Letters From an American

The President’s Personal Militia

In search of violent anarchists

The President's Personal Militia

Federal officers are surrounded by tear gas while clearing the street in front of the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse on July 22, 2020 in Portland, Ore. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Washington Post)

Today Trump announced that he will send federal agents to Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico, as part of his push to advance the idea that he is a “LAW & ORDER” president. Trump insists that “violent anarchists” allied with “radical left” Democrats have launched “a shocking explosion of shootings, killings, murders and heinous crimes of violence.” “This bloodshed must end,” he said. “This bloodshed will end.”

To hear the president tell it, the country is at war against a leftist enemy that is destroying us from within.

But his dark vision is simply not true.

While crime is indeed up in some cities in the last month or so since the stay-at-home orders lifted, crime is nonetheless down overall for 2020. Indeed, violent crime has trended downward now for decades. And more crime in the short term is not exactly a surprise, as we are in an unprecedented time of social upheaval, with a pandemic locking us in our homes, the economy falling apart, and police violence—particularly against Black people—in the news day after day.

What has changed in the last few months, though, is Trump’s strategy for the 2020 election. It is notable how desperate he appears to be to win reelection. While all presidents running for a second term want to win, most of them are also willing to lose if that’s what voters decide. Trump, though, has withheld military funding from an ally to try to rig the election—that was what the Ukraine scandal was about—and, according to John Bolton, begged Chinese leader Xi Jinping to make a trade deal to help get Trump reelected. The insistence that he absolutely must win sets the stage for the federal troops in our cities.

Trump had planned to run on what he believed to be a strong economy, for which he took the credit (although he inherited a growing economy from his predecessor, President Barack Obama). But then the coronavirus hit.

Determined to keep the economy humming along, Trump downplayed the dangers of the virus, convincing his supporters that it was not as serious as Democrats insisted it was; they were, he said, hoping to sabotage his reelection. Then, when it was clear the disease was not a hoax, he was unwilling to use the federal government to address the crisis, and his administration botched early testing and isolation. Death rates spiked as we locked down, but then, as it seemed that infections were leveling off, states reopened quickly, despite warnings from experts that they were opening too soon.

Now, of course, cases are skyrocketing. While the rest of the developed world has corralled the virus, we have had close to 4 million infections and more than 140,000 dead. Today more than 1000 people died of the disease. After weeks of refusing to wear a mask, Trump was finally forced to acknowledge that it is imperative for us to slow the spread of the coronavirus after prominent supporter and former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain apparently contracted Covid-19 at Trump’s Tulsa rally. Cain has been hospitalized since early July.

And yet, Trump is desperate to get children back into school and their parents back to work, in part because Republicans object to government social welfare programs like unemployment insurance, and in part because he wants the economy to rebound before the election. But on this, too, he has been stymied, as most parents are worried about exposing their children to the disease. More and more school districts are opting to start the school year online.

So, Trump’s campaign is trying to rally voters with the idea that American cities run by Democrats are seething with violence. And to create that violence, the administration is sending in law enforcement officers that belong to departments within the executive branch of the government.

Trump included the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, in his photo-op on June 1, after officers cleared peaceful protesters out of Washington D.C.’s Lafayette Square with tear gas and flash-bangs. But military officers and defense officials past and present pushed back strongly against the attempt to politicize the military, and made it clear they would not permit soldiers to be used in ways they considered unconstitutional.

So Trump is turning the officers of the executive branch into the president’s private army.

On June 26, Trump issued an “Executive Order on Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence.” That is the document supporting the deployment of officers from what appears to be Custom and Border Protection, wearing military uniforms, in Portland, Oregon. Their original mission was to defend the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse, which had sustained vandalism and thrown fireworks.

The Executive Order blames the protests in Portland on “rioters, arsonists, and left-wing extremists who… have explicitly identified themselves with ideologies — such as Marxism — that call for the destruction of the United States system of government.” It says that those calling out racial bias in America are seeking “to advance a fringe ideology that paints the United States of America as fundamentally unjust and have sought to impose that ideology on Americans through violence and mob intimidation.” It claims: “These radicals shamelessly attack the legitimacy of our institutions and the very rule of law itself.”

The administration justifies the operations in Chicago and Albuquerque differently. On July 8, Attorney General William Barr announced a Department of Justice initiative called “Operation Legend,” named for a four-year-old victim of gun violence. Operation Legend began in Kansas City, Missouri, “to fight the sudden surge of violent crime.” Under the initiative, Barr is deploying federal agents from the FBI, U.S. Marshal Service, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) to “surge resources” first to Kansas City, and now to Chicago and Albuquerque. The DOJ also promised to move personnel to Kansas City—and now, presumably to the other cities— “to handle an anticipated increase in prosecutions.”

All the affected cities are run by Democratic mayors.

The Trump administration is hammering again and again on the idea that Democrats will bring chaos and violence to American streets. To illustrate that argument, it is instigating violent encounters. In Portland, officials said that the protests were calming down before the new federal force moved in. They asked for the officers to be removed, but Trump refused. His acting director of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, says: “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.”

(Wolf is not Senate-confirmed, and there is question about whether or not he’s even legally in his job, since he has now been 251 days in a post that can only have an “acting” director for 210. With no experience in intelligence or security, it is unlikely the former lobbyist could make it through the Senate, but Trump likes his loyalty.)

Today, Tom Ridge, the country’s first Director of Homeland Security, who served under President George W. Bush, warned that the department “was not established to be the President’s personal militia.” “It would be a cold day in hell before I would give consent to a unilateral, uninvited intervention into one of my cities,” he said.

What is really at stake is the delegitimizing of Democrats altogether before the 2020 election. Today Jenna Ellis, senior legal adviser to the Trump campaign and one of Trump’s personal lawyers tweeted: “No Democrat should EVER AGAIN be elected in the United States in any capacity. The government’s constitutional obligation is to preserve and protect OUR rights, not to preserve and protect their own power. They are willing to sacrifice America and our freedom and liberty. NO!!!”

The Trump campaign has released an ad suggesting that the choice in 2020 is between “PUBLIC SAFETY” and “CHAOS AND VIOLENCE.” But observers quickly noted that the image of street violence in the ad was not from America, it was from Ukraine in 2014.

And the image was not of respectable police officers defending the rule of law. It was the opposite. It was a picture taken when democratic protesters were trying to oust corrupt oligarch Viktor Yanukovych from the Ukraine presidency. Yanukovych was an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and fled to Russia when he was thrown out of office in Ukraine. Yanukovych was in power thanks to the efforts of an American adviser: Paul Manafort, the same man who took over Trump’s ailing campaign in June 2016.

So to illustrate “chaos and violence,” the Trump campaign used an image of a corrupt Ukrainian oligarch’s specialized federal police wrestling a pro-democracy protester to the ground. And Donald Trump and that oligarch won power thanks to the same advisor.

Honestly, it’s hard to see the use of the image as a mistake.

 

We are pleased to be presenting daily posts from Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters From an American” email newsletter. You can sign up to receive it in your inbox here

Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.

SHARE THIS ARTICLE

RELATED CONTENT