Not long ago, President Donald Trump was talking about sending active-duty military troops to suppress riots in American cities. That threat brought not only criticism from retired generals but resistance from his defense secretary, Mark Esper. But Trump has found another way to bring the hammer down.
Last week, federal law enforcement agents who looked like soldiers geared for battle showed up in Portland, Oregon, where they used tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets against protesters, grabbed people and took them away in unmarked vans, and beat a Navy veteran who was a model of nonviolence. On Monday, Trump vowed to send federal agents to Chicago and possibly other cities as well.
Under normal circumstances, law enforcement involves regular cooperation among city, state and federal authorities. That’s essential in a country as big and decentralized as ours.
But patrolling the streets and dealing with disruptive activists is almost always the responsibility of local police, who in emergencies can get help from National Guard units under the command of governors. The feds generally focus on enforcing federal laws, such as those concerning immigration, firearms and major drug trafficking.
Policing the streets is a labor-intensive task that the federal government doesn’t have the personnel to do. Chicago has some 12,000 cops, and there are more than 800,000 nationwide. By comparison, as of 2016, the number of agents in the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and U.S. Marshals Service amounted to fewer than 24,000.
In Portland, Trump deployed officers from Customs and Border Protection, an odd choice for a president who is always warning of the dangers of unauthorized immigration. If the Border Patrol is in Oregon, who’s keeping MS-13 out?
But Trump is willing to stop trying to generate panic about the border so he can try to generate panic about urban crime. Lambasting cities with Democratic mayors and high crime rates has been a favorite tactic of his, and the unrest in Portland was an opportunity to pose as a champion of law and order.
The official pretext was that the agents were protecting the federal court building from vandalism. But no such danger is apparent in Chicago or the other cities he has threatened with federal intervention.
In Portland, his tactical units didn’t quell the turmoil. “Their presence is actually leading to more violence and more vandalism,” said Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown told the Department of Homeland Security, “Please leave.”
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot rejected the idea. “We don’t need federal agents without any insignia taking people off the streets and holding them, I think, unlawfully,” she said Monday. On Tuesday, she said, “We have information that allows us to say, at least at this point, that we don’t see a Portland-style deployment coming to Chicago.” But that’s not exactly a guarantee that Trump won’t follow through.
Why should the judgment of mayors and governors prevail over those of the president? Partly because normal domestic law enforcement is their job, not his, and because local police are far better equipped to deal with their particular problems.
Whatever crime or unrest occurs in Portland and Chicago directly affects only the people who live or work in those cities. City and state officials are accountable to those affected in a way that the president is not. If they fail to safeguard the interests of their residents, those residents can vote them out.
Trump, by contrast, has no real interest in helping people living in cities that, as he put it, are “all run by very liberal Democrats.” If he were truly concerned about curbing mayhem in big cities, he would be consulting with mayors on how to help, not insulting them.
His approach fosters antagonism, not cooperation. That’s no accident. Trump knows he has little support in big cities, and he chooses mostly targets in states that he has no chance of winning.
He made his political motive blindingly clear when he cited on Twitter the protests in Portland as evidence that “the Radical Left Democrats, who totally control Biden, will destroy our Country as we know it.” But the protests and riots that erupted after the killing of George Floyd happened under Trump. So did the increase in homicides in such places as Chicago, Baltimore and New York. He can’t very well blame Biden for this “American carnage.”
In this turbulent time, cities should be able to work with a president who is a friend and ally. Trump would rather be their enemy.