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The strange and frightening images of unidentified military-looking men taking protesters off the streets of Portland, Oregon, and into unmarked vans may be headed to a city near you if that city is, as President Donald Trump declared Monday, run by “liberal Democrats.”
This is sketchy stuff. And it’s not a good look for a country that’s supposed to be an open society. And it’s particularly distressing that the President is openly threatening cities based on the political affiliations of their leaders.
The teams of masked authorities seen in Portland dressed up for war like special forces apparently belong to the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection Unit.
They’re trained for drug missions, but with Trump demanding “law and order” and disagreeing with local authorities, they’ve been dispatched to American streets.
Speaking Monday at the White House, Trump suggested more federal agents will soon be headed to more American cities.
What sort of federal presence will this be?
Responding to a question about a report that said he will send federal troops to certain cities, Trump said “well it depends on what your definition of troops is. We’re sending law enforcement.”
“We’re not going to let New York and Chicago and Philadelphia, 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,” Trump said.
If he follows through with this threat, it’s not yet clear what kind of agents would be dispatched.
So let’s focus on Portland example from over the weekend.
The fact that DHS would deploy its own warriors into American streets without much discussion and without a clear mandate (they’re vaguely supposed to be protecting federal buildings?) is dark-of-night dystopian stuff.
Meanwhile, the militarized response has led to more violent levels of protest in Portland, where racial justice and anti-police brutality demonstrations have lasted more than 50 days. A police association office was set on fire Saturday.
The atmosphere has not been helped by the efforts of federal agents, according to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who called the administration’s actions “abhorrent.”
“People are being literally scooped off the street into unmarked vans, rental cars,” Wheeler told CNN on Sunday.
“Apparently, they are being denied probable cause, and they’re denied due process. They don’t even know who’s pulling them into the vans.”
Both Wheeler and Oregon’s governor have demanded the federal authorities leave. A US attorney has demanded an investigation by DHS of the tactics. And multiple House committee chairs are also calling for an immediate watchdog investigation.
Trump defended the actions and said the agents are trying to help Portland, not hurt it. See the Portland mayor’s interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.”
Action overseen by acting officials
Further complicating things is the fact that DHS, as CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez and Geneva Sands write, is mostly run by temporary appointees the Trump administration has used to skirt the confirmation process:
In the last three years, DHS has rolled out some of the most stringent immigration policies, and most recently, deployed personnel to respond to protests, some of them violent, after George Floyd’s death – nearly all under leadership that hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate.
“The President has fired or forced out nearly every Senate confirmed leader in DHS. Those remaining are neither accountable to Congress nor empowered to push back against unreasonable political pressure,” said Carrie Cordero, a senior fellow at Center for a New American Security and CNN legal analyst.
Of 27 top roles at DHS, 10 are filled in an acting capacity. The three main immigration agencies under the department – Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection and US Citizenship and Immigration Services – have been helmed by acting officials for more than a year.
Unconfirmed officials. Unidentified agents. Unmarked cars. The mark of the Trump administration is not any one distressing or unprecedented practice, but a cascade of them that compound and turn into the scene in Portland.
Or the clearing of protesters from Lafayette Park across from the White House last month by military-looking authorities so that Trump could walk across the street to post for a photo-op in front of a church.
Or flying military helicopters low over protesters as if they’re insurgents.
Or Trump’s comparison of Chicago, where summer violence has cost many lives this year, to “war zones” and Afghanistan.
Or his insistence, contra the facts, that his Democratic political opponents want to abolish local police.
His election strategy is built around making it appear the country is unstable and that only a strongman can solve it. But Americans aren’t generally supposed to endorse strongman tactics.