That was the gist of the White House press secretary’s Tuesday comments on the controversial and legally suspect scenes in Portland. The White House news briefing was the first since questions have been raised about the constitutionality and appropriateness of law enforcement failing to identify itself during a crackdown.
McEnany offered some very carefully worded and suggestive thoughts about the situation, and it’s worth breaking them down.
First, McEnany did confirm that some personnel are not identifying themselves personally, but she left some important ambiguity about whether they identify their agencies.
“I’ve been told by [the Department of Homeland Security] that there is insignia indicating that they’re law enforcement,” McEnany said. But she added that in some cases they “don’t identify themselves to crowds because it would put them at great risk.”
Notice that McEnany said that the personnel were wearing insignia identifying themselves as law enforcement, but she didn’t say that those insignia identified precisely what kind of law enforcement.
A demonstrator who was recently detained said he was put in an unmarked van by men who did not identify themselves or their agency and later held in a cell and released, without ever being told what he was accused of or charged with a crime. The man, Mark Pettibone, said the men wore only generic “police” patches. His experience echoes other accounts and scenes from videos that have circulated of the clashes and have led to denunciations by civil liberties advocates and libertarians such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
Like McEnany, Customs and Border Protection has said that the “names of the agents were not displayed due to recent doxing incidents against law enforcement personnel who serve and protect our country.”
But that doesn’t explain why the personnel might not even be identified by their employer — which wouldn’t seem to imperil them personally — and McEnany said nothing to dispute that allegation.
At another point in the briefing, McEnany was asked to respond to another high-profile Portland scene captured on video. This one involves a Navy veteran who said he was seeking answers about federal law enforcement’s tactics when he was beaten with a baton. The man, 53-year-old Christopher David, says he has broken bones in his hand. Video shows him standing still before he is pushed back, hit forcefully five times with the baton and sprayed with chemicals directly in his face.
McEnany did not have much to say about the situation, but she did suggest that there was more to it than the video suggested.
“I’m aware of the details of that situation. I haven’t heard the audio of the video, though I’ve seen it,” McEnany said. “And I’d refer you to DHS about the extenuating details.”
McEnany added: “We always encourage the appropriate use of force, and we always also encourage those in the area to remain peaceful towards our law enforcement officers.”
The inclusion of the words “the extenuating details” is conspicuous. Extenuating means something that lessens the seriousness of an offense; McEnany didn’t just indicate that was possible, but she suggested that DHS had such information — without sharing it or elaborating.
Toward the end of the briefing, McEnany bristled at how such scenes were being described in the press. She was asked why the government was engaging in such secretive tactics but hasn’t invoked the Insurrection Act, which allows the federal government to deploy the military and National Guard to quell civil disorder or rebellion.
McEnany notably bristled at the use of the word “secretive.”
“We don’t have secretive operations going on,” she said. “It’s very clear what’s going on in Portland.”
It was just six minutes prior when McEnany had confirmed that law enforcement officers weren’t identifying themselves to crowds. “Secretive” means to decline to disclose information, which is what has happened.
Being a spokesperson often involves massaging language and hinting at something without directly saying it. McEnany’s first briefing about the questionable scenes in Portland certainly included plenty of both.