He said they were under siege, and they looked ready for it.
The officers were wearing masks, the medical kind. They also had flak jackets and helmets and combat boots. About two platoons of federal law enforcement officers from different agencies, clad in different black and green and camo uniforms, stood at attention in the main hall of the federal courthouse that protesters had attempted to firebomb exactly two weeks prior.
Acting Secretary of Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, had quietly made the trip to Portland, Ore., to review the small federal force and to figuratively plant the flag. “If local leaders are not going to step up and have the political will to stop this,” he told RealClearPolitics Thursday night in an exclusive phone interview before addressing the assembly, “then the president’s been clear: The federal government will.”
That is an unwelcome message in a bright blue city, as unwelcome as its author.
Mayor Ted Wheeler said he wished the DHS wasn’t within his city limits. Gov. Kate Brown said the Trump administration was “on a mission to provoke confrontation for political purposes” and that a manufactured clash in Oregon was part of a larger effort “to win political points in Ohio or Iowa.”
But the courthouse is federal property, and federal law enforcement is intent on saving it from suffering the same fate as the police precinct stormed and once occupied in Seattle’s so-called Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. And that has been a struggle. Protesters have toppled barricades, pelted police with rocks, launched mortar-style fireworks against the courthouse walls. Three days after the Fourth of July, between 400 and 500 demonstrators, according to DHS, organized a “night of rage” that ended with an assault on the building and attacks on law enforcement.
“We are not going to abandon this seat of justice here in downtown Portland,” Wolf told RCP, “and have violent anarchists overrun it.”
His tour comes weeks after peaceful protests turned violent in cities across the country, and as the president makes law and order a centerpiece of his culture war campaign for a second term. Portland, with its progressive politics, has become a bit of a battleground.
“We’ve done a great job,” Trump said of the city earlier in the week. “Portland was totally out of control, and they went in, and I guess we have many people right now in jail. We very much quelled it, and if it starts again, we’ll quell it again very easily.”
The federal response, so far, has been limited to federal property. Wolf confirmed, as the president noted to RCP last week in an Oval Office interview, that mayors and governors often balk at federal reinforcements. Wolf said it was no different in Oregon.
“What do you need from the department to help you do your mission?” he said in recounting conversations with Wheeler and Brown before the trip. “I said, ‘I can surge assets, I can surge capabilities, I can do a number of things to support you.’
“And their one answer was, ‘We don’t want any of that, we want you to leave and we want you to take all of your officers with you.’
“I told them that that simply was not going to happen on my watch,” he concluded.
And so early on Thursday morning, the secretary boarded a department jet and flew to the West Coast without an invitation. The situation was fraught before the plane landed — Wolf was warned not to make the trip. He was told that even a member of the president’s own Cabinet might not be safe on the ground in Portland. Of course, the politics of it all were also tense.
“A peaceful protester in Portland was shot in the head by one of Donald Trump’s secret police,” Sen. Ron Wyden tweeted as the secretary’s motorcade made its way to the courthouse. “Now Trump and Chad Wolf are weaponizing the DHS as their own occupying army to provoke violence on the streets of my hometown because they think it plays well with right-wing media.”
After reviewing security around the courthouse perimeter and before a Fox News interview with Sean Hannity, Wolf dismissed those argument as “ridiculous.” And while there is no doubt that getting tough in Portland plays well with the president’s base, the secretary takes pains to steer clear of partisan considerations. He sidestepped political questions to focus instead on the officers preparing to defend the courthouse that night.
“What I think is interesting is, whether it’s a senator or any of the other local or state officials here, what they’re not talking about are the violent individuals that use slingshots to shoot marbles at federal law enforcement officers,” Wolf countered. Another thing he said doesn’t get mentioned enough: “The officer that got hit in the head with a sledgehammer.”
According to the Portland Police Department, that attack occurred on July 11 when federal officers confronted a man trying to break down the door of the courthouse with the aforementioned sledgehammer. One of the officers took a blow to the head and the shoulder in the encounter.
Wolf asked why Wyden and Brown and Wheeler don’t comment more often on that case.
“They’re going to do what they’re going to do,” he said, “but at the end of the day, I think that sends the wrong signal, not only to the people that live in Portland. There’s the vast majority of folks that want this to stop. So, whether they’re pandering to a certain element within their community, I’m not sure.
“But it’s not on the side of law and order,” he added. “It’s certainly not helpful.”
The protester Wyden referenced was standing outside the courthouse holding a speaker in the air as other demonstrators nearby shined laser pointers into the eyes of officers. The incident was caught on video and ended when the protester was hit in the face with what local press described as a round from a less-than-lethal impact weapon. He was later taken to the emergency room.
“I’m going to let that investigation play out; that’s a U.S. Marshal individual,” Wolf said before turning his attention again to the city and state leadership.
“What I would like the local political leadership to do is to actually come out and comment on the violent activities of criminals,” he said. “Instead, they don’t seem to want to comment; they want to put the blame on law enforcement. I just think that has been fundamentally the wrong approach.”
At this point and throughout the interview, Wolf noted that there are peaceful participants in the protests. His concern is not with those who are exercising their First Amendment rights during the day. He said that the federal government has focused its attention instead on those who “show up at midnight dressed in black, bring weapons, have encrypted communications.” Those are the ones, he explained, “acting like anarchist groups.”
The FBI has arrested 21 people since the Fourth of July who have engaged in arson and vandalism and violence. Warrants have been served and more are pending. Wolf added that DHS is working with the Department of Justice to identify those who carry out attacks and “also the individuals who are supporting them, that are funding them.”
It is a task made more difficult by politics. He returned to the local leadership that has not quelled violence in Portland to argue that they “are fostering an environment certainly more conducive to violent anarchists than law enforcement.”
The immediate concern for Wolf on Thursday evening was the Hatfield Courthouse, a sleek and modern structure made of steel and aluminum and glass, and the law enforcement officers guarding that building. His fears extend beyond Portland, and he said that a country “absolutely cannot” continue to exist with anarchists acting with impunity on its streets.
“We are going to see lasting effects on retention and recruitment,” he said of the effort to have “the best individuals” in law enforcement, a segment under intense criticism nationally following George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer.
“Political leaders around the country are sending a signal to say, ‘Do not start your career in law enforcement because I’m going to politicize it. We’re going to come after you. We’re not going to let you do your job,’” Wolf said. “I think that’s very dangerous.”