Anonymous federal forces are occupying Oregon’s largest city against the wishes of local officials. They’ve snatched people off the street and shoved them into unmarked cars, beaten peaceful demonstrators and filled Portland with the haze of tear gas.
And now, senior Trump administration figures are making noise about taking the Portland show on a national tour — a menacing and confusing display of federal force just months before Election Day.
Here’s what we know about the federal presence in Portland.
This became a national story when video showed unmarked agents arresting a protester and taking them away in a minivan.
The video last week stunned the country: Men in fatigues, without any noticeable identifiers, approach someone on the street and drag them into the open door of a waiting, unmarked minivan.
Militarized Federal Agents from a patchwork of outside agencies have begun policing Portland (in rented minivans vans) without the explicit approval of the mayor, the state, or local municipalities. This is what that looks like in practice: pic.twitter.com/losap4SsgI
— The Sparrow Project (@sparrowmedia) July 15, 2020
The camouflaged men were from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, CBP later confirmed, but there are other federal agents policing Portland as well. In addition to CBP’s “BORTAC” unit — the equivalent of a SWAT team — boots on the ground include the Federal Protective Service and Homeland Security Investigations, ICE’s investigative arm.
Another man who claimed to have been detained, Mark Pettibone, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that officers pulled his beanie over his head so he couldn’t see where they were going. Later, he learned that he’d been detained at a federal courthouse. Pettibone said he was released after several searches of his belongings — and after declining an interview with his captors.
Chad Wolf, acting DHS secretary, has described the Portland operation like an invasion.
In case Americans had any questions about who was leading this odd federal operation, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf cleared things up with a photo-op Friday morning. With all of Chad’s military-speak you’d be forgiven for assuming the former TSA official was commanding an invasion. “Our men and women in uniform are patriots,” he said. “We will never surrender to violent extremists on my watch.
Our men and women in uniform are patriots. We will never surrender to violent extremists on my watch. pic.twitter.com/kG8w8kyw9E
— Acting Secretary Chad Wolf (@DHS_Wolf) July 17, 2020
“Here is what I saw in Portland yesterday,” Wolf tweeted above several pictures of… graffiti. In an accompanying press release, DHS published a timeline — “a snapshot of the lawless destruction and violence” — of the events that it said justified the deployment. Mostly, the list describes graffiti (by “violent anarchists”!) and minor damage to federal property, as well as several alleged assaults on law enforcement.
Notably, Wolf isn’t the Senate-confirmed Homeland Security secretary. Rather, he was confirmed last November to be the DHS undersecretary of strategy, policy and plans. The same day, he filled-in at the top job on an “acting” basis.
On Monday, the chairs of the House Judiciary, Homeland Security and Oversight committees raised questions about Wolf’s authority in a letter to the top internal watchdogs at DOJ and DHS.
“The legal basis for this use of force has never been explained—and, frankly, it is not at all clear that the Attorney General and the Acting Secretary are authorized to deploy federal law enforcement officers in this manner,” they wrote.
Seemingly every official in Oregon wants the feds gone.
Portland authorities say they’re more than adequately equipped to handle the demonstrations, and the federal presence has been met with near universal local protest, even from officials frustrated with the property damage.
Oregon’s U.S. Attorney, Billy Williams, has called for an inspector general’s probe into the actions of DHS personnel. And Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum filed a lawsuit against DHS and several sub-agencies for allegedly violating protesters’ rights.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler blamed the administration for inflaming tensions that otherwise were dying down.
“The numbers were dwindling, the energy in the crowd was decreasing, and people were moving elsewhere to do other things,” Wheeler said recently. “Then the feds came in.”
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) called the occupation “political theater” and “a blatant abuse of power.”
“Trump is looking for a confrontation in Oregon in the hopes of winning political points in Ohio or Iowa,” she said.
Portland Police officers appeared to be coordinating their actions with federal forces, but on Saturday the police department announced that “command from the Federal Protective Service will not work in the Portland police incident command center.”
Though Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell didn’t meet with Wolf when the acting DHS secretary came to town, police union president Daryl Turner did.
The Feds say they don’t need locals’ permission — but an internal memo shows that forces on the ground aren’t trained for crowd control.
Wolf has refused local requests that he take his federal forces and get the heck out of Dodge.
“I don’t need invitations by the state, state mayors or state governors, to do our job,” he said Monday morning. “We’re going to do that whether they like us there or not.”
"I don't need invitations by the state, state mayors, or state governors to do our job. We're going to do that, whether they like us there or not.” — acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf pic.twitter.com/Rr2P8q6Ut1
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) July 20, 2020
On Sunday night, after several days of nationwide criticism over the federal activity, the anonymous agents were back in the streets again, teargassing Portlanders away from the federal courthouse.
That’s not to say they’re trained for the job — an internal memo written for Wolf and obtained by the New York Times said that “The highly skilled tactical teams assigned to support the civil unrest and riots do not specifically have training in riot control or mass demonstrations.”
“Moving forward, if this type of response is going to be the norm, specialized training and standardized equipment should be deployed to responding agencies,” the memo added.
Coming soon to a city near you?
The President’s chief of staff over the weekend previewed the potential for future action nationwide.
“You’ll see something rolled out this week, as we start to go in and make sure that the communities—whether it’s Chicago or Portland or Milwaukee or someplace across the heartland of the country—we need to make sure their communities are safe,” Mark Meadows said. Trump’s reelection campaign boosted the comments.
President Trump is committed to standing up to the radical mobs that want to tear down our communities. “Some of the unrest we saw… it’s just not acceptable.”
This is about keeping our communities safe! pic.twitter.com/TV1CpgUfZV
— Trump War Room – Text TRUMP to 88022 (@TrumpWarRoom) July 19, 2020
Meadows was speaking more broadly about Trump’s June 26 executive order “on Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence.” While the order was part of Trump’s broader — and overtly political — push to defend Confederate monuments against “far-left fascism,” it also laid the supposed groundwork for the federal law enforcement action in Portland.
The order authorizes the defense secretary, attorney general and DHS secretary to provide “personnel to assist with the protection of Federal monuments, memorials, statues, or property.”
And a few days after Trump signed it, Wolf announced the “Protecting American Communities Task Force.”
“DHS is answering the President’s call to use our law enforcement personnel across the country to protect our historic landmarks,” Wolf said at the time. “We won’t stand idly by while violent anarchists and rioters seek not only to vandalize and destroy the symbols of our nation, but to disrupt law and order and sow chaos in our communities.”
Cuccinelli hinted Sunday, in an interview with The Washington Post, that the federal action may not end in Portland.
“You can expect that if violence continues in other parts of the country, the President has made no secret of the fact that he expects us where we can cooperate or have jurisdiction to step forward and expand our policing efforts there to bring down the level of violence,” he said.
And Trump himself, in the Oval Office Monday, praised federal forces and previewed potential action outside of Portland.
“They grab ’em, lotta people in jail, their leaders,” he said detained demonstrators. “These are anarchists!”
#BREAKING: President Trump says he may send "more federal law enforcement" to New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, Oakland, and other cities to deal with unrest: "In Portland they’ve done a fantastic job." pic.twitter.com/Pe6aDv6AVt
— The Hill (@thehill) July 20, 2020