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Chad Wolf defends Trump administration’s Portland protest response

Acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf defended the department's actions in Portland, blaming state and local officials for lack of coordination during protests. (Video: Reuters)

Department of Homeland Security acting secretary Chad Wolf on Thursday defended his handling of the protests in Portland, Ore., and bristled at criticism from his predecessors, telling a Senate panel that former DHS secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff were “dead wrong” when they raised concerns that the Trump administration’s response had gone too far.

Appearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Wolf said DHS officers and agents were deployed to Portland to protect federal buildings from destructive attacks and claimed they did not interfere with peaceful protests. He faulted city and state officials as cutting off cooperation with the Trump administration, including a Portland City Council resolution that directed local police to sever ties with federal authorities.

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“DHS law enforcement officers received almost no assistance from state and local law enforcement in Portland,” he said. “They were left to defend the courthouse besieged by attempts of arson and constant destruction. This circumstance should never have happened.”

After images circulated last month of federal agents in camouflage uniforms using unmarked vehicles to detain protesters, both Ridge and Chertoff — who served under President George W. Bush as the country’s first DHS secretaries — expressed concern that the actions could hurt the department’s reputation.

Wolf said he has spoken to both men since then. “At the end of conversation, they thanked me and said they did not know all the facts,” Wolf told the panel.

President Trump seized on the unrest in the city last month to blast Democrats and to campaign as a law-and-order candidate defending the country against the “anarchy” he said would take hold if his rival, Joe Biden, won the election in November.

Wolf avoided placing blame on any one side or party, even when GOP senators appeared eager to make Democrats responsible for the unrest and to tie the Portland protests to rising crime in other cities.

The acting secretary told the panel that DHS personnel suffered 277 injuries between July 4 and July 31. Several agents might have permanent damage to their eyes from laser pointers that protesters wielded, he said. In addition, Wolf said, 142 officers “have reported receiving minor burns, lacerations, being hit over the head with a sledgehammer, or [having] hearing issues resulting from the fireworks.”

An agreement last week between the Trump administration and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) to replace most of the federal forces with state police has shifted the protests away from the federal courthouse. But Wolf said that the city continues to see violent incidents targeting local police and that the full contingent of DHS personnel will remain on standby in the city.

Republican members of the Senate panel were generally sympathetic in their questions to Wolf, but he was pressed by some of the Democrats, including Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), who asked the DHS chief about the effects of chemical irritants, which federal forces used liberally to disperse crowds.

“There are mothers, including pregnant women, who attend these protests. I would advise you, sir, to consult with medical experts to determine the impact of chemical irritants on pregnant women,” Harris said, raising her voice as Wolf acknowledged he had not done so.

In another exchange, Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) asked Wolf about the administration’s plans to attempt once more to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the administration’s first try was unlawful.

Legal scholars have said the decision requires the DHS to accept new applicants for the program, but Wolf challenged that interpretation.

“In no way did the Supreme Court decision tell the department to process new DACA applicants,” he said. “We’ll continue to process and renew applicants as we’ve done over the past three years,” he added. But he said the administration has “serious concerns” about the legality of the Obama-era program.