WASHINGTON — When it comes to states’ rights, President Donald Trump is all over the map.
To battle the coronavirus, he’s told states they’re largely on their own. But when it comes to stamping out protests in cities led by Democrats, Trump is sending in federal troops and agents — even when local leaders are begging him to butt out.
It’s a driven-by-expedience approach that’s been a hallmark of his stormy presidency, one that has little to do with ideology and more to do with reelection efforts.
“After seeing Trump in the White House for three and a half years, anyone expecting to find classical ideological consistency is bound to be mistaken,” said Andrew J. Polsky, a political science professor at Hunter College. “All of this is done for partisan political purposes with an eye toward the election.”
For months now as he’s tried to skirt responsibility for the nation’s flawed response to the coronavirus, Trump has put the onus on states, first to acquire protective gear and testing agents and then to scale testing and contact tracing.
“The federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. You know, we’re not a shipping clerk,” Trump said in March when testing in the U.S. severely lagged behind other countries and governors were pleading for help as they competed against one another on the open market.
Just a month later, Trump flipped to asserting vast executive authority as he pushed states to reopen their economies fast.
“When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total,” he declared in April, in an inaccurate interpretation of the Constitution.
He quickly reversed course, saying he’d leave reopening plans up to the states, but continued to threaten to intervene if he didn’t like what they were doing. Now, he’s pressuring schools to fully reopen in September, saying he’ll pull funding from school districts that continue to keep kids home.
That approach stands in stark contract with Trump’s view of “law and order,” the mantle under which he’s decided to run his 2020 race.
After National Guard troops were deployed to Washington, D.C., to quell protests near the White House following the police killing of George Floyd, the Department of Homeland Security now has agents patrolling Portland, Oregon, to protect federal buildings, despite pleas from the mayor, governor and local activists to leave.
And DHS is poised to deploy about 150 Homeland Security Investigations agents to Chicago to bolster local law enforcement, according to an official with direct knowledge of the plans who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Keep your troops in your own buildings, or have them leave our city,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said Friday.
“We are trying to help Portland, not hurt it,” Trump tweeted in response. “Their leadership has, for months, lost control of the anarchists and agitators. They are missing in action. We must protect Federal property, AND OUR PEOPLE.”
Chad Wolf, the acting DHS secretary, whose agency was created after the Sept. 11 attacks to protect the country from terrorist threats, said Monday on Fox News the agency had every right to protect some 9,000 federal facilities across the country.
“I don’t need invitations by the state, state mayors or state governors to do our job,” Wolf said. “We’re going to do that, whether they like us there or not.”
But Jann Carson, interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, said federal agents dressed in camouflage, indiscriminately using munitions and abducting people in unmarked vans have escalated tensions and made the situation worse.
“What the federal agents are doing in Portland should concern people everywhere in the United States,” she said. “We know that the president is trying to change the narrative (and say) that cities like Portland are in crisis, that he’s got to send in federal agents to bring about law and order, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“He wants to be a law-and-order president,” she said. “But he is not bringing law and order. This is lawlessness and needs to be stopped.”
Oregon’s two U.S. senators and two of its House members have demanded U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Wolf immediately withdraw “these federal paramilitary forces from our state.” And top leaders in the U.S. House said Sunday they’ve called on federal inspectors general to investigate.
Still, Jennifer Selin, an assistant professor of constitutional democracy at the University of Missouri whose work has focused, in part, on the separation of powers, said that, while Trump has been unusually blatant in his efforts, presidents have relied on politicized interpretations of federalism since George Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion over taxes.
Selin pointed to the 1950s and 1960s as the country grappled with the extent to which it should be up to states to integrate schools and allocate housing.
“I think that the short answer is that federalism can be used strategically and politically, which, to be 100% honest, is nothing new,” she said.
Polsky said that, when it comes to the virus, Trump has attempted “to displace responsibility for dealing with the pandemic onto states, onto governors. I don’t think that was driven by ideology. I think that was driven by wanting to keep responsibility as far from him as possible.”
But when it comes to law enforcement, Polsky sees an attempt to stoke “unrest in sites that can then be broadcast on television, at least in the conservative and right-wing media” to rouse the Republican base and scare suburban voters into believing a strong approach is needed.
“It’s selective federalism,” added Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University. “I think obviously when it comes to closing and how to do reopening, he has been incredibly hands-off … he hasn’t used his presidential hand in ways that he could have. And then you have protests in the city of Portland, which really shouldn’t be a center of discussion right now, and then you have these troops being sent.”
“Obviously with President Trump, there’s no logic to it,” Zelizer said — other than what may serve his political interests.