WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - President Donald Trump plans to deploy federal law enforcement to Chicago and threatened on Monday (July 20) to send agents to other major cities - all controlled by Democrats.
Governors and other officials reacted angrily to the president's moves, calling it a election-year ploy as they squared off over crime, civil liberties and local control that has spread from Portland, Oregon, across the country.
With military-clad agents already sweeping through the streets of Portland, more units were poised to head to Chicago, and Trump suggested that he would follow suit in New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and other urban centres. Governors and other officials compared his actions to authoritarianism and vowed to pursue legislation or lawsuits to stop him.
The president cast the confrontation in overtly political terms as he seeks an issue that would gain traction with voters at a time when many of his own supporters have soured on his leadership amid a deadly pandemic and economic collapse.
Trailing badly in the polls with just over 100 days until the November election, Trump assailed the "liberal Democrats" running American cities and tied the issue to his presumptive fall opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.
"I'm going to do something - that, I can tell you," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. "Because we're not going to let New York and Chicago and Philadelphia and 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."
The president portrayed the nation's cities as out of control. "Look at what's going on - all run by Democrats, all run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by radical left," Trump said.
He added: "If Biden got in, that would be true for the country. The whole country would go to hell. And we're not going to let it go to hell."
Democrats said the president was the one out of control. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon said he would introduce legislation to limit the role of federal agents in cities like Portland.
"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."
Clad in camouflage, federal agents in Portland have snatched protesters off the streets and thrown them into unmarked vehicles without explaining why they were being detained or arrested, according to some of those who have been seized. Oregon Governor Kate Brown has called it "a blatant abuse of power", and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler called it "an attack on our democracy".
The state attorney general has filed a lawsuit seeking a restraining order against the federal agents for what she called unlawful tactics.
The Trump administration now plans to deploy about 150 Homeland Security Investigations special agents to Chicago in the coming days, according to an official directly involved in the operations. The special agents, known for conducting long-term investigations into serious crimes like human trafficking and terrorism, are expected to be in the city for at least 60 days to help combat violence and would be under the direction of the Justice Department.
Few are denying the city has a violent crime problem. Sixty-three people were shot in Chicago over the past weekend, 12 of them fatally. The White House referred questions to the Department of Homeland Security, which declined to comment, as did the Justice Department.
The Homeland Security Department has put about 2,000 officials from Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Transportation Security Administration and the Coast Guard on standby to be quickly deployed to cities. At least 200 members of "rapid deployment teams" were sent to Washington, DC, Portland, Pennsylvania and Seattle, the agency said this month. Many tactical agents from those teams from Customs and Border Protection and ICE are now in Portland.
Some cities have seen increased levels of crime since the protests over George Floyd's death while in police custody in Minneapolis, but no president in modern times has threatened to send in federal law enforcement over local opposition.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago made clear on Monday that the federal agents would be no more welcome in her city than they have been 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 before reports of the deployment were confirmed. "That's not what we need." ( Trump administration officials said the deployment to Chicago was separate from the operation in Portland, which ostensibly was to protect the federal courthouse there.
But the Homeland Security Investigations agents have broad authority to enforce federal laws in cities, and the Trump administration deployed them this year to so-called sanctuary cities in an enhanced arrest campaign against immigrants living in the US illegally. The administration has also previously deployed federal officials to combat crime in Chicago, including agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The Department of Homeland Security asserted that it was acting within the law. Chad F. Wolf, the department's acting secretary, can deputise officers in any department agency, like ICE, Customs and Border Protection or the Secret Service "as officers and agents for duty in connection with the protection of property owned or occupied by the federal government and persons on the property," according to the law.
But the federal agents would not be limited to guarding federal property. Under the law, the agents could also conduct investigations of crimes committed against a federal property or federal officer throughout the city.
Governors, mayors and other officials from the cities that Trump named on Monday quickly rejected the uninvited intervention of federal agents.
"It is deeply disturbing that President Trump is once again choosing to spread hateful rhetoric and attempting to suppress the voices of those he doesn't agree with," said Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan.
John Roach, a spokesman for Mayor Mike Duggan of Detroit, said the city had not suffered through the problems that others have after Floyd's death. "Detroit is one of the few large cities in the country that has experienced no fires, no stores looted and never requested the National Guard during the protests," he said. "Not sure where the president is getting his information."
Asked on Monday about whether he had heard the president's mention of Oakland, Governor Gavin Newsom of California - not known for his brevity - responded curtly: "No, and we'd reject it."
In Philadelphia, the district attorney likened the clash to the fight against fascism in World War II and threatened to criminally charge federal agents sent to his city if they exceeded their authority. "Anyone, including federal law enforcement, who unlawfully assaults and kidnaps people will face criminal charges from my office," said the district attorney, Larry Krasner. "At trial, they will face a Philadelphia jury."