White House

Trump administration weighs a show of force in more cities

DHS and DOJ officials are making plans to deploy units to protect federal facilities.

Portland may just be the beginning.

Federal law enforcement agencies are gearing up to expand their footprint nationwide in the coming weeks, despite concerns about the recent scenes of violence and chaos in Oregon.

Department of Homeland Security officials have considered deploying mobile field forces to protect federal property in cities around the country that experience unrest, two people familiar with the discussions told POLITICO. And the Department of Justice is planning to expand “Operation Legend,” a law enforcement initiative launched by Attorney General Bill Barr earlier this month to fight “the sudden surge of violent crime” in Kansas City, Mo.

DOJ plans to announce this week that the operation, which involves agents from the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration, will expand into more cities, a DOJ official told POLITICO. “We are seeing success in our Kansas City operation and have already arrested some wanted fugitives,” the DOJ official said.

The discussions have followed weeks of clashes between federal agents and protesters in Portland, which Trump on Monday called “worse than Afghanistan.” The president has vowed to use the power of the federal government to crush what his officials deem “violent anarchists,” wielding his authority to bolster the law-and-order theme he’s woven increasingly into his campaign messages.

The threat of force against cities whose residents overwhelmingly oppose the president has outraged Democratic lawmakers and mayors, several of whom told POLITICO they have yet to receive a formal heads-up about any forthcoming deployments.

Democrats say the federal units are unwelcome and unnecessary — if not unlawful. But the Trump administration insists they are needed to protect American cities from the more unruly elements of a movement protesting police brutality and systemic racism.

“Portland was totally out of control,” the president said on Monday, blaming “liberal Democrats” for incidents of vandalism and clashes between protesters and law enforcement. “They were ripping down — for 51 days, ripping down that city, destroying the city, looting it.”

Senior DHS officials said they expect the unrest to escalate at least through the November election, and noted that the protection of federal buildings falls squarely within their remit. DHS can temporarily authorize officers and agents from its other components — including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — to protect federal buildings.

The Federal Protective Service (FPS), the DHS component that’s specifically responsible for securing federal buildings around the country, has been training officers and agents from other DHS components on its legal powers. And an FPS document reviewed by POLITICO shows more trainings are scheduled for this month. Those trainings are not routine, one person familiar with the situation told POLITICO, and the plans indicate the department is preparing to deploy more officers around the country.

“As DHS cross-designated components to Portland, they received additional training from FPS specifically so they can fulfil their mission,” a DHS spokesperson told POLITICO in response to a request for comment on this story. The spokesperson declined to discuss any other details of this reporting.

In an FPS training session held earlier this month, lawyers for the agency briefed DHS officers from other components on what they could do when temporarily teaming up with FPS, according to an audio recording of the session reviewed by POLITICO. The focus was a legal process called cross-designation; it lets officers from one federal agency temporarily use the legal authorities of a different agency, thanks to a federal law referred to as Section 1315. Officers clad in military fatigues who descended on Portland over the weekend were cross-designated under 1315 in partnership with FPS.

One lawyer doing the training told listeners that FPS was “trying to stay away from citations that relate to First Amendment protected activity.” The lawyers also cautioned trainees that they couldn’t arrest protesters just for making video recordings of them on their cell phones, even if those recordings made them “uncomfortable”––and that they couldn’t retaliate against those protesters by recording them with their own phones.

They also discussed a federal regulation that lets FPS officers arrest people for taking photos or videos of federal facilities under certain circumstances––cautioning that while the regulation exists, officers should be cautious about using it because of the First Amendment. And they discussed a tactic called “cite and release” to quickly remove people from protests without going so far as making a custodial arrest. One lawyer called it an “invaluable tool” to de-escalate protests.

In practice, however, DHS has struggled to lower the temperatures of protests. Oregon officials, including the mayor of Portland, have said the influx of cross-designated DHS officers has heightened tensions. Despite that, Trump said on Monday that the feds plan to send officers to a number of cities run by “liberal Democrats,” including Baltimore, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

But spokespersons for those cities’ mayors told POLITICO that nobody from DHS had formally contacted them about the potential deployment of federal officers.

And the mayor of Philadelphia said in a statement that he would resist any imposition of federal agents on the city.

“The president’s threat is wrong on many levels,” said Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, warning that any such move would represent “a politicization of federal resources” that would impede the work of local governments and exacerbate tensions further. Philadelphia would “use all available means to resist such a wrong-headed effort and abuse of power,” Kenney said.

A spokesperson for Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot similarly said that while the city had “not received any definitive information about additional federal resources coming to Chicago to augment existing federal resources. … Mayor Lightfoot has made clear to all that we will not tolerate any secret, federal agents being deployed in Chicago's neighborhoods.”

“Should the Trump administration foolishly try to usurp our local authority, will not hesitate to take decisive action to stop this unwanted and dangerous intrusion,” the spokesperson, Megan Vidis, added. Lightfoot told reporters on Tuesday that as of right now, she expects additional federal resources to help suppress violent crime in the city but not a "Portland-style" federal deployment.

The Oakland Police Department said in a statement that neither it nor the city of Oakland, which Trump also named as a potential target for a surge in federal forces, has asked for federal assistance.

Meanwhile, a federal judge in Portland set a hearing for Wednesday on Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum’s request for a judge to temporarily block unidentified federal law enforcement agents from detaining individuals in the state. Rosenblum has asked the court to order that federal agents only detain people based on warrants or probable cause, identify themselves to people being detained, and explain why the suspect is being held.

In a separate suit, the ACLU is seeking similar relief on behalf of a group of journalists and legal observers who contend federal agents are intimidating them. A hearing in that case is set for Thursday before a second judge.

David Lapan, the top DHS spokesperson in the early days of the Trump administration, told POLITICO that he worries the president’s threatened deployments could seriously harm the department’s reputation.

“It’s overly militaristic, it’s being seen in partisan political terms, and it’s usurping the authorities of the local law enforcement and elected officials,” he said.

Josh Gerstein contributed reporting.