Why Trump's 'little green men' in Portland are so alarming

A devastating pandemic, an economic collapse and a civil rights upheaval are not enough for President TrumpDonald John TrumpJoe Arpaio loses bid for his old position as sheriff Trump brushes off view that Russia denigrating Biden: 'Nobody's been tougher on Russia than I have' Trump tees up executive orders on economy but won't sign yet MORE. On top of that triple trauma, or perhaps to distract from it, he sets off an uproar by sending federal agents in green camouflage uniforms without agency insignia to quash civil rights protests in downtown Portland. 

The agents were supposedly there to protect federal buildings but detained demonstrators who were nowhere near such buildings; shot an unarmed protester in the face with a crowd control weapon; and beat and pepper sprayed Navy veteran Christopher David, who had only shown up to ask the federal agents whether they had forgotten their constitutional oaths.              

That’s what happens in Russia when you ask a question like that. Indeed, the federal agents in Portland are reminiscent of the professional-looking soldiers in Russian-style combat uniforms who appeared in the Crimea in the Ukraine in February 2014.   They carried Russian weapons but had no identifying insignia. Ukrainians called them the “little green men.”  

ADVERTISEMENT

Putin used his little green men as a way, at least initially, to deny that Russian soldiers had entered the Crimea. Trump may be using his unidentified federal agents to leave the impression that he had sent the U.S. Army to restore law and order, as he had once sought to do during the George Floyd protests. Trump probably thinks he sounds a lot tougher to his supporters if they believe he ordered the 82nd Airborne to Portland and not the Federal Protective Service. 

Indeed, that potential confusion deeply concerned Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperPentagon sends 3 cargo planes to Lebanon filled with aid as questions on blast remain Overnight Defense: Esper says 'most believe' Beirut explosion was accident, contradicting Trump | Trump later says 'nobody knows yet' what happened in Lebanon | 61-year-old reservist ID'd as fourth military COVID-19 death Trump tempers his description of Beirut explosion as an attack: 'Nobody knows yet' MORE, who had successfully opposed Trump’s plan to deploy the armed forces to American cities. He took the extraordinary step of publicly announcing that he had told the Trump administration that “we want a system where people can tell the difference.”         

Trump claims that he sent federal agents to Portland to stop “anarchists and agitators,” even though the demonstrators are a lot more bohemian than Bolshevik. They include a group of Portland mothers, calling themselves Wall of Moms, who chant “moms are here. Feds stay clear.” (There’s a dads group too.)  A bold young woman wearing only a black face mask and stocking cap calmly sat down in the street in a yoga-like position in front of a line of camouflaged federal agents. (They backed down and left.)

To be sure, while most of the Portland demonstrators have been peaceful, some hooligans have set fires, smashed windows and fought the police. They gave Trump the only excuse he needed to send in federal agents, even though more violent protests, such as the one in Baltimore in 2015 after Freddie Gray’s death in a police van, were ended by local and state law enforcement without the need of federal intervention.

One way to look at Portland is that Trump staged a reelection campaign event to highlight his law and order theme. Think of Portland as a larger version of  Washington’s Lafayette Square, where federal agents used chemical irritants, rubber bullets and horses to clear out largely peaceful protesters so that Trump could walk to St. James Church and pose with a Bible. That brutal photo op was one of Trump’s ugliest moments because it seemed to justify fears that he is an authoritarian with no tolerance for peaceful protests.

ADVERTISEMENT

But Portland could well portend a constitutional crisis because these kinds of interventions arguably violate the doctrines of separation of powers and federalism that give responsibility for local law enforcement to state or municipal governments. Unlike many Republicans, staunch conservative Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulTrump-backed Hagerty wins Tennessee GOP Senate primary Senators introduce bill to block Trump armed drone sale measure The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's visit to battleground Ohio overshadowed by coronavirus MORE (R-Ky.) hasn’t forgotten those doctrines. He objected to the federal agents in Portland and emphasized that policing belongs to the states.  

Just how bad this gets depends on how Portland plays out and whether, as Trump has promised, he will send more agents into other American cities to do the same thing. The presence of federal agents in Portland, according to reports, has only led to more confrontations. That dynamic could give Trump an excuse to send even more federal agents to “dominate” American cities run by what he calls “liberal Democrats.” 

It’s been a really bad year, but if this keeps up, it’s going to get even worse.

Gregory J. Wallance, a writer in New York City, was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author of the historical novel, “Two Men Before the Storm:  Arba Crane’s Recollection of Dred Scott and the Supreme Court Case That Started The Civil War.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.