Heavily armed US agents on city streets: Can Trump do that?

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Noah Berger

Federal officers use crowd control munitions to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters outside the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on Tuesday, July 21, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration has deployed agents with tactical gear to confront protesters in downtown Portland, Oregon. That has sparked debate over the use of federal power as local and state officials, and many in the community, condemn their tactics and demand they leave. Far from backing down, the administration plans to send agents to Chicago to respond to gun violence. And President Donald Trump says federal agents could be deployed elsewhere as he makes law and order a central element in his struggling reelection campaign.

Some of the issues behind this unconventional, if not unprecedented, use of federal forces:


Protests over the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis have taken place in downtown Portland for more than 50 consecutive days, drawing at times more than 10,000 mostly peaceful demonstrators. A relatively small number of activists has vandalized downtown buildings, including the federal courthouse, and attacked police and federal agents.

Trump issued an executive order June 26 to protect monuments and federal property after protesters tried to remove or destroy statues of people considered racist, including a failed attempt to pull down one of Andrew Jackson near the White House. The Department of Homeland Security dispatched agents to Portland as well as Seattle and Washington, D.C., starting around the Fourth of July weekend.


DHS, which was formed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to improve the nation's response to the threat of international terrorism, oversees some of the largest U.S. law enforcement agencies. That includes the Border Patrol as well as Immigration Customs and Enforcement, which are seeing less of their usual activity because of COVID-19. DHS also oversees the Federal Protective Service, which guards federal buildings along with the U.S. Marshals Service. DHS sent members of the Border Patrol, along with Secret Service officers, Air Marshals and others, to Portland to protect the downtown courthouse complex.