In the course of announcing that “more” federal law enforcement will be descending on cities like Chicago, while hailing enforcement efforts to “grab” people in Portland, Trump quickly segued into a claim about the presidential race.
If Joe Biden gets elected, Trump said, “the whole country would go to hell. And we’re not going to let it go to hell.”
Trump just said it straight from the Oval Office: This is all about Biden.
At around that time, Trump’s eldest son tweeted out a new Trump campaign ad that depicts a terrified elderly woman calling 911 about an intruder, while falsely claiming Biden would defund the police. The political messaging is seamlessly connected to President Trump’s claims about Biden in the White House while announcing the new law enforcement actions.
Trump’s deployment of federal law enforcement into Democratic-led cities is every bit as devoted to manufacturing and sustaining a campaign attack on Biden as his manipulation of national security policy in the Ukraine scandal was. The new ad on Biden — approved by Trump himself — says the corrupt part out loud, just as he did in the White House.
In both these cases, the ads were and are the message, the story that Trump is employing federal national security and law enforcement resources to manufacture into being.
Former official: No operational justification
One way to underscore this point is to ask: What is the operational justification for what Trump is doing right now? Is there one?
Juliette Kayyem, a former senior homeland security official, told me there’s a big tell here: In cases like this, federal officials would ordinarily be trying to coordinate with local officials, precisely because that would make it more likely such efforts would succeed at their stated objective.
In this case, though, they are pursuing the policy in defiance of local officials. We’ve already seen this in Portland, Ore. Now it’s happening again: Homeland security officials are reportedly making plans to send federal law enforcement to Chicago, even though Chicago’s mayor stated unequivocally that she doesn’t want this.
Meanwhile, Trump also named Detroit as a potential future target, even though the city’s mayor and the governor of Michigan both oppose such action. The Department of Homeland Security reportedly has 2,000 law enforcement officials, many drawn from immigration enforcement, on standby for such deployment.
Kayyem noted that it’s “clearly not true” as an empirical matter that civil unrest in these cities necessitates federal law enforcement. This is underscored, she added, by the fact that local officials aren’t even seeking “the deployment of federal assets.”
But, crucially, Kayyem pointed out that doing this without local assent will make it less likely that such operations accomplish their stated goal.
“Even with consent, local, state and federal integration is often very complicated and is sometimes unsuccessful,” Kayyem told me. “Without consent, the federal impact is either going to be insignificant or dangerous.”
The stated justification for going into Chicago is not protests. The plans are reportedly for federal law enforcement to assist against drug trafficking and gangs. But if anything, this further underscores the ad hoc justification here. Why now, particularly since this is in defiance of local officials?
“The administration can’t even get its story straight, showing there is no federal plan,” Kayyem told me. “In Portland, it’s courts and statues. In Chicago, it’s apparently drugs. In other cities, in the words of our president, it’s ‘who knows.’”
The broader point here, as Ryan Goodman and Danielle Schulkin explain, is that the administration is working to develop a “playbook for using federal forces without state consent.” As they note, this may be legally dubious and it certainly strains historical precedent.
Trump’s performative authoritarianism
Beyond this, Trump himself is confirming the truly corrupt nature of what his administration is doing — he himself is demonstrating that there’s no genuine rationale for it other than his reelection needs.
Here again Trump said the damning part out loud. The same president who sent troops to the border as a campaign prop in 2018 has now explicitly said the cities being targeted by law enforcement are “all run by Democrats.” That edges right up to saying this is one of his own stated criteria for making this decision.
Anne Applebaum calls this “performative authoritarianism.” And indeed, the imagery it is creating is already being pushed very hard by his propagandists:
All this is being acknowledged in some media reports with euphemisms such as “the policy closely mirrored the politics.” But that badly undersells what’s really happening here.
Until we hear a serious justification to the contrary, it is clear the policy is entirely about manufacturing imagery that is supposed to sustain Trump’s presidential run. Which is what Trump got impeached for.