The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Chad Wolf launched a small war in Portland. He’s just getting started.

President Trump and acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf at the White House on April 1 in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

President Trump is a weak man who wants to be a strongman. Ever since the outbreak of the Black Lives Matters protests in May, he has dishonestly depicted the largely peaceful demonstrators as “domestic terrorists” and “anarchists & looters” to justify the use of force to “dominate” them. Trump craves images of chaos on television in the hope that white voters will flock to him for salvation as the “law and order” candidate. (Of course, his concept of “law and order” leaves out the law.) This is an update of his 2018 strategy to terrify his base with hysteria about “caravans” of Central American refugees.

The president is not discouraged that this strategy backfired badly when security forces gassed and clubbed peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square on June 1. This was a breaking point for Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, whose willingness to accommodate Trump had earned him the nickname “Yesper.” Esper suffered stinging blowback after he and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, paraded with Trump across Lafayette Square. Both men then publicly opposed the deployment of active-duty troops to U.S. cities that Trump wanted.

So how is Trump to stage more battles like the one in Lafayette Square? Enter Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of homeland security. His Twitter photo shows him with a five o’clock shadow, aviator sunglasses and the kind of headset used in U.S. military helicopters. If you did not know better, you would think that he is a grizzled combat veteran. But the only combat Wolf has ever seen was in the days when he was a lobbyist fighting for government favors.

Wolf is a typical swamp creature who got his start as a Republican Senate staffer. He was as an assistant administrator at the Transportation Security Administration during the George W. Bush years and parlayed that job into an 11-year gig as a Washington lobbyist. He came back to government in the Trump administration, rising to undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security. In April 2019, Trump fired Kirstjen Nielsen as DHS secretary and has not bothered to nominate a replacement. Wolf is the second acting secretary in a row, having served in that position since November.

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Trump said he favors acting officials because “it gives me more flexibility.” What it really gives him are pliant henchmen such as Wolf who are willing to do anything he wants with no accountability to Congress.

The legality of this arrangement is highly questionable. As my Post colleague Aaron Blake notes: “The Federal Vacancies Reform Act only allows acting officials to serve for 210 days after a vacancy is declared or a new permanent head is nominated and rejected. Wolf has served 251 days.” Yet Wolf has not hesitated to use his dubious authority to launch a small war in Portland, Ore., under the guise of protecting the federal courthouse from protesters.

Esper won’t deploy troops to U.S. cities, but Wolf is happy to deploy federal agents dressed as troops, complete with camouflage uniforms, helmets, M4 rifles and chest rigs for ammunition. The only thing they are missing are name tags, which U.S. troops wear even in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wolf’s model seems to be the “little green men” — soldiers in unmarked uniforms — whom Trump’s favorite foreign leader, Vladimir Putin, deployed to Ukraine and Georgia.

Wolf visited the front lines recently — oh, how brave he is! — and vowed in faux Churchillian fashion: “We will never surrender to violent extremists on my watch.” This has become the rallying cry for federal agents to use batons and tear gas against moms who are peacefully protesting. Even the mayor of Portland was gassed on Wednesday night. Predictably, the heavy-handed federal deployment has exacerbated the situation, leading to nightly confrontations with Wolf’s paramilitaries. Conservatives once denounced “jack-booted government thugs,” but now applaud what is happening in Portland.

Trump and Wolf are just getting started. On July 3, Wolf published an article on a far-right website echoing Trump’s overheated rhetoric about “mobs of violent protesters” targeting statues. “Rest assured,” he wrote, “we will leverage every tool and authority in our arsenal to make sure these landmarks remain intact for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

This pious humbug has become the excuse for the Department of Homeland Security to launch an intelligence-gathering effort, as The Post reported, “to collect information on protesters who threaten to damage or destroy public memorials and statues, regardless of whether they are on federal property.” Shades of the FBI’s notorious domestic-intelligence program in the 1960s, COINTELPRO. This is the administration that cares more about protecting the statues of dead Confederates than it does about protecting living Americans from the coronavirus.

Tom Ridge, a former Republican governor and combat veteran who was the first secretary of DHS, points out that the department was created to battle “global terrorism” — not “to be the president’s personal militia.” But that is what Wolf has turned it into. Like Trump, he is a weak man trying to act strong at the expense of the people he is supposed to serve and protect. He should be impeached even though he was never confirmed in his present position: If he is removed as undersecretary, he can no longer serve as acting secretary.

Read more:

James Comey: Is televised conflict Trump’s goal?

Ruth Marcus: Trump’s agents are sweeping peaceful citizens off the streets. This is not America.

Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman: The Oregon governor wants federal officers out of Portland. Trump officials won’t listen. Why?

The Post’s View: Trump recklessly deploys forces in Portland to distract from the pandemic

Greg Sargent: A protester was shot by police in Oregon. Democrats should demand answers.

Alexandra Petri: Relax! I know I grabbed you off the street, but I’m just a criminal, not a federal agent!