President Donald Trump is again wielding a federal law enforcement department established in the wake of 9/11 in his political battle against Democratic cities.
Over recent days, senior Department of Homeland Security officials have taken to the airwaves and social media to amplify the President’s message of law and order, using Portland, Oregon, where protests over racial inequality and police brutality persist, as an example.
In a string of tweets Monday, acting Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli retweeted videos and images of Portland, dubbing the unfolding situation “terrorism” and projecting a message of instability. And acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said in a Fox News interview that the department will intervene as it sees fit.
But in a city of more than 650,000 residents, the epicenter of the protest has largely remained confined to the city block housing a downtown federal courthouse. Trump officials teased additional federal deployments Monday to other Democratic-led cities, including Chicago.
“The President has been very clear – again, in these major metropolitan cities … if you’re not going to do your job, at some point, we will have to take action to make sure that those communities are safe,” Wolf said.
Juliette Kayyem, a CNN analyst who formerly served at DHS, criticized Wolf’s remarks about intervening. “Not even during the worst moments of Hurricane Katrina did a Secretary of Homeland Security reflect so much hostility and fake bravado towards state and locals,” she said on Twitter.
It’s not the first time DHS – the largest federal law enforcement organization – has found itself acting upon Trump’s long-held feuds against Democratic-run cities. Earlier this year, the department barred New York residents from applying to some Trusted Traveler Programs, like Global Entry, over legislation passed in the state relating to undocumented immigrants. Before then, the administration weighed retaliatory measures against so-called sanctuary cities.
‘Erodes the public trust’
But current and former Homeland Security officials warn the increased politicization of law enforcement risks undercutting public trust in the department, which was established after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“It erodes the public trust” when the department aligns itself with one political side over the other, a former DHS official told CNN, adding that it leaves the department vulnerable to added scrutiny.
It raises concerns about “getting into politically charged situations” outside of the scope of the agency’s mission, “where we don’t have the proper equipment, the proper training and proper guidance, the costs of doing so and just looking at what’s really driving our participation in this,” the person said. “Is there a real threat to public safety? Is this more of just a politicized maneuver?”
Wolf’s predecessor, Kevin McAleenan, departed the office in part over concerns that the messaging and tone of the department had become too political.
DHS was born in a political morass closely identified with the Bush-era controversial counter-terrorism measures. The department spent the intervening years trying to depoliticize and show itself to be a law enforcement agency on par with FBI and others. But since Trump took office, it’s been thrown back into the political maelstrom.
“Every move is about the upcoming election,” a DHS official told CNN, when asked about the situation in Portland. “Whomever is left over has their own personal agenda and are using the current situation to advance it,” the official said, in reference to the temporary leadership.
Trump has repeatedly lambasted cities and states in Democratic control. On Monday, he pressed forward with that criticism, saying he will send federal law enforcement to certain cities “all run by very liberal Democrats.”
“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. He also claimed that the violence in Chicago – which is facing an increase in gun violence – is “worse than Afghanistan,” a country stricken by war.
The announcement met immediate pushback.
“Anyone, including federal law enforcement, who unlawfully assaults and kidnaps people will face criminal charges from my office,” said Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. “At trial, they will face a Philadelphia jury. It’s the least we can do to honor those who fought fascism, including those who are fighting it even now.”
What are federal officers doing on the ground?
DHS law enforcement officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection – two of the department’s immigration agencies – have been deployed to Portland to assist the Federal Protective Service, which is responsible for protecting federal government facilities and their employees and visitors.
Homeland Security personnel often support local law enforcement when requested and work in close coordination with them. After Floyd’s death, which fueled protests nationwide, DHS also deployed more than 600 personnel in part to help protect federal monuments, buildings and property.
But in Portland, the involvement of federal authorities has fueled tension between local officials and DHS, particularly after personnel were caught on camera arresting protesters and putting them in unmarked cars.
“It’s unclear as to what is the purpose of us really being there. Is this just a political stunt? Or is this a real threat to public safety?” the former DHS official questioned.
On Friday, a US attorney in Oregon requested an investigation of the federal authorities who have not been wearing ID badges. “Any time someone makes an allegation of wrongdoing of DHS personnel, it is looked into at various levels,” the department spokesperson said.
Four of the people are accused of aiming high intensity lasers at federal officers, and one of them, 24-year-old Andrew Steven Faulkner, had a sheathed machete on him when he was arrested, prosecutors said.
Local officials have said they have a handle on the situation and called for federal forces to be pulled back.
“I told acting Secretary Wolf that the federal government should remove all federal officers from our streets,” said Oregon Gov. Kate Brown in a statement to CNN. “His response showed me he is on a mission to provoke confrontation for political purposes.”
Brown spokesman Charles Boyle said the federal law enforcement agencies are not communicating with the state about their activities.
Sending agents to Chicago?
The Trump administration is also preparing to send federal agents to Chicago this week, two law enforcement officials told CNN, though the effort appears to be separate from the federal presence in Portland.
One senior law enforcement official told CNN that there are plans to send federal agents to Chicago through the end of the summer. The agents will focus on illegal gun sales and gun violence and outstanding warrants, among other goals, according to one of the sources. Both sources said an announcement could be made in the coming days.
Asked about the potential of sending federal agents to Chicago, a DHS spokesperson told CNN, “DHS does not comment on any allegedly leaked operations.”
Chicago’s mayor expressed concern about the deployment, citing the events in Portland. “I spent a lot of time yesterday talking with the mayor or Portland to get a sense of what has happened there. We don’t need federal agents without any insignia taking people off the streets and holding them, I think, unlawfully. That’s not what we need,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said.
Lightfoot said that instead the federal government could help stem the violence by cracking down on illegal guns.
At least one lawmaker called for Wolf to resign or be fired over the deployments. Rep. Don Beyer, a Virginia Democrat, said in a statement, “Ordering the occupation of U.S. cities, seeking the escalation of violence, and intentionally risking American lives over peaceful protests and graffiti is unfathomable and unacceptable.”
Democratic lawmakers have also urged the inspectors general of the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security to open an investigation into tactics used against protesters. Cuccinelli said DHS would cooperate with an investigation.
CNN’s Josh Campbell and Evan Perez contributed to this report.