- President Trump has marshaled the power of the US government and federal law enforcement to put on a dramatic show of force against the protesters who are marching around the country to protest the death of George Floyd.
- In Washington D.C., where Trump has more power than in an actual state to deploy military forces, the National Guard has patrolled the streets, military helicopters typically seen in war zones have buzzed overhead, and the Border Patrol guards the National Mall.
- Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said Trump appears to be trying to “recapture the dark spirit of Nixon here” in his law-and-order campaign message.
- Trump critics worry that the administration’s moves are more than presidential posturing. “I am deeply worried that as they execute their orders, the members of our military will be co-opted for political purposes,” Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in the Atlantic.
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President Trump has tapped thousands of federal employees to respond to nationwide protests against the death of George Floyd in an unprecedented demonstration of the government’s power as he ramps up his reelection campaign on a pledge to return the country to “law and order.”
On the president’s command, the National Guard patrolled the streets in Washington, D.C. Military aircraft flew over the capitol in a “show of force. Troops dressed in camouflage stood guard on the Lincoln Memorial’s front steps. The Drug Enforcement Administration set up checkpoints. Helicopters typically seen in war zones buzzed the treetops over groups of protesters assembled downtown.
—Zolan Kanno-Youngs (@KannoYoungs) June 2, 2020
Beyond the Beltway, federal law enforcement officials from California to Chicago to Minnesota scoured protests around the country in the search for looters and left wing “antifa” protesters.
It’s been a dramatic and highly visual show of federal force against everyday Americans who in recent days have turned out to protest brutality. Trump’s actions to mobilize the US government has alarmed his critics who see a presidential predilection for military displays and strongmen as yet another sign that he’s willing to ignore decades of norms in order to assert his control.
“I am deeply worried that as they execute their orders, the members of our military will be co-opted for political purposes,” Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in the Atlantic.
On Capitol Hill, House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler labeled the president a “dictator.”
Trump isn’t hiding his playbook either. He pledged on Monday in a Rose Garden speech to mobilize “all available federal resources civilian and military” to end “riots and lawlessness that has spread throughout our country.”
Americans glued to their cell phone and television screens watched Trump’s vow play out in real time as federal police forced protesters away from Lafayette Square with rubber bullets, gas canisters and riot shields so Trump could walk across the park from the White House for a photo-op in front of a damaged church.
—Yamiche Alcindor (@Yamiche) June 1, 2020
It’s a tactic straight out of Richard Nixon’s handbook, said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.
He recalled how civil rights protests gave way to demonstrations against the Vietnam War, and the nation’s 37th president famously vowed to return the nation to “law and order” during his 1968 and 1972 campaigns, the latter of which Nixon won in an overwhelming landslide.
“Trump is hoping to recapture the dark spirit of Nixon here,” Brinkley told Insider. “He’s made a bet that being a tough law and order president is his ticket to re-election. He’s not seeing this as a moment of angst. He’s seeing it as an opportunity.”
An unprecedented show of force
Trump and his top law enforcement officials have seized on the more violent imagery emerging from the protests to justify their actions. The presidential-appointed heads of the Customs and Border Patrol and the Department of Homeland Security described some of the protesters as “rioters” “radicals” “agitators” and “vagrants”, while Attorney General William Barr in public statements labelled them “domestic terrorists.”
With more than 32,000 full-time federal police officers, U.S. marshals, and border patrol agents at its disposal, the Trump administration began marshaling its forces this weekend as protests against the death of Floyd spread from Minneapolis to other major cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.
A post shared by Martha Raddatz (@martharaddatz)
The White House established a “central command center” to respond to the nationwide protests and coordinate with local officials, according to press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. Defense Secretary Mike Esper, Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Barr are overseeing the initiative.
On Monday night, television cameras showed Barr watching the protests near the White House from behind a phalanx of police officers with riot shields. The attorney general, who’s been widely criticized for a series of decisions seen as bending to the president’s will, ordered the police to force out the protesters so Trump could visit the church for the photo opportunity, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday.
As the head of the Justice Department, Barr has issued some of the most forceful statements against the nationwide demonstrations and has advanced the Trump administration’s claim that radical left-wing “antifa” protesters had hijacked the protests.
“The violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly,” he said in a statement on Sunday.
The DOJ also announced that it was working with its network of 56 regional FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces and collaborating with state and local law enforcement across the country, including U.S. Attorney’s offices.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosive sought protesters suspected of arson.
—Marissa J. Lang (@Marissa_Jae) June 2, 2020
The Department of Homeland Security has also had a heavy hand working during the protests. Outside the White House, the Secret Service’s uniformed division deployed to guard the chief executive’s mansion has made several arrests, DHS Secretary Chad Wolf tweeted. The Bureau of Customs and Border Protection has also been “working with law enforcement partners across our nation,” acting commissioner Mark Morgan tweeted on Monday night. A CBP spokesperson told Insider agency had “resources deployed in several states” but declined to name specific ones.
The agency deployed 350 law enforcement personnel to the National Capital Region, which includes parts of Maryland and Virginia, Morgan said in a statement. In a series of tweets, Morgan showcased images of CBP officers patrolling Washington D..C. and cities around the country to protect against “rioters,” “radicals” and “agitators.”
Even the Interior Department has gotten in on the action, with the U.S. Park Police assisting police and Secret Service in containing protests at Lafayette Square and patrolling the monuments that line the National Mall. It’s acting chief on Tuesday issued a statement saying 51 members of its force have been injured over four days of protests, including 14 who went to the hospital.
All told, about 1,200 service members from the D.C. National Guard were deployed around the city, a senior defense official told Insider, with an additional 600 to 800 guard troops requested from other states such as Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio that had either arrived or were on route by Monday.
On Tuesday morning, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said that there were no active duty military personnel currently in the city (the National Guard does not fall under this category).
But the Democratic leader of the city made clear on Tuesday that she had not requested mutual assistance from neighboring states and cities. “I don’t think that the military should be used on the streets of American cities against Americans,” she told reporters. “And I definitely don’t think it should be done for show.”
How far can Trump actually go? We may be about to find out.
The president has not actually ordered active duty military into the states to quell the protests — a power he does have under the Insurrection Act of 1807.
Instead, Trump has used the bully pulpit of his Twitter account to urge states like New York to deploy their own National Guard.
It’s a different situation in Washington D.C., which is not a state and has no governor. There, the president has far more control since the federal government owns much of the land. And Trump is using his power in the 68-square-mile district to create a show of militaristic force that television cameras and social media feeds have been carrying live across the nation 24-hours a day.
Trump’s critics fear the president will overreach with the US military at his command — though there are limits to what they can do to stop him.
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2016, said Tuesday he would introduce an amendment to the annual policy bill setting out US military priorities that would bar Trump from using military force against protesters who are exercising their First Amendment rights.
“I’m going to be pushing to ensure the President can’t treat the US military as his personal palace guard to try to ward off peaceful protests,” he said.
Brinkley said Trump could be “stage acting, holding a Bible in front of a church and talking law and order because he’s running for re-election in 2020.”
But Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics and longtime critic of Trump’s behavior, argued that the president’s actions portended something more serious.
“You may think it’s only a small thing that the military used helicopters to intimidate American civilians in the nation’s capital,” he tweeted. “It’s not. A line was crossed tonight. There will be other lines. This is Trump conditioning them to cross those lines.”
Ryan Pickrell and Darren Samuelsohn contributed to this report.