Under fire for dispatching federal law enforcement into cities in defiance of local leaders, in part to create TV imagery that sends an authoritarian thrill up President Trump’s leg, top officials are offering several new defenses. All are profoundly weak — which is why senior members of previous Republican administrations are now condemning what’s happening.

One of these is Michael Chertoff, the former director of homeland security under George W. Bush, who said in an interview that the department appears to be overstepping its mission, and that Trump’s threat to send law enforcement into Democrat-run cities is “very problematic” and “very unsettling.”

“In my view, this is damaging to the department,” Chertoff told me. “It undermines the credibility of the department’s principal mission.”

With imagery mounting of militarized law enforcement battling protesters even as Trump threatens to send in more agents while running ads against Joe Biden featuring this exact imagery, Trump’s senior officials must now place a legal and substantive gloss on what’s happening.

So Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of homeland security, is claiming that the law authorizes federal agents to protect federal property — but also to “conduct investigations” of alleged threats to property and officers to the point of detaining protesters far from federal property.

Meanwhile, even as Oregon officials have told Wolf that they oppose his dispatching of law enforcement into Portland, Wolf now insists he’s prepared to “pull my officers out,” but only “if the violence stops,” as if this somehow makes it okay to steamroll local officials’ opposition.

And with Trump threatening to send law enforcement into Chicago, Wolf is claiming that this will be about battling drugs and urban crime. That’s meant to suggest this is not another federal crackdown on protests, as if that validates overruling Chicago officials who oppose this.

Chertoff said that in his view, the Department of Homeland Security — which has put 2,000 agents on standby, many drawn from immigration enforcement — is departing from its mission.

“While it’s appropriate for DHS to protect federal property, that is not an excuse to range more widely in a city and to conduct police operations, particularly if local authorities have not requested federal assistance,” Chertoff told me. “That’s our constitutional system.”

As President Trump threatens to unleash the military on American cities roiled in civil unrest, it's clear that he's embracing his inner Nixon. (The Washington Post)

’Very unsettling'

Chertoff suggested DHS appears to be allowing its mission to shade into “a general roving opportunity to conduct police operations,” rather than keeping it “limited to federal interests,” in defiance of local officials who are being “overruled.”

“Going beyond that, and beginning to operate on the street, raises all kinds of issues under the Constitution’s 10th Amendment, which gives the states police power rights, as well as potentially 1st Amendment issues,” Chertoff continued.

Chertoff added that opposition from local officials also makes this “very problematic.” And he noted that this could result in a lack of coordination between federal and local law enforcement that could “exacerbate the situation.”

And the fact that Trump is explicitly singling out cities “run by Democrats” makes this still worse, Chertoff suggested.

“Essentially, he’s suggesting this is a political maneuver,” Chertoff told me. “As someone who’s spent four years at the department, the idea that people would be suggesting that it’s going to be a tool of political activity is very unsettling.”

“It’s very problematic legally as well as morally,” Chertoff added.

‘The president’s personal militia’

Trump’s next target is Chicago, and The Post reports that homeland security investigators will not play a street-policing role, instead helping investigate gangs. But the mayor of Chicago is not on board.

And as legal experts point out, even if this ends up withstanding legal scrutiny, the use of federal law enforcement in a “domestic policing role” is blurring an important line.

So Tom Ridge, another homeland security secretary under Bush, has also opened fire, noting that DHS’s mission is to protect against “global terrorism” and was “not established to be the president’s personal militia.”

“It would be a cold day in hell before I would consent to a unilateral, uninvited intervention into one of my cities,” Ridge told Michael Smerconish.

The reference to global terror is instructive. After all, critics of the “war on terror” under Bush might point out, as Jamelle Bouie did, that building up a massive militarized force such as DHS has always invited overreaching and authoritarian abuses of the kind we’re seeing now, and that they should prompt a rethink of DHS’s fundamental mission and makeup.

Of course, the fact that two of Bush’s homeland security chiefs — both of whom were involved in prosecuting that war on terror — are now condemning what’s happening might also be read as a sign of how far Trump has strayed into such abuses.

Indeed, it’s worth recalling that only weeks ago, Trump’s authoritarian fever dreams were doused by some of his other top officials. After Trump threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 to send the military into cities, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper distanced himself, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark A. Milley put out a remarkable statement calling on members of the military to remember their commitment to our founding documents and values.

Chertoff suggested to me that DHS officials might ask themselves whether they have a similar duty, now that Trump has turned to them to create the TV imagery he thinks will help him get reelected.

“They stepped back from something that was inappropriate, and said, ‘we’re not going here,’” Chertoff said of Esper and Milley. “And I think that DHS ought to do the same thing.”

Of course, Wolf might not feel any such obligation:

The lack of Senate confirmation is the key there. As Nick Miroff and Matt Zapotosky point out, it’s no accident that unconfirmed officials like Wolf “appear almost daily on cable television to praise Trump’s resolve.”

That’s what Trump wants them to do. But the growing roar of criticism from the other direction may render this new push impossible to sustain.

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Virginia's moratorium on evictions during the pandemic expired on June 23, rattling renters who lost their jobs because of the crisis. (The Washington Post)

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