The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s deployment of federal agents in cities has everything to do with his reelection

President Trump delivers remarks on “Operation Legend” at the White house on Wednesday.
President Trump delivers remarks on “Operation Legend” at the White house on Wednesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

ANOTHER DAY, another attempt by President Trump to reframe the election as about anything but his abject failure to contain the most catastrophic public health crisis in a century. This time, the president deploys federal agents to cities genuinely wracked by violence. Yet by justifying the move in inflammatory partisan terms — cities “all run by very liberal Democrats” whose fate under a President Biden would mean “the whole country would go to hell” — he makes clear his real agenda. It has nothing to do with violent crime, and everything to do with his reelection.

The president used a similar playbook days ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, sending 5,200 active-duty troops to the southern border and warning of “an invasion of our country,” meaning a caravan of migrants heading north from Central America. He seemed to forget about it right after Election Day, and the troops began withdrawing a few days later.

A spike in violent crime is a genuine problem in Chicago and Albuquerque, where the deployment of agents under the Justice Department’s direction will begin. But don’t expect Mr. Trump to care or say much about it after the polls close this November.

The president is a wizard at changing the subject. “This will divert from Ivanka,” he said, explaining an incendiary 2018 statement defending the murderous Saudi crown prince, after The Post reported that his daughter had sent hundreds of emails from her personal account to government officials, in violation of federal rules. That account, from former national security adviser John Bolton, has never been contradicted.

In this instance too, diversion is Mr. Trump’s game. He hopes that frightening his white base, by warning them of anarchy in Democratic cities with large minority populations, improves his prospects in the midst of a spiraling pandemic.

Mr. Trump is sending in agents from the FBI; the U.S. Marshals Service; the Drug Enforcement Administration; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as part of Operation Legend, which began recently in Kansas City, Mo. Those agencies already work in many U.S. cities, often in task forces with local law enforcement fighting guns, gangs and drugs.

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It might be unobjectionable, even sensible, if another president of either party announced such a surge in response to a crime wave, and in coordination with local authorities. In this case, there is every reason for skepticism. In Portland, Ore., Mr. Trump sent in scores of ill-trained paramilitary forces, ostensibly to defend federal property against sometimes violent demonstrators, in a small downtown area. They have proved poorly disciplined, overly aggressive and unaccountable — and the president’s conservative allies, who in other circumstances love to warn of government overreach, have cheered.

Mr. Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr insist the Operation Legend agents will be fighting crime, not demonstrators. Maybe. But the obvious political theater behind their deployment should make every American wary.

Read more:

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

James Comey: Is televised conflict Trump’s goal?

Greg Sargent: Trump’s ugly law enforcement crackdown is even alienating Republicans

Dana Milbank: In Trump’s America, the First Amendment protects only those who exercise the Second 

Radley Balko: Police reform begins at Lafayette Square

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