Top Trump official vows federal agents ‘will not back away’ from protests

By: - August 6, 2020 5:51 am

Protesters demonstrated in Downtown Columbus near the statehouse in solidarity with nation wide protests against the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. | Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The President Trump administration’s No. 2 at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Tuesday defended federal law enforcement officers’ intervention in anti-police brutality protests in Portland, Ore., and other cities this summer.

Characterizing some of the protests as “mob rule,” Acting Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Ken Cuccinelli told lawmakers that federal agents could exert force in other cities if violent protests break out.

Ken Cuccinelli | Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury

“DHS will not back away from our responsibilities to protect federal property, the people using those properties, and our brave law enforcement officers,” Cuccinelli said at a U.S. Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing.

Many of the protests in Portland have centered around the Mark O.Hatfield Federal Courthouse. President Donald Trump dispatched Homeland Security agents to Portland in July to protect federal property and respond to demonstrations.

“This country cannot survive allowing mob rule to replace the rule of law… they are not just attacking a federal court house but they are attacking very foundations that make the enjoyment of our natural rights possible, the rule of law itself,” Cuccinelli said.

Cuccinelli’s remarks follow a wave of criticism from Democrats and local leaders in Portland about the presence of federal law enforcement in the city – where demonstrations escalated into nightly clashes between protesters and federal officers. Viral videos showed officers in military fatigues using pepper balls and forceful tactics to clear streets and grabbing protesters to drive them away in unmarked cars. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has blamed federal agents for escalating conflict.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and the Trump administration reached an agreement last week for the federal agents to leave the city in phases, allowing local police to address the situation. Portland has seen weeks of demonstrations following the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed in Minneapolis in police custody.

In a separate action, Trump last week dispatched federal law enforcement agents to Detroit as part of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) “Operation Legend” they say is aimed at stopping crime in several cities, including Albuquerque, Chicago, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Anti-police brutality protests have been held almost daily since May. Both Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel have criticized Trump.

“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 Whitmer. “Quite frankly, the president doesn’t know the first thing about Detroit. If he did, he would know that for nearly two months now, Detroiters have gathered to peacefully protest the systemic racism and discrimination that Black Americans face every day.”

U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a member of the committee, joined the hearing remotely and said she supports federal law enforcement. “They are protecting people who are coming peaceably to express their opinion and assemble, and at the same time having to deal with these rioters there to destroy property to harm people,” Blackburn said.

When officers put on their uniforms, “they don’t know if there are going to be peaceful protestors or if there are going to be the disruptors and destroyers that show up that they are going to have to deal with,” she said.

Legislative proposals

Congressional Democrats have decried the Trump administration’s involvement in the Portland protests.

“If this subcommittee wants to protect Americans’ right to peacefully assemble, we should be focused on preventing federal officers from beating up protestors, tear-gassing them and shooting them in the face,” Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, the top Democrat on the Judiciary subcommittee that held the hearing, said at its outset.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said Monday that his panel would investigate the federal government’s response, after reports that Homeland Security officials had gathered intelligence on protesters and journalists covering the demonstrations.

“Let me be clear: reporting regarding the monitoring of peaceful protesters, creating and disseminating intelligence reports about journalists and protesters, and potential exploitation of electronic devices is deeply troubling,” Schiff wrote in a letter.

Senate Democrats introduced legislation last month that would block the Trump administration from deploying federal forces. Their proposal would prevent the use of unmarked vehicles and limit federal agents’ crowd control activities to federal property and its immediate vicinity, unless specifically requested by a mayor or governor. The bill has 42 Democratic cosponsors, including U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing).

On the other side of the issue, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chair of the panel that held Tuesday’s hearing, introduced a bill last month that would put state and local officials on the hook if protestors establish “autonomous zones” that shut out police. It would allow citizens to sue state and local officials when they incur damages in those areas.

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Allison Winter
Allison Winter

Allison Winter is a Washington, D.C., correspondent for States Newsroom, a network of state-based nonprofit news outlets that includes the Michigan Advance.