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Trump doubles down on plans to send federal law enforcement officers to U.S. cities

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President Trump, claiming that “bloodshed” has hit U.S. cities during weeks of protests over police violence, said Wednesday that he will deploy a “surge of federal law enforcement” to Chicago and Albuquerque, describing them as “American communities plagued by violent crime.”

“We just started this process and, frankly, we have no choice but to get involved,” Trump said, blaming local leaders for “abdicating” their responsibility of policing communities. He claimed federal law enforcement agents would “vigorously charge federal crimes” and threatened years of prison time for those arrested and convicted of crimes.

Trump claimed “hundreds” of federal agents from five different agencies would be deployed to Chicago, following the deployment earlier this month of officers to Portland, Ore. He also announced $61 million in Justice Department grants to hire additional police officers.

“We will never defund the police,” he said. “We will hire more great police.”

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City officials and Democratic leaders denounced Trump’s move, saying that he was conflating two entirely different issues — a rise in homicides in some cities, including Chicago, and protests in others, such as Portland — and laying the groundwork for a militarized federal response that would not help either situation.

Chicago’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, and Illinois Gov. Jay B. Pritzker have both said they oppose the expanded federal presence and have threatened to go to court to try to block it.

Atty. Gen. William Barr also announced that two dozen federal agents will be sent to Albuquerque and that the administration was earmarking nearly $11 million for local law enforcement agencies there to add officers. Hundreds of federal agents already have been sent to Kansas City, Mo., to halt a record rise in violence after the shooting death of a young boy there, he said.

Trump’s escalation marked a continuation of a political strategy by the president, whose low marks from voters for his response to the coronavirus crisis have him on track to lose his bid for reelection, according to numerous polls. As that has happened, he has sought to reorient his campaign around a “law and order” message.

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Citing crime statistics and the names of some victims of violent crime, Trump depicted “lawlessness” across the country. The rhetoric was unusual for an incumbent president months from reelection — never mind one who vowed to end “American carnage” in his inaugural address more than three years ago — although he sought to blame crime on “the radical left.”

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller decried the announcement, saying “there’s no place for Trump’s secret police in our city,” while dismissing the president’s announcement as political theater.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said his city had asked the federal government for “pinpointed” support to help in murder investigations, only to be blindsided by Trump’s announcement Wednesday.

“When I was growing up,” he said, “you all talked a lot about dog whistling,” a phrase referring to coded appeals to racism. “Right now, we have dog barking.”

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Lucas, who is Black, said during an interview on MSNBC that there is no question that his city, along with others in the Midwest, including Chicago and St. Louis, has seen an increase in gun-related homicides in the last year. While he supports federal assistance to stem the tide of violence, he said, he was frustrated by Trump’s politicization of the problem, which obscures the causes of violence, as well as his cynical portrayal of mayors as indifferent to the crime in their communities.

“What I don’t support is trying to conflate protests in Portland to Black Live Matters protests to murders,” he said. “It’s false, it’s separating the country even more” and “it hasn’t helped us in solving murders.”

In recent days, federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshals Service, often traveling in unmarked cars, have rounded up protesters in Portland, where demonstrations in support of police reform and efforts to eradicate systemic racism have taken place nightly.

Although local officials have denounced the presence of federal agents, which they said has only increased the size of the protests, the Trump administration remains defiant. Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said Tuesday that the need to protect the federal courthouse in Portland gives the law enforcement units a legal reason to be there and to arrest demonstrators who threaten violence.

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Wolf, who spoke briefly Wednesday at the White House event announcing the expanded operations, made it clear the mission in Portland — defending federal property — was different from the mission in Chicago “to protect the public from violent crime.”

But the president’s tendency to present both operations as part of a single push against urban violence and his condemnations of “radical,” soft-on-crime Democrats blurs such distinctions, underscoring the politics driving the policy.

Retired Army Gen. Russel Honoré, who led the federal task force coordinating response efforts after Hurricane Katrina, harshly criticized the use of federal law enforcement officers dressed in camouflage in Portland but said he believed additional federal resources, if deployed properly, could help police in Chicago choke off pipelines of drugs and guns that have fueled the city’s crime rate.

“I hope it’s not a repeat of Portland,” he said. “Going out in the streets and snatching people, I don’t see that’s going to have a long shelf life.”

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Illinois’ two U.S. senators, Democrats Richard J. Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, expressed concern about the politics behind the sending of federal agents to Chicago, noting in a joint statement that they sent Trump a letter three years ago suggesting potential steps for eradicating violent crime which he never responded to.

Those suggestions — investing in violence prevention and recidivism programs, enhancing gun safety laws and instituting police reforms — would “be more effective in reducing violence in Chicago than any effort the administration may take to replicate the destabilizing role it played in Portland,” they said.

But while federal incursions into cities are an attention-grabbing if constitutionally dubious extension of federal power, they fit into Trump’s overall strategy of using warnings of violence and barely concealed racial code words in an effort to appeal to white voters.

In recent weeks, he has sought to position himself as a savior of the suburbs, accusing former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, of wanting “to abolish our beautiful and successful suburbs,” and predicting that home values will plummet and crime will rise should Democrats win back the White House in November.

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“People have worked all their lives to get into a community, and now they’re going to watch it go to hell,” Trump said at a White House event last week. “Not going to happen, not while I’m here.”

At the same time, his campaign has put millions of dollars behind a new TV ad in swing states amplifying the president’s fear-based message.

“You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” the narrator intones.

But many political strategists believe that appeal is based on a caricature of suburban areas and voting patterns that is decades out of date.

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“This man is willing to trample norms and law and order to try and save his own political life,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster. “And what’s most disturbing about this is — it’s a losing strategy.”

A recent poll he worked on showed 66% of suburban women in battleground states were more likely to favor a presidential candidate who backs serious police reforms, compared with just 22% of them who would favor a candidate like Trump, who opposes such reforms, Belcher said.

“Historically, it has worked more often than not,” Belcher said of the sort of appeals Trump is making. “But we’re at a different point in this country right now. This is not resonating with suburban white voters. In fact, it’s turning them away. It actually mis-positions [Trump] for reelection, but more broadly it fundamentally mis-positions the Republican Party to win the future.”


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