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Tensions between Bowser, Trump reignite as president again raises threat of federal force in D.C.

D.C. police detain a man as they clear the area around Black Lives Matter Plaza on Tuesday. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

An attempt by activists to create an “autonomous zone” outside the White House has reignited tensions between President Trump and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser about who controls D.C. streets.

Tensions had been waning since federal law enforcement gassed and used munitions on a peaceful gathering outside of the White House in early June, with demonstrations mostly peaceful over the past two weeks.

But after basking in the national spotlight — including a shout-out from director Spike Lee — for standing up to Trump and avoiding more clashes, Bowser (D) now faces pressure on two fronts at home.

The president, who has been increasingly critical of the mayor, is demanding aggressive action to remove the “Black House Autonomous Zone” and has already demonstrated he is willing to deploy military and take extraordinary steps to quell civil unrest.

Activists and liberal D.C. Council members, meanwhile, are urging Bowser — who had “Black Lives Matter” painted in the street outside the White House to create a celebratory space for protesters — to show restraint, even as protesters try to take down statues in the city and refuse to leave the street.

More than 100 police officers and a trash truck moved people and tents Tuesday from the autonomous zone, which is modeled after Seattle’s “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone,” where the city had withdrawn police forces and allowed protesters to camp out. The future of the Seattle zone is uncertain after a recent spate of violence. On Monday night, D.C. officers donned riot gear and deployed pepper spray against demonstrators who, police say, assaulted officers.

Trump tweeted Tuesday: “There will never be an ‘Autonomous Zone’ in Washington, D.C., as long as I’m your President. If they try they will be met with serious force!”

FAQ: What is the “Black House Autonomous Zone” and how is D.C. policing it?

The mayor declined to comment on the president’s tweet, but her office said she wanted to keep the plaza safe for demonstrators.

“Our goal at Black Lives Matter Plaza is to ensure that all who visit enjoy it as a place to peacefully reflect, nonviolently demonstrate and proactively strategize,” Kevin Donahue, deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said in a statement. “We will continue to monitor the ways in which we can ensure the Plaza is a welcoming place for all.”

It was the second time this month that the president raised the possibility of deploying federal forces on the streets of Washington to quell unrest normally handled by local police.

During the initial protests after the police killing of George Floyd, the Trump administration considered taking over the D.C. police department, an option it can exert in the District but not in states. The White House backed down after Bowser’s administration vehemently objected.

Asked Tuesday whether the District was taking a hard line on the “autonomous zone” to avoid a police takeover, D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham would only say: “I don’t think the mayor is going to allow anyone to take over the Metropolitan Police Department.”

Mayor Bowser is caught between her support for the police and the marchers’ demands

A city official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive situation, said Bowser wanted the plaza to remain a hub for demonstrations through the summer but needed to clear the tents from H Street NW for safety reasons.

“What you’ve seen over the last few weeks is it has been multiple things to multiple people,” the official said. “What we can’t have is a place that has public safety concerns.”

The 1973 Home Rule Act gave the president the authority to take “emergency control” of the D.C. police for “federal purposes” for up to 48 hours, or for up to 30 days with the oversight of the members of Congress of both parties who supervise the District.

When Trump floated the idea of a federal takeover earlier this month, D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) said he believed the protests would not meet the definition of an “emergency” required by the law.

But that has not been tested in court. Steven Schneebaum, a lawyer who has written about the District’s constitutional status, said Trump could probably federalize the police during these protests if he wanted to.

“Whatever conditions the president considers to be special conditions of an emergency nature, there’s absolutely no guidance” in the statute, Schneebaum said. In other cases, including Trump’s use of an emergency declaration to divert funds to his border wall, “the courts are all saying that the president is given discretionary authority to declare emergencies when he perceives.”

Regardless of whether Trump would attempt a takeover, Bowser is facing criticism from the left for the police response to encampments in the protest zone and to demonstrators who attempted to bring down a statue of former president Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square.

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who leads a committee overseeing the police department, said he was troubled by the city’s approach.

“Coming in full riot gear is something that escalates rather than de-escalates,” Allen said. “We don’t want to be seeing chemical irritants used in a way that escalates tensions, and I think that’s what happened yesterday.”

In early June, Trump floated taking control of D.C. police to quell protests

Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) urged the mayor to sign emergency legislation that would prohibit the use of chemical irritants against protesters — an idea she proposed — in light of police using pepper spray this week.

In an interview Tuesday, Newsham defended the use of pepper spray by officers as self-defense.

“Police officers are 100 percent entitled to defend themselves with less-than-lethal options, like with pepper spray, when their personal safety is in jeopardy,” he said. “Anyone who would take that away from police officers doesn’t have the sense of what it means to be a police officer today.”

Niambi Carter, a Howard University political scientist and author of “American While Black,” said Bowser is under pressure from both White House officials who want her to crack down on the demonstration, and protesters who feel she has not supported their cause despite the acclaim she received for renaming a portion of 16th Street NW “Black Lives Matter Plaza.”

“We can both be proud of those symbolic gestures and critical of the ways that Muriel Bowser has led the city,” Carter said. “The mayor clearly has problems of her own outside of Donald Trump. She needs to figure out how she’s going to answer to her residents.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who has proposed legislation in the past to take away the president’s power to federalize the D.C. police, said she hoped the decision by Bowser and Newsham to remove protesters was not motivated by concern that Trump would otherwise seek to do it with federal force.

“I hope they’re not intimidated by that,” she said of Trump’s tweet. “I hope as long as they are keeping the protests peaceful, they will mark the president’s words as what they usually are, a lot of bluster, and not take them as a command.”

Nevertheless, she said, Trump’s promise to remove local protesters “increases the temperature,” just days before the House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on Norton’s bill proposing D.C. statehood.

The bill is expected to pass the Democratic-majority House on Friday, which would be the first time a chamber of Congress approved a motion for D.C. statehood. As a state, the District would get to elect two senators and a voting member of the House — and would be free from the possibility of the president assuming control of its police force.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said that chamber, where Republicans are in charge, will not bring the bill for a vote.

Peter Hermann contributed to this report.

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