Trump Escalates Tensions With States and Cities Over Police Surge
Police officers in riot gear stand lined up during a demonstration after the 58th presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Eric Thayer/Bloomberg)

Trump Escalates Tensions With States and Cities Over Police Surge

President Donald Trump is escalating tensions with state and local authorities by seeking to deploy more federal agents into cities gripped by protests and spikes in crime, a policy that appeals to his base ahead of the election but faces legal challenges.

Twice in recent days, Trump has said he wants more federal law enforcement officers sent to cities such as Chicago and New York following the dispatch of Department of Homeland Security personnel to Portland, Oregon, to protect federal property. In Portland, pitched battles have erupted between federal agents and protesters, prompting state officials to sue the Trump administration -- yet the president remained undeterred.

“I’m going to do something,” Trump told reporters on Monday. “Because New York and Chicago and Philadelphia and Detroit and Baltimore and all of these, and Oakland is a mess. We’re not going to let this happen in our country. All run by liberal Democrats.”

Trump Escalates Tensions With States and Cities Over Police Surge

A formal announcement on additional deployments is expected to be made this week, according to an administration official, who said that preparations were being made to send officers to Chicago.

Trump and his allies have seized on protests and crime as a major campaign issue, painting Democratic-controlled cities as willing to allow “anarchists” and criminals to run free, even though the vast majority of the protests around the country in recent weeks have been peaceful and directed against racism. The move comes as Trump’s struggles to rein in the coronavirus pandemic have left him trailing his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, in several key polling metrics, including with suburban voters, with the approach of November’s election.

The deployment of federal officers to American cities has emerged as a political fault-line amid the social unrest and demonstrations that erupted after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, while in custody of Minneapolis police two months ago.

Portland has seen protests for weeks since the death of Floyd, particularly around the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse downtown. Damage has included looted stores, broken storefront, graffiti and damaged cars. Protesters have also set fire to buildings. The federal agents have ostensibly been sent in to protect the courthouse, which is a federal building, though the scope of their response has been more broad.

Critics of the federal response, including some Republicans, question the legal basis of the deployments, which in Portland has included law enforcement agents driving around without identification on their uniforms in unmarked vehicles to detain, search or arrest individuals. The operations in Portland also included the use of the Border Patrol Tactical Unit -- elite officers in combat uniforms with assault weapons who can be confused with active-duty military.

“We cannot give up liberty for security,” Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky tweeted on Monday. “Local law enforcement can and should be handling these situations in our cities but there is no place for federal troops or unidentified federal agents rounding people up at will.”

Homeland Security deployed additional agents in Portland from its components including Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement in response to protesters damaging federal property, including a U.S. courthouse, according to the administration official, who was granted anonymity to discuss the operation. The Justice Department also deployed agents from the U.S. Marshals Service.

Trump Escalates Tensions With States and Cities Over Police Surge

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf has described protesters as “lawless anarchists” and defended the federal operations.

“The facts don’t lie and the facts are that these violent anarchists and extremists were violent well before DHS surged federal assets into Portland,” Wolf said Monday during an interview on “Fox & Friends.”

Oregon Lawsuit

However, Oregon’s government sued the Homeland Security Department and Marshals Services in federal court on Friday, saying people have been grabbed off the streets by unidentified agents “without warning or explanation, without a warrant, and without providing any way to determine who is directing this action.”

Customs and Border Protection said in a statement before the lawsuit was filed that while it affirms the right of peaceful protests, violence will not be tolerated.

Trump Escalates Tensions With States and Cities Over Police Surge

Portland has a history of sustained activism that makes it something of an ideal test market for Trump’s crackdown on perceived anarchy in liberal cities, said Joe Lowndes, a political science professor at the University of Oregon. Trailing in polls, the president is trying to rally his base around the notion of left-wing activists overtaking cities.

“What I think the Trump campaign hopes to do at this point, and what it can do, is really fire up its base and get them out as much as possible,” Lowndes said. “It’s really going to be that kind of campaign in order to freak people out enough in order that they show up in large numbers at the polls.”

‘Secret Police Force’

Top House Democrats on Sunday called for the inspectors general of the Homeland Security and Justice departments to investigate the deployment of federal police to U.S. cities, including what legal authority there is to do so.

“Citizens are concerned that the administration has deployed a secret police force, not to investigate crimes but to intimidate individuals it views as political adversaries, and that the use of these tactics will proliferate throughout the country,” the lawmakers said.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Monday said Trump wants to “stand up to the violence” seen in American cities. Trump said the people coming out on the streets “are anarchists. These are not protesters.”

Responding to the president’s suggestion that might send law enforcement forces to Detroit, Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of Michigan, said his efforts have “nothing to do with protecting public health or safety. It is about using the power of his office as a cudgel to punish those who use their constitutionally guaranteed rights to express views he disagrees with.”

And Chicago officials are also bracing for a confrontation with the Trump administration over the deployment of federal forces.

“We don’t need federal agents without any insignia, taking people off the streets and holding them, I think, unlawfully,” Chicago Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot told reporters on Monday. “If the president is sincere about helping, there are a number of things the federal government is uniquely qualified to do and they all revolve around the fact that we have way too many illegal guns on our streets.”

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