- President Donald Trump has always thought of federal law-enforcement agents as the president’s own toy soldiers.
- He’s sent them to Portland, Oregon, to arrest protesters, and now he’s threatening to send them to other cities with Democratic mayors and governors.
- Trump’s actions might be unconstitutional, but they’re not illegal.
- A slew of post-9/11 laws and regulations have placed a dangerous amount of authority in the executive branch. Trump is just taking advantage of the system that was handed to him.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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President Donald Trump’s favourite words are “strong” and “powerful.”
Even dating back to the 1990s, he used them to praise the Chinese government’s 1989 massacre of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square as a demonstration of “the power of strength.”
As president it’s become even more clear the words make up his measure of leadership. It’s why he admires dictators and authoritarians, and why he has long encouraged US law enforcement to not worry so much about namby-pamby civil liberties and just get on with the business of letting the people know who’s boss.
And it’s why his use of federal agents to police the streets of Portland, Oregon, is the natural progression to what he views as the power of the presidency.
His threats to do the same to Chicago, Milwaukee, and other cities he dismisses as being run by “liberal Democrats” prove Trump sees this as his best opportunity to demonstrate his “power of strength,” just in time for campaign season.
Portland is just Trump’s excuse to do what he’s always wanted
Vandalism of federal buildings in Portland is the ostensible reason given for the unnerving presence of fatigue-clad federal agents, wearing no badges and some not even identifying which agency they represent, arresting people in unmarked vans and deploying nonlethal – but seriously painful – crowd-control measures like tear gas and rubber bullets.
Trump figured if the local authorities wouldn’t put the boot down, he could order the Department of Homeland Security to take back the streets surrounding federal buildings. He does have the authority to do that under the Insurrection Act of 1807.
Now Trump has found the moment to put his own forces on the ground in cities that will once again vote overwhelmingly against him come November.
He’s wanted to do this for a while. Trump wasn’t even in office for a week in 2017 before he was threatening to “send in the feds” to quell Chicago’s street violence.
He reversed the Obama administration’s directive to stop handing over surplus military equipment – including tanks and grenade launchers – to local police departments simply because they asked for them.
And now DHS has authorised its agents to do intelligence gathering on protesters. A former Bush-administration official told The Washington Post that Trump was “morphing DHS into his private little rogue, secret army.”
Just as the police have grown militarised, both in terms of the availability of weapons of war and seeing themselves as warriors rather than guardians, so too has the Border Patrol, which along with DHS and the US Marshals has been the primary agency acting as Trump’s secret-police force.
Post-9/11 mission creep gave Trump the tools no president should have
James Tomsheck, the Border Patrol’s former head of internal affairs, told The New York Times in 2016 that after 9/11, agents “were assured they were not law enforcement but part of a military agency tasked with securing the border … They came to believe they were not subject to the same constraints as the rest of law enforcement in the United States.”
It’s disturbing enough (as it should be for Trump supporters terrified by the supposed tyranny of mask requirements) that a federal secret-police force is snatching people off the streets. The fact it’s the Border Patrol demonstrates the Homeland Security mission creep that has afforded Trump the powers no president should have.
But there are other powers the federal government has granted itself for decades that similarly allow Trump to impose his will on his hated cities.
Since 1953, the Department of Justice’s regulations give the Border Patrol jurisdiction within 100 miles of America’s borders, including the oceans.
That’s how Portland, even though it’s about 285 miles from the Canadian border and about 1,160 miles from the Mexican border, ends up in Border Patrol territory. The so-called 100-mile zone puts approximately 200 million people, or about two-thirds of the US population, under Border Patrol authority.
That’s why even though Trump’s actions might be unconstitutional, as some legal experts have argued, they’re not technically illegal. And besides, he had promised the Border Patrol – whose union was an early major backer of his 2016 campaign – that he’d remove its handcuffs. The handcuffs, of course, are due process and forbidding excessive force.
Governors and mayors could sue to prevent federal agents from trying to enforce local laws, but barring a judge issuing an injunction, Trump could continue to use his secret police to run roughshod over cities. It’s a little late to make major changes now, but once Trump has vacated the White House we as a country might stand to take a closer look at how much power we place in the executive branch.
As Paul Matzko wrote for the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute’s blog: “CBP’s nascent role as a cut‐rate secret police force that operates at the discretion of the executive branch is merely one manifestation of the creeping, bi‐partisan paramilitarization of the federal government.”
In the meantime, Trump will use his toy soldiers for political purposes. Just as he did when he domestically deployed the military to theatrically “guard” the Southern border.
Trump’s model for governance is the autocratic strongman. He’s never been shy about letting us know that. Now he’s using the powers we’ve handed the presidents over the past half-century to show us what his idea of a “strong, powerful” government looks like in practice.
- Read more:
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- People who claim to be the only ‘real’ Americans are the worst Americans
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