Trump’s fight with city leaders escalates

President Trump is escalating his fight with city leaders as he looks to send federal law enforcement agents beyond Portland, Ore., and into Chicago and other U.S. cities.

Trump on Wednesday announced that the Justice Department’s “Operation Legend” — an effort to help local police combat violent crime — is expanding from Kansas City, Mo., to Chicago, Albuquerque, N.M., and other U.S. cities.

The move comes as agents Trump deployed to protect federal property in Portland have come under widespread criticism for their heavy-handed tactics. Though the deployment to Portland was not part of Operation Legend, local leaders from other U.S. cities are made nervous by the federal response they’ve seen unfold in Portland. They also feel uneasy because the orders come from a president who has made it a point to single out Democratic-run cities and is eager to flex his law-and-order image ahead of the 2020 election.

“Today I am announcing a surge of federal law enforcement into American communities plagued by violent crime,” Trump said in remarks from the East Room of the White House.

“No mother should ever have to cradle her dead child in her arms simply because politicians refused to do what is necessary to secure their neighborhood and to secure their city,” added the president, who said he had “no choice but to get involved.”

The move marks an expansion of the Justice Department (DOJ) program Attorney General William Barr launched earlier this month, which was named after a four-year-old boy, LeGend Taliferro, who was fatally shot while sleeping in his Kansas City home in late June.

While city leaders have fiercely challenged the actions the Trump administration has taken in Portland, they appear a bit more open to this approach. 

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D), who initially protested the potentially “devastating” arrival of federal law enforcement in her city, said U.S. Attorney John Lausch, a former colleague whom she respects, led her to change her mind on the law enforcement presence after he assured her that they would be working “collaboratively” with Chicago cops to fight violent crime. 

Still, she said, the city will be vigilant to ensure tactics used in Portland do not occur in the streets of Chicago.

“We welcome actual partnership,” Lightfoot said in a press conference. “But we do not welcome dictatorship.” 

“We do not welcome the unconstitutional arrests and detainments of our residents — and that is something I will not tolerate,” she added.

The federal agents participating in Operation Legend — including those with the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service and Drug Enforcement Administration — have been identifiable. The president said Wednesday those same agencies will send agents to help in Chicago. 

The tactics of federal agents in Portland have come under heavy scrutiny amid reports that agents — who couldn’t be identified — arrested people, at times also using unmarked vehicles. Some claim they were not charged or read their Miranda rights for hours after being apprehended, raising allegations that their Fifth Amendment rights were violated.

Former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in an interview with Anthony Scaramucci, a former White House spokesman, said while she is not familiar with the specifics of what is unfolding in Portland, she argued that “there’s a lot of misunderstanding” about how officers are marked or not marked. 

She said, for example, that some of the agents appear to be border units whose regular uniform is fatigues.

Still, Portland leaders and other critics argue that the federal presence has made the situation worse, escalating the violence rather than quelling it.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas echoed Lightfoot in saying he supports Operation Legend, but he is strongly against what has taken place in Portland. The Legend program, he said, supports local police efforts and is not a takeover intervention like he’s seen in Oregon. 

“We like having support from federal law enforcement to do things like investigations of unsolved murders, investigations of ballistics, those sorts of things that are distinct, where our police department is still leading,” Lucas told CNN Tuesday night. 

Lucas, however, has also joined a letter with other mayors blasting the administration for its actions in Portland, while saying they wanted to make clear to the administration that they “want only support when asked, not folks just intervening.”

Lightfoot and Lucas are among more than a dozen U.S. mayors who have criticized the president’s approach in Portland.

Fifteen mayors released a letter late Tuesday, addressed to Barr and acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf, that expressed “deep concern and objection to the presence of federal forces in U.S. cities,” stating that they are operating without the “coordination or authorization” of local authorities.

Rather, they described the president’s actions as a violation of the Constitution that is politically designed as “campaign fodder” to help his 2020 reelection bid against former Vice President Joe Biden.

“The unilateral deployment of these forces into American cities is unprecedented and violates the fundamental constitutional protections and tenets of federalism,” they wrote, arguing that while the protests have been mostly peaceful, outbursts of violence do “not justify the use of federal forces.”

The letter included signatures from Lightfoot and Lucas as well as the mayors of Portland; Philadelphia; Oakland, Calif.; Los Angeles, Atlanta, Washington, D.C; and more.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney this week argued that if the Trump administration wanted to help, they should’ve been more active during the coronavirus pandemic, instead of putting the onus of testing and responding to the deadly virus on the states. His remarks suggested that now, in the face of ongoing protests and unrest, Trump has leaned into federal interventions in U.S. cities, while shying away when the COVID-19 cases began spiking earlier this year.

“We’re opposed to that action and if the Trump administration wanted to help cities they would’ve gotten off their rear ends back in March and April and helped us with PPE [personal protective equipment] and testing and contact tracing,” Kenney said Tuesday, in response to Trump saying he may send federal agents to his city.

Still, the Trump administration appears to be brushing off this criticism, which mostly comes from Democratic city leaders and members of Congress. 

House Democrats have indicated they may go a step further, with congressional action. Various members have offered different legislative remedies and others have called on the federal watchdogs at DHS and DOJ to probe federal agents’ involvement in Portland.

Trump has praised the federal response.

“In Portland, they’ve done a fantastic job,” Trump said Monday.

Heading into November, both sides may find this clash politically advantageous.

Democrats also are able to point to Portland and argue that Trump has created more chaos amid national emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic.

And Republican strategists argue sending federal agents to dispel violent unrest is a political calculation by Trump that resonates with GOP voters — particularly his base and suburban women — who like his law-and-order message and want any violence they see to be stopped.

“This has the effect of stirring up more trouble, but allows Trump to demonstrate how he is pushing back on the trouble in the streets,” Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and former Republican National Committee communications director, told The Hill.

“We know that if one person smashes a window, much less something gets set on fire, it’s going to drown out whatever positive and peaceful things were done at a normal protest,” Heye said. “People see that and they want that fixed.”

Morgan Chalfant and Brett Samuels contributed

Tags Anthony Scaramucci Chad Wolf Department of Homeland Security DHS Donald Trump federal agents Joe Biden Kirstjen Nielsen Portland Portland Protests William Barr

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