Sending federal officers to cities is not the best move of this president
Two months after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, protests continue in cities across the country. Some have turned violent, leading to arson and property damage. President Trump ordered federal officers sent to protect statues, monuments, and federal facilities to start cracking down on the crowds gathering in these cities.
These widely criticized orders were executed against the wishes of state and local officials. Reports cite that federal officers in unmarked vehicles have seized protesters from the streets and detained them, and have fired tear gas into crowds. While the unrest in cities is unsettling, it is unclear if it makes political or legal sense for Trump to take such action.
With only 100 days until the election this fall, Trump is evidently trying to position himself as the law and order candidate, while working to define Democrats as weak on crime. The vast majority of the Americans likely agree with Trump on the need for law and order, as well as the need to control civil unrest that turns into arson and property damage.
Republicans in the past, most notably Richard Nixon, have found success with a law and order message that appeals to the silent majority. With the protests and crime hitting Democratic cities and a Democratic platform that continues to pay homage to the far left, Trump may be effective with this kind of message, but it remains unclear if it will be the case.
According to a survey last week, 47 percent of Americans disapprove of his approach on crime, while 38 percent of Americans approve. Notably, 45 percent of independents, a group that Trump won by four points and will need to win again in November for a second term, disapprove of his approach to crime, while 32 percent of independents approve.
Given the negative media attention around the federal law enforcement presence in cities, including news that the mayor of Portland himself was tear gassed by officers, the heavy handed police tactics used by Trump do not appear like they will benefit him at the polls. His offensive strategy of simply asserting that Joe Biden and other Democrats somehow support insurrection and anarchy in cities could backfire in the election.
There is a positive message of unity and conciliation for Trump to use, yet his sending of federal officers into cities sends a message of polarization and division. To be sure, if Trump actually sought unity and conciliation, he would do better to seek to work collegially with local authorities rather than imposing such direct federal authority on recalcitrant cities.
Moreover, given the worst case scenario, if cities spiral out of control with unrest and violence, that could hurt Trump in the election if he were seen as exacerbating the instability. In addition to the uncertain political impact of his orders, local officials have raised legal questions over the sending of federal officers into cities against the wishes of local authorities.
While the federal government has the power to protect and defend federal property, federal officers have begun patrolling streets outside of federal boundaries in cities like Portland, where rioters threw incendiary devices and set fire to the federal courthouse. Indeed, the federal government was within its right to protect and defend federal property in this case.
However, the rest is a murky legal area, especially as local authorities are calling for federal officers to leave. A federal judge denied an order sought by the state of Oregon to limit the power of federal officers in the protests in Portland. Moreover, there are also questions of whether federal officers have the appropriate certification and training for riot control, something which Oregon law actually requires in situations such as this one.
It remains unclear whether the aggressive police tactics used by Trump are effective. Many local leaders are fervent in their opposition, asserting that the presence of the federal officers causes greater unrest. There has to be effective communication between law enforcement officials and the community for effective police tactics. This includes ensuring protesters know that their First Amendment rights will be protected and having zero tolerance for anarchy and violence. From a political and legal standpoint, the move by Trump with federal officers is questionable at best.
Douglas Schoen is a consultant who served as an adviser to President Bill Clinton and to the campaign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. His latest book is “Collapse: A World in Crisis and the Urgency of American Leadership.”