Despite widespread backlash over his deployment of federal forces to Portland, President Trump has sent federal law enforcement officers to more cities.
Former leaders of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) blasted President Donald Trump this week over his use of federal law enforcement officials to violently crack down on protesters in major American cities.
Tom Ridge, a Republican who served as DHS Chief in the Bush administration, said that Trump was taking a “reality TV approach to a very serious, serious problem,” and criticized the president for co-opting the federal agency for his own political purposes.
DHS “was established to protect America from the ever-present threat of global terrorism. It was not established to be the president’s personal militia,” Ridge said Tuesday during an interview with CNN’s Michael Smerconish on SiriusXM radio.
John Sandweg, a former acting director of ICE under President Barack Obama, also criticized Trump’s efforts, saying the president was taking advantage of ICE, which is under the umbrella of DHS. “I think it’s an abuse of DHS. I mean really the president’s trying to use DHS as his goon squad. That’s really what’s going on here,” Sandweg told the Guardian.
Ridge and Sandweg are just the latest current and former government officials to blast Trump’s deployment of federal forces to American cities, a move that is widely seen as a political ploy to stoke fear and anger and distract from Trump’s failed coronavirus response amid plummeting poll numbers.
Trump first sent officers to Portland earlier this month, presumably to protect the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse from vandalism and assist the Portland Police Bureau in shutting down nightly protests that have raged since late May and have, at times, turned violent.
Instead, those officers, which include forces from the U.S. Marshals Service and Department of Homeland Security, have dramatically escalated the situation, throwing flash bang grenades and deploying tear gas at protesters, shooting an unarmed demonstrator in the head with an impact munition, and detaining others by throwing them in the back of unmarked vans.
State and local leaders have demanded federal officials leave the city. Both the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon and the state’s attorney general, Ellen Rosenbaum, have filed lawsuits against DHS and other federal agencies involved, alleging the violation of Oregonians’ constitutional and civil rights.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who himself was tear gassed this week, has urged Trump to withdraw his forces, calling them an “occupying force.” Others have gone even further, comparing them to secret police and the gestapo.
“This is a democracy, not a dictatorship. We cannot have secret police abducting people and putting them into unmarked vehicles,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said at a press conference on Wednesday. “I cannot believe I have to say that to the president of the United States.”
Despite the backlash, Trump and acting DHS director Chad Wolf have refused to budge on removing their officers. Trump has instead doubled down, deploying federal law enforcement officers to Albuquerque, Chicago, and Kansas City. He has also announced plans to send additional federal forces to Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Seattle in the coming weeks, setting the stage for further clashes across the country and contradicting his purported goal of ending violence.
Indeed, if the goal of sending federal forces to Portland was to quell the unrest, it has backfired spectacularly. The size of protests in the city grew dramatically this week, attracting thousands of Portland residents and leading to the creation of the “Wall of Moms,” a group of women who link arms to protect Black Lives Matter protesters from law enforcement.
But as critics have pointed out, that does not appear to be Trump’s aim. Sandweg, who also served as general counsel for DHS, said the Trump administration’s handling of the protests was a “manufactured crisis” driven by Trump’s politics and claimed that Wolf is “eager to please” Trump.
“In my experience, this is not coming from the workforce. I think there’s a lot of misconceptions out there that I hope that I can at least clear up,” Sandweg told The Guardian. “DHS has not so much been unleashed as pushed to do these kinds of things. In my experience the folks that I’ve worked with want to protect national security and public safety.”
Gov. Brown has also accused Trump of cynical political motives.
“This political theater from President Trump has nothing to do with public safety. The President is failing to lead this nation,” Brown said on Twitter last week, later adding: “Trump is looking for a confrontation in Oregon in the hopes of winning political points in Ohio or Iowa.”
National polls show the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden, holding an eight-point lead over Trump on average, and the swing-state polls are looking grim for the president as well. A new Quinnipiac University poll released this week showed Biden leading Trump by 13 points in Florida, while a Fox News poll showed him leading Trump by at least 9 points in both Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Even states like Iowa, Georgia, Ohio, and Texas are now in play, as a broad majority of voters disapprove of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests following the police killing of George Floyd.
Trump has responded by trying to evoke Richard Nixon’s 1968 “law-and-order” themed campaign, portraying cities as spiraling out of control and full of violence. Trump has argued that a Biden presidency would lead to chaos and unrest, even though the ongoing turmoil has occurred under his watch.
Trump spelled out his strategy clearly on Thursday, taking to Twitter to address the “The Suburban Housewives of America,” warning that “Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream. I will preserve it, and make it even better!”
Just a few hours later, Trump escalated his strong-arm approach, threatening to send as many as 75,000 federal agents into American cities. “We’ll go into all of the cities, any of the cities. We’re ready,” Trump said during a phone interview with Fox News.
Trump’s approach has alarmed local leaders and former government officials like Ridge, who said Trump’s use of federal agents in American cities, against the wishes of governors and mayors, “corrodes the federal system of government we have.”
Advocates have also sounded the alarm about the dangers of Trump’s attempts to stifle protests and escalate the violence in America’s cities.
“This is not law and order. This is an assault on the people of this country, and the specific protections of protest and press in the First Amendment,” Colleen Connell, executive director of the ACLU of Illinois, said in a statement this week. “We will hold the Trump Administration and any such federal forces accountable for unconstitutional actions.”