One of the arguments I read somewhere yesterday for getting the feds to stand down in Portland is that if they keep using heavy-handed tactics they’re going to end up damaging public perceptions of federal law enforcement. (Which aren’t great anyway post-Russiagate, but still.) It’s fascinating that Esper seems to be worried that having these people cosplaying as soldiers might end up damaging perceptions of the military too. It does no favors to the world’s greatest army to have dudes dressed up as troops caught on video casually unloading half a canister of pepper spray into a guy’s face because he didn’t move quickly enough when told.
And no doubt if Esper feels that way, there are plenty of other people inside the Pentagon who feel that way too. Remember that one reason he turned chilly on using the Insurrection Act against looters in June was that some of his deputies disliked seeing him and Mark Milley accompany Trump for his victory strut through Lafayette Park after protesters were pushed out. The Defense Department institutionally seems to have a much more responsible view of when it’s proper to get physical with Americans than the White House does.
Think of that. People who have been trained to kill are watching how the DHS secret police are operating in Portland right now and thinking, “Maybe turn it down a notch, guys.”
After nationwide protests over racial injustice and police violence erupted in June, Esper expressed concern that in some cases, federal law enforcement officers were being confused with troops because of their similar uniforms, said Jonathan Hoffman, chief Pentagon spokesperson. Esper urged efforts to more clearly distinguish between the two, Hoffman said.
“We saw this take place back in June when there were some law enforcement that wear uniforms that make them appear military in appearance,” Hoffman said. Esper has told administration officials that “we want a system where people can tell the difference.”
Esper may be looking to have a conversation with Attorney General William Barr, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf and their teams about the issue in the near future, Hoffman said, but did not specify a timeline.
I have yet to hear a convincing explanation for why they’re wearing camouflage. Allegedly the reason they’re not wearing markings apart from their agency armpatch is that protesters might dox them, but (a) cops all over the country run that same risk when they do crowd control for protests yet don’t get to operate incognito and (b) at the very least a badge number could be worn so that that officer can be held accountable by his superiors if eyewitnesses see him misbehave. The reason they’re wearing fatigues, though, is … what? They’re not blending into anything. They’re not in a combat zone, no matter how much Trump might like to imagine he’s heroically battling an enemy as dangerous as Al Qaeda. It’s a pure intimidation tactic aimed at American citizens to signal that the government is making war on them, not enforcing law. No wonder Esper’s watching that and worrying what sort of new connotations will be formed in Americans’ minds for military uniforms.
I’m not using the warfare analogy offhandedly either. Here’s a United States senator, who’s been itching to send U.S. troops in to crack the heads of looters in American streets since June, comparing the Portland riffraff to the Confederacy:
On Fox & Friends, Sen. Tom Cotton compares protesters to the Confederacy: “These insurrectionists in the streets of Portland are little different from the insurrectionists who seceded from the union in 1861 in South Carolina, and tried to take over Fort Sumter.” pic.twitter.com/7ylYh3N1dB
— Bobby Lewis (@revrrlewis) July 21, 2020
My sense is that if Cotton has any complaints about what’s happening in Portland it’s that the feds aren’t using tanks and artillery (yet). Which would be bad enough if the standoff in Portland were confined to Portland, but evidence is mounting that it won’t be. Trump seems to be en route to assembling his own little nascent Interior Ministry to be deployed in various cities across the country. Why?
For all James Comey’s many faults, and mindful of the fact that he’s in no position anymore to lecture on proper police work, the theory he offers in this piece is plausible. Is Portland just a big election-year pageant by the president to show him being “tough” on vandals? Does he want violent confrontations on TV? That might at last explain why the feds are kitted out like soldiers. It’s simply better television. What could be more stirring than watching American “troops” defend our sacred homeland from “terrorists”?
As with all federal law enforcement agencies, the components of the Department of Homeland Security that are now prominent in Portland depend upon relationships with local law enforcement. That has long been true for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration, two Justice Department elements that have not been evident in Portland. “The FBI does nothing alone” is how I often explained our dependence upon partnerships with local and state law enforcement. The willingness of cities, counties and states to contribute their resources — most importantly, their people — to our task forces was at the heart of the FBI’s and DEA’s success. Town councils and mayors around the country supported those relationships because they trusted us.
For Homeland Security, it will now be a long road back to trust and partnerships.
It’ll be a long road back to trust for the FBI too, Jimbo — but I digress. He’s right tocal officials in Portland have been adamant that they don’t want the feds there and don’t want them using tactics like tear gas, fearing that the antagonism might grow or prolong the demonstrations. But that raises another question: Is there an ulterior strategic reason for why, say, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler is so anti-fed? This theory is also reasonable, that mayors like Wheeler are feeling the heat from locals over how their own PDs conduct business and would love nothing more than to turn that anger away from themselves and onto Trump and DHS.
4. And so they would LOVE to redirect the anger that is being directed at them and their vicious, violent police departments.
— David Menschel (@davidminpdx) July 21, 2020
Everybody wins politically. Trump gets to play the strongman who won’t stand for the sort of nonsense that soft liberal mayors will while those same liberal mayors get to symbolically join the Resistance by demanding that Trump go away. William McGurn pointed out in a piece today that the feds are supposed to be merely defending federal property, not performing general police duties in the neighborhood, and that once they stray into the state’s jurisdiction then the “Pottery Barn rule” will apply: “The moment Mr. Trump intervenes in a troubled city, he owns it.” I think he’s missing the point, though. Trump wants to own it. Like Comey says, he’d be just fine with TV news airing video of camouflaged feds fighting with Antifa droogs every night from now until Election Day. It would help Americans to stop focusing on the coronavirus and start focusing on his claim that President Biden won’t stand up to vandals nearly as forcefully as Trump will. He’ll happily “break” Portland and other cities to get a campaign platform like that. It can only help him at this point.
Legislation is afoot in the House to try to address some of the problems here, from requiring federal agents to identify themselves to limiting the president’s powers under the Insurrection Act, but none of it has a chance of attaining veto-proof majorities. Republicans are far too weak-kneed about crossing Trump on this, especially in an election year, no matter how gross the spectacle of an Interior Ministry operating in Portland is.
Here’s Andrew Napolitano giving his libertarian view to Fox. You can guess what it is.