By GILLIAN FLACCUS and ANDREW SELSKY and JONATHAN LEMIRE
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The Trump administration has started talks with the Oregon governor’s office and indicated that it would begin to draw down the presence of federal agents sent to quell two months of chaotic protests in Portland if the state stepped up its own enforcement, a senior White House official said Tuesday.
The official stressed to The Associated Press that the talks with the office of Democratic Gov. Kate Brown are in the early stages and there is no agreement. The official was not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Brown didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office also didn’t immediately respond to an email.
Meanwhile, law enforcement officers again used tear gas to disperse protesters early Wednesday on the streets of Portland as loud booms filled the air.
Just a day earlier, the U.S. Marshals Service and Department of Homeland Security were weighing whether to send in more agents. The marshals were taking steps to identify up to 100 additional personnel who could go in case they were needed to relieve or supplement the deputy marshals who work in Oregon, spokesman Drew Wade said.
Homeland Security was considering a similar measure with Customs and Border Protection agents, according to an administration official with direct knowledge of the plans who was not authorized to speak publicly about the plans and spoke to AP on condition of anonymity.
President Donald Trump did not let up on criticizing local authorities in their handling of the protests that began after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police and have grown to include the presence of federal agents in Portland and other Democratic cities.
The nightly protests often spiral into violence as demonstrators target the U.S. courthouse in Oregon’s largest city with rocks, fireworks and laser pointers and federal agents respond with tear gas, less-lethal ammunition and arrests.
“We, as you know, have done an excellent job of watching over Portland and watching our courthouse where they wanted to burn it down, they’re anarchists, nothing short of anarchist agitators,” Trump said Tuesday. “And we have protected it very powerfully. And if we didn’t go there, I will tell you, you wouldn’t have a courthouse. You’d have a billion-dollar burned-out building.”
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said Tuesday that she had received confirmation that U.S. agents had left her city after being sent to Seattle last week to protect federal buildings amid lingering unrest.
The developments came as the American Civil Liberties Union in Oregon filed a motion alleging that the militarized U.S. agents are attacking journalists and legal observers with riot-control munitions, despite a federal court ordering them to stop.
Last week, the U.S. District Court in Portland — located in the same federal court building that’s been the focus of protests — temporarily blocked federal officers from targeting journalists and legal observers at the protests.
The ACLU asked the court to sanction and hold in contempt federal agents for violating the temporary restraining order. It also asked the court to order Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli to personally appear and show why they should not be sanctioned for contempt.
The organization cited numerous instances in which agents have violated the order by firing impact munitions and using pepper spray against people clearly marked as journalists or legal observers.
The motion was filed after U.S. Attorney General William Barr defended the aggressive federal response to Congress, saying “violent rioters and anarchists have hijacked legitimate protests” sparked by Floyd’s death.
The ACLU accused federal agents of acting unlawfully in Portland.
“This administration claims to be defending the federal courthouse, but won’t obey the orders coming out of it. What purpose are these agents actually serving then?” said Kelly Simon, interim legal director of the ACLU of Oregon.
One journalist, Jonathan Levinson of Oregon Public Broadcasting, said in a statement to the court that while he was trying to take a photograph Friday, he saw a federal agent raise his weapon, aim it at him and fire several rounds.
“My camera and lens were splattered with paint,” Levinson said. “Based on my position and the position of people around me, there is almost no chance the agent was aiming at anyone other than me.”
Levinson, who has covered conflicts worldwide and was deployed to Iraq as an Army officer, said he was wearing a press pass and a helmet that says “PRESS” in big letters on the front and back.
Kat Mahoney, a legal observer with the ACLU, said a federal agent fired a paintball at her, hitting her in the head Friday. The next night, an agent sprayed her and three other observers in the face as they told him they were legal observers and pointed to their credentials.
There was no immediate comment from the federal agencies on the motion and accusations.
Two groups also have sued the Department of Homeland Security, alleging it violated the Constitution by sending federal law enforcement to disperse crowds with tear gas and rubber bullets.
The agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit from the Wall of Moms — a group of self-described mothers — and the Don’t Shoot Portland group.
Members of the group of mothers have “been tear-gassed night after night, left vomiting and unable to eat or sleep because of the toxic poison blasted at them,” the lawsuit said.
Wheeler and City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty had asked Wolf on Monday for a meeting to discuss a cease-fire and their desire for the removal of the extra federal agents deployed to Portland.
The same day, U.S. Attorney Billy J. Williams insisted that the agents will remain as long as protesters keep attacking the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse.
Protesters have tried almost every night to tear down a fence erected to protect the building, set fires in the street and hurled fireworks, Molotov cocktails and bricks, rocks and bottles at the agents inside.
On the 60th night of protests, demonstrators near the courthouse were met with tear gas, pepper balls and stun grenades fired by agents early Tuesday.
Lemire reported from Washington. Selsky reported from Salem, Oregon. Associated Press writers Mike Balsamo and Colleen Long in Washington and Suman Naishadham in Atlanta also contributed to this report.
Follow Gillian Flaccus on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/gflaccus and Andrew Selsky at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky.