Three House committee chairs are demanding that internal Trump administration watchdogs immediately investigate whether the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security have "abused emergency authorities to justify the use of force" against peaceful protesters — concerns that have gained urgency with footage of unidentifiable security officers confronting protesters in Portland, Ore.
"Reports from Oregon this week make clear that this misuse of resources and personnel remains a growing threat," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson and House Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney wrote to DOJ inspector general Michael Horowitz and DHS inspector general Joseph Cuffari.
"Accordingly, we write to request an investigation by your offices into the use of federal law enforcement agencies by the Attorney General and the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security to suppress First Amendment-protected activities in Washington, D.C.; Portland, and other communities across the United States."
The confrontations in Portland are generating national scrutiny as the state's governor and Portland's mayor have asked the federal agents to leave — and been denied. "What they are doing is sharply escalating the situation," Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union. "Their presence here is actually leading to more violence and more vandalism. And it's not helping the situation at all. They're not wanted here."
President Donald Trump on Sunday emphasized he had authorized the federal action in Portland and would likely expand it to other cities he has deemed insufficiently responsive to civil unrest aimed at federal monuments and buildings.
"Look at Portland, where the pols are just fine with 50 days of anarchy," Trump tweeted. "We sent in help. Look at New York, Chicago, Philadelphia. NO!"
In their letter, the Democrats trace allegations of an improper federal crackdown to late May, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers who now stand charged with his murder. On June 1, federal agents stormed Lafayette Square, where a peaceful protest was being staged for police reform, deploying pepper balls and flash bangs and forcibly pushing protesters away from the park, shortly before Trump strode to the nearby St. John's Church for a photo op holding a bible. The federal response included some security officers who weren't wearing identifiers, raising alarms about a potential lack of accountability.
Democrats say Attorney General William Barr orchestrated the crackdown, and they're intent on grilling him about it when he appears before the Judiciary Committee on July 28.
The chairs, though, say the news out of Oregon has elevated the urgency to a new level: "In some cases, citizens could not tell the difference between law enforcement and far-right extremists in the region who wore similar military gear," the said, citing news reports of the confrontations in Portland.
"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 lawmakers added.
"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."