Trump is shifting his reelection pitch, and it has frightening implications for the country.

Over the weekend, the federal crackdown in Portland, Oregon continued with people in unmarked camouflage uniforms arresting peaceful protesters and taking them away in unmarked vehicles. And then, they appeared — for now — to let them go.

The administration appears to be constructing a scene of violence and disorder for the news media to show to viewers.

It seems clear that the Trump campaign — which got a new director on July 15 – is going to make its case for reelection on the idea that there is violence in America’s cities that must be addressed with federal force, and that only Trump is willing to do so.

This is an apparent attempt to overshadow the increasingly alarming news about the coronavirus, which is now burning across the country with renewed vigor. Even as Republican governors are backtracking and asking people to wear masks, Trump continues to insist — falsely – that our spiking numbers are because of increased testing and that the virus will eventually disappear.

The footage from Portland shows what looks like a war zone, but the Department of Homeland Security’s own list of the actions of the “violent anarchists” in the city consists of graffiti, torn down fences, and fireworks, all situations the local police insist they can handle.

The mayor, both senators, and the governor of Oregon have all asked for the federal troops to be removed, but the administration refuses. On July 18, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said the protests were winding down before the federal troops came in and escalated the situation.

In a July 19 interview on the Fox News Channel, Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, said that Trump was working with Attorney General William Barr and Acting Department of Homeland Security Chad Wolf to roll out a new plan to “go in” to make sure communities – like Chicago and Milwaukee — across the country are safe. People are assuming that means more federal troops in those – and other – cities, but Meadows did not, in fact, say that explicitly.

The Trump campaign immediately retweeted Meadows’s interview. Trump himself tweeted: “We are trying to help Portland, not hurt it. Their leadership has, for months, lost control of the anarchists and agitators. They are missing in action. We must protect Federal property, AND OUR PEOPLE. These were not merely protesters, these are the real deal!” The argument appears to be that we should not pay attention to the administration’s failure to protect us from coronavirus because it promises now to protect us from “violent anarchists.”

On July 17, The US. Attorney for the District of Oregon, Billy Williams, recognized that the administration’s tactics in Portland had gone too far. He stated: “Based on news accounts circulating that allege federal law enforcement detained two protesters without probable cause, I have requested the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General to open a separate investigation directed specifically at the actions of DHS personnel.”

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum did not wait for an investigation. On July 17, she sued the Department of Homeland Security and the Marshals Service in federal court to try to get a court order to stop federal agents from arresting people in Portland. The complaint blames the federal agents for “the current escalation of fear and violence in downtown Portland.”

On July 19, the chairs of the House Judiciary Committee, the House Homeland Security Committee, and the House Oversight Committee, wrote a letter to the inspectors general of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice asking them to investigate “the Trump Administration’s use of federal law enforcement to violate the rights of our constituents.” They tied the events in Portland to the larger story of the attack on protesters at Lafayette Square in Washington DC, and to the deployment of cold water cannons, pepper spray, and tear gas on those protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline across the Standing Rock Reservation.

But, they noted, they had an even broader concern. “The legal basis for this use of force has never been explained—and, frankly, it is not at all clear that the Attorney General and the Acting Secretary are authorized to deploy federal law enforcement officers in this manner. The Attorney General of the United States does not have unfettered authority to direct thousands of federal law enforcement personnel to arrest and detain American citizens exercising their First Amendment rights. The Acting Secretary appears to be relying on an ill-conceived executive order meant to protect historic statues and monuments as justification for arresting American citizens in the dead of night. The Administration’s insistence on deploying these forces over the objections of state and local authorities suggest that these tactics have little to do with public safety, but more to do with political gamesmanship.”

The letter went on: “This is a matter of utmost urgency. Citizens are concerned that the Administration has deployed a secret police force, not to investigate crimes but to intimidate individuals it views as political adversaries, and that the use of these tactics will proliferate throughout the country. Therefore, we ask that you commence your review of these issues immediately.”

It is not just officials who are objecting to the administration’s authoritarian demonstrations. There was a new force on the Portland streets this weekend: Moms. Dressed in yellow shirts, wearing helmets and masks, several hundred women are forming chains between the officers and the protesters. They call themselves the Wall of Moms, and are chanting: “I don’t see no riot here; take off your riot gear,” and “Feds stay clear, Moms are here!” Officers tear gassed them last night, but they came back tonight in bigger numbers.

Doug Brown

Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics

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