President Donald Trump is vowing to send more battle-ready federal law enforcement agents to what he calls "Democrat" cities as he escalates confrontations over protests and conflates them with rising crime in some parts of the country.
"I'm going to do something — that, I can tell you," Trump told reporters Monday 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."
Less than four months before he faces voters in the November election, and with his poll numbers in decline, Trump continues to portray Democrats as soft on crime while threatening to deploy federal forces across the country to perform basic policing services without the assent of local authorities.
The power of one federal law enforcement agency to seek assistance from others may give him the flexibility to send hundreds or thousands of agents into several cities at the same time.
What's not clear — beyond Trump's perceived political benefit — is why.
"No one’s articulating the clear national security emergency here that you pull in federal officers en masse, and I would think the general public believes these are all politically motivated," said a former senior Homeland Security official who served in the Trump administration. "It’s all politics. It’s all about what this president has done to distract from the real problems or to inflame tensions to appease his base."
The former official lamented "the hurt this does to the agency and the public trust over the long term when they see the federal agency engaging in what most people are going to see as partisan politics."
While the test case for Trump's plan has been overwhelmingly white Portland, Oregon, the six cities on the list he provided Monday are all majority-minority. They were identified on the heels of Trump falsely accusing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden of wanting to "abolish the police" and "abolish the suburbs," the latter of which refers to Biden's support for a regulation requiring federally subsidized housing authorities to implement plans to combat racial discrimination in housing.
Strictly speaking, the Homeland Security Department dispatched officers in tactical gear to Portland to defend federal property under a law giving the secretary authority to deputize officers to arrest or detain people suspected of committing federal offenses, according to White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. Portland residents, and Democratic lawmakers, have taken issue with those officers seizing people off the streets without identifying themselves.
"There is insignia indicating that they are law enforcement," McEnany said Tuesday. "They don't identify themselves in crowds because that would put them at great risk."
Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee sent a letter Monday to Acting Homeland Security Department Secretary Chad Wolf demanding an explanation for incidents in which demonstrators were allegedly detained by department personnel without specific citations of probable cause or charges.
"The tactics that DHS appears to be utilizing to carry out the President’s Executive Order in Portland, Oregon, run contrary to the rule of law, including the most fundamental requirements of the Constitution, and are an intolerable anathema to everything for which our Republic stands," the lawmakers wrote.
Mayors blasted the move.
"For the federal government to come uninvited, not coordinate with local or state officials, and arrest their residents without probable cause, is an unprecedented and dangerous threat to our democracy and to the future of our great country," the U.S. Conference of Mayors said in a statement Tuesday. "We call on the President and his Administration to cease and desist this activity.”
It does appear that there's a lag between what the president wants to do and his ability to execute it. That could stem from internal resistance to the policy, the politics — or both. During weeks of protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Trump's poll numbers have cratered, and 63 percent of registered voters said in a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that they disapprove of his handling of race relations, while only one-third reported that they approve.
McEnany hit the pause button Tuesday after her boss had started naming cities the day before.
"He’s made no announcements as to who is going where," she said.
But there's no ambiguity about Trump's intentions. He's provoking violence.
He has connected peaceful protests against racial injustice to violent crime and vowed to use federal power to stop crime. The initial use of a large contingent of federal agents to use force against peaceful protesters occurred a few hundred yards from the White House in early June as U.S. Park Police officers, backed by Homeland Security officers and soldiers, cleared demonstrators from the outskirts of Lafayette Square with tear gas and rubber bullets.
While citizens and lawmakers appear to be confused as to what authorities government agents are operating under — and what legitimate powers they have — McEnany said there's no ambiguity at all.
"We don't have secret operations going on," she said. "It's very clear what's going on in Portland."
In at least one way, that's true.