Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf defended on Sunday the federal government’s response to the protests in Portland and criticized local leaders for claiming the demonstrations are peaceful.
Speaking on “Sunday Morning Futures,” Wolf said the protests in Portland were different from the “normal criminal activity” that is being witnessed in cities like Chicago, Kansas City and other metro areas across the country.
“They're coming armed with rocks, bottles, baseball bats, power tools, commercial grade fireworks, eliciting that violence and targeting their violence on federal courthouses and federal law enforcement officers,” Wolf said of Portland.
He added: “That's very different than what's going on in Chicago, places like Chicago, Albuquerque, Kansas City. That is where you see normal criminal activity, street crime, what we say regarding gangs and drug dealers.”
A number of lawmakers from New York to Portland have spoken out against the Trump administration sending the agents to their cities, especially following reports that unidentified federal agents detained protesters in Portland and took them away in unmarked vehicles. Portland has been hit with near-daily demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism since the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody on May 25.
Local authorities also have complained the surges have only exacerbated tensions, and criminal justice experts say the efforts defy explanation because of the unprecedented moment America is living through — with a pandemic, historic unemployment and a mass reckoning over racism and how people of color are treated by police.
“The president is attacking progressive cities with troops who are unwelcome and unskilled,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said last week in a letter signed by 16 mayors calling on Trump to reverse his orders. “Militarized agents are terrorizing the American people. We must stand together for peace and reform, and against these un-American tactics.”
Wolf said on Sunday that if officials in Oregon did their jobs, then the federal government would not have to send in its agents.
“We see city leadership there has fostered an environment that allows these criminals to do this throughout the night, untouched, absolutely untouched. It's time for Portland to join other responsible cities around this country working with federal law enforcement to address this violence,” he said.
Wolf added: “We need Portland to step up to the plate, do their responsibility and work with us to address violent criminal activity occurring every night.”
The president last week announced that, along with Portland, he is deploying 100 federal agents to Chicago to help combat rising rates of some crimes – a move that marks an expansion of the White House’s intervention into local law enforcement as Trump continues to position himself as the “law and order” president.
While sending federal agents to aid local law enforcement is not unprecedented – Attorney General Bill Barr announced a similar surge effort in December for seven cities that had seen spiking violence – the type of federal agent being sent, and some of their tactics, have raised concerns among state and local lawmakers.
Usually, the Justice Department sends agents under its own umbrella, like agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives or the Drug Enforcement Administration. But this surge effort will include Department of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) officers, who generally conduct drug trafficking and child exploitation investigations.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.