After receiving serious pushback for federal actions in Portland, President Trump continued to escalate the tension—threatening to expand his actions to other cities.
“We’re not going to let New York and Chicago and Philadelphia, Detroit and Baltimore and all of these, Oakland is a mess. We’re not going to let this happen in our country. All run by liberal Democrats,” Trump said.
In Portland last week, federal agents dressed in military gear took to the streets of Portland, using tear gas and force, causing protesters to be injured, while pulling some people into unmarked vans in what Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon has called “a blatant abuse of power.”
Governors and other officials predictably reacted angrily to the president’s move, some calling it an election-year ploy, while others saw it as a much deeper threat.
The president cast this in deeply and overtly political terms. He assailed “liberal Democrats” running American cities while seemingly attacking his fall opponent over it.
“Look at what’s going on—all run by Democrats, all run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by radical left,” Trump said.
The reaction figures to be interesting. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon vowed on Monday to introduce legislation limiting the role of federal troops in local communities.
“This isn’t just an Oregon crisis,” he said. “It’s an American crisis. We need to stop Trump before this spreads.”
He added, “We won’t let these authoritarian tactics stand.”
Senator Merkley and Senator Ron Wyden sent a letter to AG William Barr and Acting Secretary Wolf demanding that they remove any Special Operating Group (SOG), US Custom and Border Protection Tactical Unit (BORTAC), and Homeland Security Investigations Special Response Team (HSI SRT) agents and other federal agents from Oregon immediately.
The four Congress members accuse the federal government of 1) “deploying federal agents without identifying insignia,” 2) “snatching people off the streets with no apparent reason for apprehension,” and 3) “using potentially deadly munitions to harm peaceful protesters.”
In the letter, they refer to several cases of unlawful violence by federal agents against innocent civilians, which occurred quite recently. One of the most viral cases was that of innocent civilians being arrested and put into unmarked military cars by camouflaged military soldiers.
While there has been an uptick in levels of crime in some places since the protests last month, it also true that many major cities remain safer than they were decades ago, despite the recent uptick in crime.
One of the targets of Trumps’ declaration is Chicago.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago said on Monday that the federal troops would be no more welcome in Chicago than they were in Portland.
“We don’t need federal agents without any insignia taking people off the street and holding them, I think, unlawfully,” she said at a morning news conference. “That’s not what we need.”
In a letter to the President, Mayor Lightfoot said if the president really wanted to help, he could enact gun control and do more to combat the spread of COVID while investing in community programs.
“Any other form of militarized assistance within our borders that would not be within our control or within the direct command of the Chicago Police Department would spell disaster,” she wrote in a four-page letter.
There are legality questions. For example, University of Texas Law Professor Stephen Vladeck is quoted in media accounts questioning how federal troops could occupy streets of a city that is primarily not on federal property.
“It’s of course the prerogative of the federal government to enforce federal law and protect federal property,” Professor Vladeck said. “It is not the job of the federal government to be a general police force for all crimes.”
“The idea that there’s a threat to a federal courthouse and the federal authorities are going to swoop in and do whatever they want to do without any cooperation and coordination with state and local authorities is extraordinary outside the context of a civil war,” said Michael Dorf, a professor of constitutional law at Cornell University.
“It is a standard move of authoritarians to use the pretext of quelling violence to bring in force, thereby prompting a violent response and then bootstrapping the initial use of force in the first place,” Dorf said.
Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, whose city is also a potential target, said, “My dad volunteered and served in World War II to fight fascism, like most of my uncles, so we would not have an American president brutalizing and kidnapping Americans for exercising their constitutional rights and trying to make America a better place, which is what patriots do.”
He warned: “Anyone, including federal law enforcement, who unlawfully assaults and kidnaps people will face criminal charges from my office. At trial, they will face a Philadelphia jury. It’s the least we can do to honor those who fought fascism, including those who are fighting it even now.”
In California, where Oakland is also a potential target, Governor Newsom during his noon press conference said, “The answer is no, and we would reject it,” on whether the state would accept “federal law enforcement.”
Mayor Libby Schaaf via email said, “Oakland needs COVID relief – not troops – from our President. He should stop slandering diverse, progressive cities like Oakland in his racist dog whistles and divisive campaign tactics.”
Schaaf added, “While we are not experiencing any civil unrest right now, I can think of nothing more likely to incite it than the presence of Trump-ordered military troops into Oakland.”
The moves by the president also alarmed civil liberties advocates.
The ACLU sent out a statement: “What is happening now in Portland should concern everyone in the United States. Usually when we see people in unmarked cars forcibly grab someone off the street we call it kidnapping. The actions of the militarized federal officers are flat-out unconstitutional and will not go unanswered.
“Under the direction of the Trump administration, militarized federal agents have flaunted court orders protecting the rights of protesters, used sharpshooters to deliberately maim people, and deployed indiscriminate weapons of war — including sonic weapons and dangerous tear gas formulations.”
Those who have feared the worst, in case of a Trump defeat in November, now have ample reason on which to base that concern.
—David M. Greenwald reporting