Trump tries "dominating" the streets — but his utter incompetence gets in the way

It’s not going well

Published July 29, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

DOnald Trump | Police tear-gassing protesters in Portland, OR (Getty Images/Salon)
DOnald Trump | Police tear-gassing protesters in Portland, OR (Getty Images/Salon)

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Again, the problem may be in actually listening to Donald Trump's words. Instead, you're supposed to intuit what he means, give him a huge benefit of the doubt and believe that none of his use of the powers of the White House for partisan political gain is out-and-out abuse of the office.

He already is getting considerable criticism for deploying 114 anonymous federal agents in Portland, ostensibly to defend the federal courthouse from demonstrators unhappy with policing procedures nationally. Now Trump, with Attorney General William P. Barr at his side, announced he was sending armed law enforcing agents from several federal departments to Kansas City (about 200), Chicago (150) and Albuquerque (35) – even though local officials don't want them. Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee, site of the Democratic National Convention, already have been targeted.

But to date, these numbers are bigger as symbols on all sides than on direct effect on dampening protest. Indeed, protests are spreading to Seattle, Austin, Los Angeles and New York – in response to the deployment of agents altogether.

To date, there has been one federal arrest in Kansas City, and 18 criminal charges in Portland, including several for not obeying an agent's command. Whatever arrests are being made are part of normal city policing decisions. Does that sound like federal "domination"?

Now Trump has told Fox News' Sean Hannity on a phone-in that he's willing to send as many as 75,000 federal agents into American cities to quell violent crime. Actually, he started with 50,000-60,000 and upped it to 75,000, adding that "We have to be invited in.

"At some point we'll have to do something much stronger than being invited in," Trump said.

If we have 75,000 border patrol and customs enforcement personnel hanging around with nothing else to do but wait for the chance to don unmarked uniforms, rent plain vans and snatch protesters from the streets of U.S. cities run by Democratic mayors, we have a bigger problem than outbreaks of vandalism at the federal courthouse.

Skirting legalities

The invited-in part is important, because that's what makes it legal, especially since there are no federal buildings under siege in the other cities. But even if you can stomach the idea that the president of the United States believes that he has a personal palace guard to deploy, the numbers he cites are absurd, of course.

Or not. We don't know how far a cornered Trump will go to protect his image.

For example, Trump has never said what we learned from The Intercept, that Homeland Security apparently has ordered aerial surveillance of Americans in Portland, warzone-like, to guide federal agents. The Intercept reports on monitoring twin-engined planes with surveillance equipment from the 645th Aeronautical Engineering Group at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio looping in tight circles above Portland – a deployment well beyond defending a building.

It is beginning to take on more than a scattershot approach to militaristic force from a White House desperate to change the subject from coronavirus deaths, joblessness and protest.

When coupled with his Law & Order campaign ads, his attacks on Joe Biden and his warnings to "suburban housewives," we have an unmistakable campaign thrust of fear. Add in recent moves to block counting of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Census and his defenses of policing in a time of social justice protest over police treatment of Black citizens and you have a good dollop of bias poured on the bias.

Trump's words are divisive, raw, unheeding, misogynistic, racist and wrong.

The question I keep asking myself is why it is so necessary to resort to such tactics. I understand we have a candidate under siege from a pandemic, an economic tsunami and protests against society's institutional ills. But seizing on and exaggerating urban violence as an excuse to muscle presidential troops into place, tear-gassing and making "proactive arrests," as Chad Wolf, acting head of Homeland Security describes the snatching of citizens from the streets, is a drastic move.

So, what these agents do is both ineffective on the one hand, and in likely violation of individuals' civil rights on the other, since a federal court decision is now pending. A federal court did find that Oregon could not pursue its legal plea for the feds to be withdrawn because the judge found the state lacked "standing" in the question.

In Kansas City and elsewhere, it is a mix of FBI and other enforcement agencies in response to a perceived rise in crime because of recent incidents. Kansas City asked for help in solving some unsolved crimes, but not in general policing, and its mayor has joined with others in telling Trump to back off.

The words matter

What are we doing? Is Trump making any point about "domination" in sending 100 agents to quell what he sees as rioting? Or can't he see that these actions are doing more harm than good?

The inanity of talk of sending 75,000 federal agents to police Democratic city streets joins a long list of Trump statements that cannot be backed up and enforced.

The Census announcement has no effective mechanism to identify non-citizens in the count and is being challenged in court. Canceling the Republican National Convention big gatherings in Jacksonville in the middle of pandemic outbreaks had been inevitable to all but Trump from the moment that he had insisted on them a few short weeks ago. Asserting that China is about to settle a huge positive change in the purchase of U.S. agricultural products falls away instead to an ordered closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, a move that has prompted a similar announcement about a forced closure of a U.S. consulate there.

While Trump boasts that no governors or hospitals are going without protective equipment, there are governors who publicly scratch their heads and wonder why they are short. Trump demanded a payroll tax rollback that cannot find enough Republican Senate votes to move forward.

And, after days of deploying agents to Portland, the nightly demonstrations are continuing.

Besides being wrong for the times on so many policy issues, Trump is now being seen as incompetent. If Trump is going to schedule daily announcements, he should have something to say.

Trump might be better off actually scaling what he says to what he can actually deliver.

By Terry H. Schwadron

MORE FROM Terry H. Schwadron

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