Washington: For days, as fireworks and tear gas erupted in the streets of Portland, Oregon, during the deployment of federal tactical teams cracking down on raucous demonstrations, President Donald Trump campaigned against protesters he described as “sick and deranged anarchists & agitators” who he said had threatened to leave Portland “burned and beaten to the ground.”
But even as the president was doubling down, Vice-President Mike Pence and other senior administration officials were negotiating an agreement with Oregon’s governor, Kate Brown, to begin withdrawing the federal tactical teams from Portland.
On Wednesday, Brown announced that the federal law enforcement agents guarding the federal courthouse in downtown Portland would begin withdrawing as early as Thursday. “We know where we are headed,” she said. “Complete withdrawal of federal troops from the city and the state.”
Federal officials confirmed an agreement but hedged on the timing, cautioning that a departure would depend on the success of the state’s promise to secure the area.
“Our entire law enforcement presence that was currently in Portland yesterday and the previous week will remain in Portland until we are assured that the courthouse and other federal facilities will no longer be attacked nightly,” Chad F. Wolf, the acting secretary of homeland security, told reporters Wednesday.
Mired in cycle of clashes with demonstrators
The agreement, although still tenuous and framed by political divisions, marked a stark turnaround for an administration that had aggressively defended the presence of the federal forces. Federal agents more prone to investigating drug smugglers than handling demonstrations had come to the city without the support of local leaders and found themselves mired in an endless cycle of clashes with demonstrators who opposed their presence.
While Trump has used images of tactical agents cracking down on protesters in his campaign videos, there was an increasing sense in the administration that the violent scenes of unrest linked to federal agents in Portland could risk becoming a liability, an administration official said. Among the thousands of protesters who had joined demonstrators in recent weeks were a Wall of Moms, nurses in scrubs and military veterans.
The agreement to hand over responsibility to the Oregon State Police represented a tactical retreat from the continuing confrontations while allowing the administration to save face by saying it had accomplished its main objective, the security of federal properties.
“President Trump and his administration have been consistent in our message throughout the violence in Portland: The violent criminal activity directed towards federal properties and law enforcement will not be tolerated,” Wolf said. “State and local leaders must step forward and police their communities.”
Trump casts doubt
Trump cast some doubt Wednesday about the administration’s willingness to leave.
“You hear all sorts of reports about us leaving,” Trump said hours before the announcement of the agreement. “We’re not leaving until they’ve secured their city. We told the governor. We told the mayor. Secure your city. If they don’t secure their city soon, we have no choice. We’re going to have to go in and clean it out.”
Later in the day, the president said on Twitter that Fox News had reported “incorrectly” about what was happening in Portland, though he was not specific. “We are demanding that the Governor & Mayor do their job or we will do it for them,” he wrote.
Officials in Oregon said they still expected the withdrawal to be carried out in the coming days.
State and federal officials had largely not been communicating over the past two weeks as the protests continued to escalate, filling the void with public denouncements of one another.
The move toward a resolution began last week, when Brown reached out to Pence, her closest contact in the White House.
Brown had spent months working with Pence on the coronavirus pandemic, at times pleading for more federal support, but this time she came with a request for less federal involvement, telling him that the deployment of US tactical teams on the streets of Portland needed to end.
After contacting Pence’s office last week, the two had a phone conversation Monday, which led to further conversation with the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, according to Brown and administration officials. Pence also contacted Wolf, letting him know about the possibility of an agreement.
Later that day, Brown met in Portland with officials from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security; she offered the possibility of using the Oregon State Police to help secure the federal buildings.
Advisers to Brown said she acted in order to give the Trump administration “an exit strategy,” as one put it, from an increasingly volatile situation.
First signs of progress
The meeting marked the first substantial progress after weeks of an apparent stalemate.
The deployment of federal law enforcement officers in Portland came as demonstrations there, which were started to protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, persisted through June. With protests boiling around the country, Trump issued an executive order to protect statues and federal property, prompting the Department of Homeland Security to send teams to the federal courthouse in Portland.
The militarised tactical teams that arrived in Portland around the July 4 weekend immediately began to employ aggressive tactics to keep demonstrators away from federal property. One protester was shot in the head with a crowd-control munition, and a Navy veteran was hit repeatedly with a baton as he stood still. In a tactic that was challenged in court by the Oregon attorney general, the federal officers used unmarked vans while arresting protesters.
While the political officials traded insults, some demonstrators turned their frustration to the presence of the tactical teams. The Trump administration defended the deployment by citing a federal statute that allows the homeland security secretary to deputize agents to protect federal property. Those officials can also “conduct investigations” into crimes against the property or federal officers.
But the agents, which included teams from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Marshals, and the Border Patrol’s equivalent of a SWAT team, also pursued protesters through the streets, at times with tear gas, into areas where the courthouse was no longer visible.
The tactics of the agents prompted investigations by the inspectors general for the departments of Homeland Security and Justice. But city and state officials made no progress until this week in ending the deployment.
The weekslong breakdown in communication is especially detrimental to a Homeland Security Department that serves as the conduit between state governments and the Trump administration not just for law enforcement matters, but also for responding to the pandemic and securing the election.
Under the agreement between Brown and Wolf, the governor’s office said the Oregon State Police would provide security for the exterior of the city’s federal courthouse, while the usual team of federal officers that protects the courthouse year-round would continue to provide security for the interior of the building.
The agreement sets up a risky situation for Brown and the Oregon State Police, who will now be tasked with keeping calm at the courthouse. Demonstrations have occurred nightly for more than 60 days, with much of the ire during that time focused on the local Portland Police Bureau.
In an email to State Police officers Wednesday, Superintendent Travis Hampton said he was “very reluctant” to expose his tactical teams to protesters, some of whom may use violent tactics. He called the situation in Portland “dire” but said the community and law enforcement needed the assistance of the state officers.
“They will have the appropriate means to do their jobs and stay as safe as possible - but all eyes of the nation will be on us, particularly when we supplant federal officers at the courthouse in an effort to bring down the protest temperature,” Hampton said. “It is not a stage we wished to be on, but we will do our part for Oregon. We’ll do our best.”