There's no question that the federal agents arresting protesters in Portland, Oregon, are acting against the wishes of state and local authorities. The mayor of Portland and the governor of Oregon both asked the Trump administration to remove its troops, and officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security refused. That reflects poorly on an executive branch in the hands of a political party supposedly committed to letting state and local governments take the lead on most issues.
The controversy began with reports of federal officers driving through the streets of Portland in unmarked minivans and arresting protesters. Some face charges, but others are briefly detained and then released.
Local officials and people in the streets may be at odds over racial tensions and police conduct, but nobody invited the feds to join the party. "Keep your troops in your own buildings, or have them leave our city," Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler told the feds last week.
"I told acting Secretary Wolf that the federal government should remove all federal officers from our streets," Oregon Governor Kate Brown said. "His response showed me he is on a mission to provoke confrontation for political purposes."
Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf's response really was pretty confrontational. "The city of Portland has been under siege for 47 straight days by a violent mob while local political leaders refuse to restore order to protect their city," Wolf said. "This siege can end if state and local officials decide to take appropriate action instead of refusing to enforce the law."
Federal officials do have the authority and responsibility to protect federal property. But Wolf's statement goes well beyond that, reiterating an "offer to assist local and state leaders to bring an end to the violence perpetuated by anarchists."
President Trump is clear, too, that federal agents are in Portland to do more than protect courthouses and office buildings.
"We're going to have more federal law enforcement—that, I can tell you," Trump remarked this week. "In Portland, they've done a fantastic job. They've been there three days, and they really have done a fantastic job in very short period of time. No problem. They grab them; a lot of people in jail. They're leaders. These are anarchists. These are not protestors. People say 'protestors'; these people are anarchists. These are people that hate our country. And we're not going to let it go forward."
What if local officials don't want the feds there?
"The governor and the mayor and the senators out there, they're afraid of these people. That's the reason they don't want us to help them," Trump dismissively added.
Whether or not state and local officials are up to handling sometimes-violent protests on their own, dismissing their right to handle local issues their own way is remarkable for a Republican president. After all, Trump represents a political party that to this day officially prefers state and local decision-making over federal policy.
"The Constitution gives the federal government very few powers, and they are specifically enumerated; the states and the people retain authority over all unenumerated powers," states the Republican Party platform of 2016, which the GOP readopted this year. "In obedience to that principle, we condemn the current Administration's unconstitutional expansion into areas beyond those specifically enumerated, including bullying of state and local governments in matters ranging from voter identification (ID) laws to immigration, from healthcare programs to land use decisions, and from forced education curricula to school restroom policies."
It's very difficult to reconcile the Republican Party's condemnation of "unconstitutional expansion into areas beyond those specifically enumerated, including bullying of state and local governments," with an announced intention to deploy federal law enforcement agents against protesters in Portland over the protests of the governor and the mayor, and to expand federal intervention elsewhere—apparently starting with Chicago and Albuquerque‚despite local objections. It just looks like just another example of bullying to add to the list.
How do the feds justify forcing their way in? The administration hasn't said, but maybe by leveraging the expanded leeway the courts allow the federal government within 100 miles of the border, or maybe through stretched-to-the-breaking-point interpretations of other laws regarding federal authority.
State and local officials definitely aren't pleased.
"The majority of the protests have been peaceful and aimed at improving our communities. Where this is not the case, it still does not justify the use of federal forces. Unilaterally deploying these paramilitary-type forces into our cities is wholly inconsistent with our system of democracy and our most basic values," the mayors of Seattle, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Kansas City, Missouri, and Portland, Oregon, wrote to Wolf and Attorney General William Barr this week. "We urge you to take immediate action to withdraw your forces and agree to no further unilateral deployments in our cities."
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner went a step further, promising that "anyone, including federal law enforcement, who unlawfully assaults and kidnaps people will face criminal charges from my office."
None of this is to say that state and local officials are necessarily the best people to handle any given problem. Nothing guarantees that mayors are more competent than presidents. Protests for changes in the way law enforcement does its business are concentrated in large cities where officials presided over the creation of often abusive and largely unaccountable police departments. Those departments are now, awkwardly, tasked with keeping the cap on protests against them.
But it's not the place for the federal government to muscle aside local authorities when they don't do their jobs in ways that federal officials might prefer. "The Constitution gives the federal government very few powers, and they are specifically enumerated," as the GOP itself points out.
The need for federal restraint is especially true when the president makes it clear that partisan posturing is behind his desire to send in federal forces.
"Look at what's going on" in cities where federal agents will be sent, snorted Trump as he explained his rationale for intervention. "All run by Democrats, all run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by radical left."
So much for the Republican Party's espoused belief that "Every violation of state sovereignty by federal officials is not merely a transgression of one unit of government against another; it is an assault on the liberties of individual Americans."