By William McGurn
Something big has changed in Portland, Ore. After weeks of chaos and flames outside the city’s federal courthouse, the past few days have seen the violence subside dramatically. What happened?
Gov. Kate Brown sums up the dominant narrative: “The president’s decision to send federal troops to Portland was a political stunt and it backfired.” Likewise the headline over a Washington Post story that Mayor Ted Wheeler, retweeted this past Friday: “Trump ordered federal forces to quell Portland protests. But the chaos ended as soon as they left.”
They’re right about the sequence. But if protesters are no longer trying to break into or set fire to the federal courthouse, it’s less because federal officers are no longer protecting it than because state and local police finally are. Which suggests a more practical measure for judging the results of Donald Trump’s law-and-order interventions.
In this light, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf applauded the relative calm that now holds but dryly tweeted that “stepping up and doing the right thing should not take 60 days.” Contrary to what the governor has said, moreover, Mr. Wolf emphasizes that the federal law-enforcement officers sent to Portland remain there on reserve and won’t leave until they are confident the courthouse is safe from attack.
This suggests a modest victory for Mr. Trump. True, the expansiveness of his rhetoric can suggest his aim is to assume control over all local police functions in targeted cities. But the reality has been far more limited: In Portland it’s been to protect the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse, while in the cities included in Operation Legend (Kansas City, Mo.; Albuquerque, N.M.; Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee), it’s been to enforce federal law (especially gun laws) and work with local police by adding intelligence and logistics and resources they might not otherwise have.
There’s also a related political message, which has been all but ignored in the coverage. With his interventions the president is telling city residents that there’s nothing inevitable about the rising shootings and mayhem that plague their communities. They are the result of the choice made by too many public officials to wink at chaos. Which may be why the same pols so unwilling to act themselves denounce the federal law-enforcement officers dispatched to help in language far nastier than anything they say about the rioters assaulting people and property.
Look at Seattle. When protesters declared a six-block area neighborhood an autonomous zone—the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, or CHOP—complete with barricades and their own armed security, press accounts described a “street festival” atmosphere and Mayor Jenny Durkan treated it as a lark. “A summer of love,” she called it.
She’s had to eat those words. Seattle’s police commissioner soon made clear she hadn’t agreed with the decision to abandon the area’s precinct house, and CHOP was keeping her cops from responding to reports of rapes and robberies and other lawlessness. Altogether four people were shot and two killed during the summer of love. On June 30, Mayor Durkan finally gave an order and CHOP was cleared.
A week later on Fox News Channel, Sean Hannity asked Mr. Trump if Ms. Durkan finally acted because “they were given notice that if they didn’t act, you were going to.” The president responded, “100%, we were going in, we were going in very soon, we let them know that.” The mayor says she had no such conversation with the president, but he didn’t say the two had spoken directly. And he had certainly made a number of public statements to that effect.
More significant than this he-said-she-said is what actually happened and what it says about the mayor. When Ms. Durkan issued her executive order to shut down CHOP, it took only a single morning to carry it out—which suggest that what had been missing was a lack of will. It invites a hard question: If the mayor had shown some resolve earlier, might those two African-American teens still be alive?
Meanwhile, the Democratic convention is less than two weeks away. Because of restrictions Milwaukee has just placed on police—banning tear gas and pepper spray to control crowds—more than 100 local departments have withdrawn offers to send officers to help. It could prove embarrassing: Will Democrats really want to be seen calling on the feds to protect them after so many Democratic pols have equated them with storm troopers and the Gestapo?
As for Mr. Trump, many compare his law-and-order campaign this year to Richard Nixon’s in 1968. But there’s an operative difference. In 1968 Nixon was the challenger, so all he had to do was criticize.
As the incumbent, Mr. Trump needs to make good on his promise of restoring order or risk looking weak and incapable. The best way to do that is to make clear that the ultimate goal of his federal interventions is both modest and effective, by doing what he’s now done in Portland—getting mayors and governors to do their jobs.