creating a list of cities in need of extra law enforcement protection.
But two other administration officials described a process that was anything but data-driven. In the past several days, they said, Trump has repeatedly brought up Chicago in his conversations with top advisers. One of these officials recounted that Trump at one point quipped that if protesters and liberals truly cared about Black lives, they should be “begging” him to launch a federal crackdown on crime and gang violence in the Windy City. Neither of these officials could recall Trump mentioning any statistics related to the relative threats to federal property or statues in President Barack Obama’s hometown.
And of course, Trump has been promoting the idea of heavy-handed law enforcement tactics in Chicago since at least 2016.
On Monday, he added more cities to the potential target list. “New York, and Chicago, and Philadelphia, Detroit, and Baltimore, and all of these—Oakland is a mess—we are not going to let this happen in the country, all run by liberal Democrats,” the president told reporters at the White House. “We’re going to have more federal law enforcement, that I can tell you.”
Critics promptly warned against the past week’s assaults on Portland protesters by federal law enforcement turning into a larger federal crackdown.
“What is happening in Portland—armed occupation by federal agents—is totally unacceptable,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) told The Daily Beast. “Donald Trump’s unconstitutional test run in Portland cannot be the precursor to a nationwide invasion of cities across the country. Republicans and officials at DOJ and DHS need to think long and hard about whether they want to be party to this gross abuse of power.”
DHS and Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s queries.
Over in the West Wing, Trump’s chief of staff Meadows has been heavily involved in the intra-administration coordination with this working group and also with overseeing the drafting of plans for Chicago and other urban areas to present to Trump, according to a source with knowledge of the deliberations.
“Mark is one of the president’s top guys on this,” this source said.
Trump’s full-on embrace of this type of election-year posturing came after a brief period earlier this summer when the president flirted with emphasizing supposed police reform and related criminal-justice matters, in his increasingly uphill fight against presumptive 2020 Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Naturally, Trump quickly grew bored with playing the role of reformer.
These days, his campaign is sounding a different tune. “Many presidents have used the military to stop riots, so this is nothing new and in accordance with the law,” said longtime state Rep. Al Baldasaro, the New Hampshire co-chair of Trump 2020. “Our police have taken a beating, and they don’t deserve this. I fully support what President Trump is doing,” he continued, adding that Trump quickly send “federal help” to other cities such as “Chicago [and] Detroit.”
In Portland, Customs and Border Protection agents, kitted out in military-style camouflage uniforms and obscured insignia, detained protesters in unmarked vans and used pepper spray, tear gas, and batons against them. Oregon’s governor, both its U.S. senators, and Portland’s mayor have denounced the federal deployment as an unwanted escalation. Its attorney general has sued DHS and the U.S. Marshals Service, and opened a criminal investigation into the federal detention of protester Mark Pettibone.
Even Oregon’s federal prosecutor, Billy J. Williams, has asked the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate a use of force by the Marshals.
But while Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf showed little sign of backing off the crackdown (“I don’t need invitations by the state, state mayors or state governors, to do our job. We’re going to do that whether they like us there or not,” he told Fox News), his predecessor, former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, warned his old department that it risked undermining its core missions.
“While I am not in a position to second-guess decisions being made on the ground in Portland, I do know that if the mayor, governor, and both U.S. senators questioned the deployment of additional DHS law enforcement personnel in their state, I would too,” Johnson told The Daily Beast. “When I was in office I constantly told our component leaders to avoid controversial measures that could undermine their own core missions.”
Daryl Johnson, a former DHS analyst of right-wing extremism, said the deployment risked appearing as if DHS was arrayed against Americans exercising their constitutional freedoms. “When we’re trying to instill trust in public relations, this isn’t doing anything to foster that trust,” he said.
Wyden and his fellow Oregonian in the Senate, Democrat Jeff Merkley, on Monday introduced an amendment to the annual defense authorization to disallow the federal law-enforcement deployment. Their amendment, supported by Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici, restricts federal efforts at crowd control to the “immediate vicinity” of federal property unless requested by local authorities and bans the use of unmarked vehicles or obscured insignia.
In Chicago, where police reactions to Black Lives Matter protests have been violent, a Fraternal Order of Police president requested Trump’s assistance. That move drew strong rebuke from local elected officials. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, often the subject of ire from the protesters, has said she doesn’t want outside federal law enforcement assistance.
“We don’t need federal agents without any insignia taking people off the streets and holding them, I think, unlawfully. That’s not what we need,” Lightfoot said Monday.
A senior official appeared to downplay the Department of Justice’s role in the federal response in Portland, saying DOJ was only involved in coordinating with DHS and local officials on the deployment of U.S. Marshal officers to protect federal facilities.
However, another official told The Daily Beast to expect an announcement this week “about an expansion of Operation Legend.” Operation Legend is a DOJ law enforcement initiative—announced earlier this month—aimed at reducing violent crime, particularly gun violence, in America’s cities. As part of the initiative, DOJ sent 100 federal law enforcement officers to Kansas City to work with state and local officials there and is expected to deploy additional agents to other areas of the country, another senior administration official said. (It’s unclear whether the nationwide federal build-up teased by Meadows and Trump is this expansion of Operation Legend, a replica of the Portland model, or both.)
Although DHS predicates the federal deployment on acts of extreme violence allegedly overwhelming local police, the early charges out of Oregon portray a different story.
Since the onset of July, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Oregon has arrested or charged eight people for offenses related to the protests in Portland. The allegations all appear to involve altercations around the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse, one of the loci of the federal crackdown.
Allegations range from “assaulting federal officers with high intensity lasers”—that is, directing laser pointers at the eyes of security posted to the building—to destroying a closed circuit video camera mounted on the structure’s facade. In one instance, someone was indicted on charges of assaulting a U.S. Marshal with a “four-pound blacksmith’s hammer.” Court records show only two of the accused have been indicted so far, and several have been conditionally released. All the incidents occurred between July 3 and July 11, shortly before the federal crackdown began in earnest.
—With additional reporting by William Bredderman