More than two dozen Senate Democrats sent a letter to the Trump administration on Wednesday demanding answers regarding the controversial deployment of federal law enforcement agents in Portland and possibly other major U.S. cities in the coming days.
The Democrats, led by Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, urged Attorney General Bill Barr and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf to explain the legal rationale behind President Donald Trump’s deployment of federal officers, which he threatened to expand to other cities such as Baltimore and Chicago.
The letter sought to tie the federal incursion in U.S. cities to the forcible clearing of peaceful protesters in front of the White House last month, which Barr is said to have ordered.
“Critically, it remains unclear what legal authorities the federal government has invoked for its militarized interventions in American cities,” the letter read. “All of this is part of an alarming pattern by the Trump Administration in taking an aggressive and excessive response to protests catalyzed by the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others.”
Unidentified federal law enforcement officers dressed in military-style camouflage were spotted stuffing protesters in unmarked cars over the weekend in Portland, where protesters have held demonstrations against the police killing of George Floyd. The reports from the scene drew condemnation from Democrats and Republicans alike.
“We cannot give up liberty for security. Local law enforcement can and should be handling these situations in our cities but there is no place for federal troops or unidentified federal agents rounding people up at will,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) tweeted Monday.
Trump, meanwhile, said he ordered federal agents to quell what he called “anarchists and agitators” gathered in Portland. Protesters set a fire outside the U.S. courthouse early Monday, setting off a clash with law enforcement agents who repeatedly tear-gassed them to drive them away.
Trump in recent weeks has ratcheted up his message of “law and order” ahead of the November presidential election, warning that his rival, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, would make America less safe. The strategy is running into headwinds, though, namely the president’s bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has resulted in millions of unemployed Americans and over 140,000 deaths, not to mention his tumble in public opinion polls.
The reaction to Trump’s gambit has been swift, at least among those unafraid to speak out against him. The nation’s first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, for example, denounced the role that the agency was playing under the president.
“The department was established to protect America from the ever-present threat of global terrorism. It was not established to be the president’s personal militia,” former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said during an interview with Sirius XM host Michael Smerconish.
Wolf, who has never been officially confirmed by the Senate, disagreed. He told Fox News on Tuesday that Homeland Security officials had to “proactively arrest individuals” in Portland in order to defend federal property. Some of those arrests, however, had reportedly taken place away from federal property ― prompting legal concerns like those raised by Senate Democrats on Wednesday.
Oregon Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, meanwhile, said earlier this week that they planned to introduce an amendment that “would block the Trump administration from deploying federal forces as a shadowy paramilitary against Americans.”
“These are the actions of an authoritarian regime, not a democratic republic,” Merkley said. “This gross violation of Americans’ civil rights must end immediately.”