Trump turning to law and order platform in a bid to stall Biden surge

President threatens to send federal troops to halt unrest in more Democratic-controlled cities

Federal law enforcement agents disperse crowds in Portland, Oregon. President Donald Trump has threatened to send agents to other major cities – all controlled by Democrats. Photograph: Mason Trinca/The New York Times)

Federal law enforcement agents disperse crowds in Portland, Oregon. President Donald Trump has threatened to send agents to other major cities – all controlled by Democrats. Photograph: Mason Trinca/The New York Times)

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As Donald Trump met with Republican senators in the White House this week to discuss the next coronavirus stimulus bill, his attention turned to an issue that is increasingly preoccupying the US president – law enforcement.

Declaring the city of Portland, Oregon, to be “totally out of control,” he proceeded to name check New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.

“Look at what’s going on. All run by Democrats, all run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by radical left,” he said. “If Biden got in, that would be true for the country. The whole country would go to hell.”

As polls show the US president trailing his presidential rival Joe Biden, Trump is seizing on law enforcement as a key plank of his re-election strategy.

Reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s 1968 election campaign when he ran on a platform of law and order, Trump is casting himself as a president who is tough on crime in a bid to appeal to his core base of conservative voters. This emphasis is being aided by Fox News, which is running nightly coverage of anti-racism protests in Portland and elsewhere.

Two months after the death in police custody of George Floyd, the protests that erupted across the country have largely petered out. In Washington, the giant yellow “Black Lives Matter” mural near the White House still attracts hundreds of visitors each day, but the mass protests that erupted last month have dissipated.

Demonstrations are still taking place in some parts of the country, however, mostly in west coast cities such as Seattle and Portland. Though the police-free autonomous zone established by demonstrators in Seattle was dismantled by authorities earlier this month, an anti-racism protest on Sunday descended into violence, with buildings attacked and officers and protesters injured.

But it is Portland that has seen the peak of the unrest and violence. Earlier this month the Trump administration sent federal troops to the city. Footage quickly emerged of masked troops in camouflage gear patrolling the streets in unmarked vehicles and arresting protesters. One man – a 53-year-old Navy veteran – was attacked and had his hand broken by law enforcement officers on Saturday after approaching them.

The city has hit back. One woman demonstrated early on Sunday morning naked, an eerily serene and vulnerable sight in the midst of the scene of violence and destruction. A group of local women formed a “wall of moms” to protect demonstrators after seeing footage of the unmarked troops on their TV screens.

The Democrat-controlled city has reacted with outrage to the decision by the Trump administration to send in federal troops. Portland’s mayor said it was “sharply escalating the situation,” describing Trump’s move as “abhorrent”.

Federal troops

On Monday, Trump said that the federal personnel had done “a fantastic job”.

The decision – reminiscent of his controversial move to deploy armed federal troops to Washington during the height of the George Floyd protests last month – is rooted in an executive order signed by the president at the end of June, which allows him to send federal officers to cities without the permission of local states in order to protect federal property and statues.

The agents appear to be members of the Department of Homeland Security and the Customs and Border Protection agencies – typically deployed to the border area.

While, technically, presidents have had the power to deploy back-up agents across the country, this has only been done in recent times at the request of local leaders. For example, the governor of California requested federal help during the Los Angeles riots of the early 1990s.

Even defence secretary Mark Esper – who apologised for his participation in Trump’s walk across Lafayette Square in Washington in June to pose with a bible outside a church – said that deploying the military on American soil should be a “last resort”.

The vista of a US president using federal agents to police the country’s own people, in defiance of the desires of local officials, has alarmed many citizens. House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi accused Trump of using Americans as “props”.

“We live in a democracy, not a banana republic,” she said.

In a sharp escalation of the issue, the Trump administration may send more troops to cities, including Chicago. Democratic mayor Lori Lightfoot has reacted with fury, though the controversy has been complicated by the fact that the head of Chicago’s police union wrote to Trump asking for help, describing the mayor as a “complete failure who is either unwilling or unable to maintain law and order”.

Chicago has seen a sharp uptick in gun crime this year, but Lightfoot says that the federal help the city needs is in the area of gun control – not sending troops to the city.

Chicago has long been a bugbear of the president, who owns a hotel in the city.

“Chicago is totally out of control,” he said in 2017. “If they’re not going to solve the problem . . . then we’re going to solve the problem for them.”

In Philadelphia, mayor Jim Kenney, a Democrat, accused Trump of targetting cities led by Democratic mayors – “clearly a politicisation of federal resources that should outrage all taxpayers”.

But Trump’s desire to prove his law and order credentials shows no sign of abating. A new ad released by his campaign shows an elderly white woman trying to call the police as a burglar enters her home, under the words: “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America”.

For Trump, law and order is likely to remain a key theme ahead of November’s presidential election.

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