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Federal Agencies Agree to Withdraw From Portland, With Conditions

2020-07-30 01:27:33

For days, as fireworks and tear gas erupted in the streets of Portland, Ore., during the deployment of federal tactical teams cracking down on raucous demonstrations, President Trump campaigned against protesters he described as “sick and deranged anarchists & agitators” who he said had threatened to leave Portland “burned and beaten to the ground.”

But even as the president was doubling down, Vice President Mike Pence and other senior administration officials were negotiating an agreement with Oregon’s governor, Kate Brown, to begin withdrawing the federal tactical teams from Portland.

On Wednesday, Ms. Brown announced that the federal law enforcement agents guarding the federal courthouse in downtown Portland would begin withdrawing as early as Thursday. “We know where we are headed,” she said. “Complete withdrawal of federal troops from the city and the state.”

Federal officials confirmed an agreement but hedged on the timing, cautioning that a departure would depend on the success of the state’s promise to secure the area.

“Our entire law enforcement presence that was currently in Portland yesterday and the previous week will remain in Portland until we are assured that the courthouse and other federal facilities will no longer be attacked nightly,” Chad F. Wolf, the acting secretary of homeland security, told reporters on Wednesday.

The agreement, although tenuous and framed by political divisions, marked a stark turnaround for an administration that had aggressively defended the presence of the federal forces. Federal agents more prone to investigating drug smugglers than handling demonstrations had come to the city without the support of local leaders and found themselves mired in an endless cycle of clashes with demonstrators who opposed their presence.

While Mr. Trump has used images of tactical agents cracking down on protesters in his campaign videos, there was an increasing sense in the administration that the violent scenes of unrest linked to federal agents in Portland could risk becoming a liability, an administration official said. Among the thousands of protesters who had joined demonstrators in recent weeks were a Wall of Moms, nurses in scrubs and military veterans.

The agreement to hand over responsibility to the Oregon State Police represented a tactical retreat from the continuing confrontations while allowing the administration to save face by saying it had accomplished its main objective, the security of federal properties.

“President Trump and his administration have been consistent in our message throughout the violence in Portland: The violent criminal activity directed towards federal properties and law enforcement will not be tolerated,” Mr. Wolf said. “State and local leaders must step forward and police their communities.”

Mr. Trump cast some doubt on Wednesday about the administration’s willingness to leave.

“You hear all sorts of reports about us leaving,” Mr. Trump said hours before the announcement of the agreement. “We’re not leaving until they’ve secured their city. We told the governor. We told the mayor. Secure your city. If they don’t secure their city soon, we have no choice. We’re going to have to go in and clean it out.”

Later in the day, the president said on Twitter that Fox News had reported “incorrectly” about what was happening in Portland, though he was not specific. “We are demanding that the Governor & Mayor do their job or we will do it for them,” he wrote.

Officials in Oregon said they still expected the withdrawal to be carried out in the coming days.

State and federal officials had largely not been communicating over the past two weeks as the protests continued to escalate, filling the void with public denouncements of one another.

The move toward a resolution began last week, when Ms. Brown reached out to Mr. Pence, her closest contact in the White House.

Ms. Brown had spent months working with Mr. Pence on the coronavirus pandemic, at times pleading for more federal support, but this time she came with a request for less federal involvement, telling him that the deployment of U.S. tactical teams on the streets of Portland needed to end.

After contacting Mr. Pence’s office last week, the two had a phone conversation on Monday, which led to further conversation with the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, according to Ms. Brown and administration officials. Mr. Pence also contacted Mr. Wolf, letting him know about the possibility of an agreement.

Later that day, Ms. Brown met in Portland with officials from the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security; she offered the possibility of using the Oregon State Police to help secure the federal buildings.

Advisers to Ms. Brown said she acted in order to give the Trump administration “an exit strategy,” as one put it, from an increasingly volatile situation. The meeting marked the first substantial progress after weeks of an apparent stalemate.

The deployment of federal law enforcement officers in Portland came as demonstrations there, which were started to protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, persisted through June. With protests boiling around the country, Mr. Trump issued an executive order to protect statues and federal property, prompting the Department of Homeland Security to send teams to the federal courthouse in Portland.

The militarized tactical teams that arrived around the July 4 weekend immediately began to employ aggressive tactics to keep demonstrators away from federal property. One protester was shot in the head with a crowd-control munition, and a Navy veteran was hit repeatedly with a baton as he stood still. In a tactic that was challenged in court by the Oregon attorney general, the federal officers used unmarked vans while arresting protesters.

While the political officials traded insults, some demonstrators turned their frustration to the presence of the tactical teams. The Trump administration defended the deployment by citing a federal statute that allows the homeland security secretary to deputize agents to protect federal property. Those officials can also conduct investigations into crimes against the property or federal officers.

But the agents, which included teams from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Marshals and the Border Patrol’s equivalent of a SWAT team, also pursued protesters through the streets, at times with tear gas, into areas where the courthouse was no longer visible.

The tactics of the agents prompted investigations by the inspectors general for the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice. But city and state officials made no progress until this week in ending the deployment.

The weekslong breakdown in communication is especially detrimental to a Homeland Security Department that serves as the conduit between state governments and the Trump administration not just for law enforcement matters, but also for responding to the pandemic and securing the election.

Michael Chertoff, a former homeland security secretary in the George W. Bush administration, said that while the agreement was a “positive step forward,” the past month of heightened tensions and traded insults should serve as “a wake-up call to the department and the state and locals about the importance of keeping these relationships warm.”

Not doing so can slow the response or make it too aggressive, Mr. Chertoff said.

The announcement of an imminent withdrawal in Portland came a day after officials in Washington State announced the departure of a federal tactical team that had arrived in Seattle last week. Leaders in Seattle have dealt with their own protests, including one over the weekend — in solidarity with Portland — that included protesters burning buildings and breaking windows and local police firing crowd-dispersal weapons.

Under the agreement between Ms. Brown and Mr. Wolf, the governor’s office said the Oregon State Police would provide security for the exterior of the city’s federal courthouse, while the usual team of federal officers that protects the courthouse year-round would continue to provide security for the interior of the building.

The agreement sets up a risky situation for Ms. Brown and the Oregon State Police, who will now be tasked with keeping calm at the courthouse. Demonstrations have occurred nightly for more than 60 days, with much of the ire during that time focused on the local Portland Police Bureau.

In an email to State Police officers on Wednesday, Superintendent Travis Hampton said he was “very reluctant” to expose his tactical teams to protesters, some of whom may use violent tactics. He called the situation in Portland “dire” but said the community and law enforcement needed the assistance of the state officers.

“They will have the appropriate means to do their jobs and stay as safe as possible — but all eyes of the nation will be on us, particularly when we supplant federal officers at the courthouse in an effort to bring down the protest temperature,” Mr. Hampton said. “It is not a stage we wished to be on, but we will do our part for Oregon. We’ll do our best.”

The news of an agreement for withdrawal found a positive reception among some protesters on Wednesday.

Peter Buck, 74, joined the protests after federal agents arrived in Portland, toting a leaf blower to help clear away tear gas. He said he was delighted by the announcement that the agents might leave.

“There’s no way the protesters are going to wear down or get frightened,” Mr. Buck said. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm and it’s going to be amazing if they retreat.”

Mr. Buck, who lives in Washington State, drove to Portland several times to join protests against the federal presence. “The thing that motivated me to go to that city was the idea of sending federal troops against the citizens of this country,” he said.

If the federal agents left Portland, he said, he would support Black Lives Matter events closer to his home, or attend protests in other cities if Mr. Trump deployed federal agents there. “The next place he sends federal troops, I’ll probably go there with my leaf blower,” Mr. Buck said.

Maggie Haberman, Kate Conger and Jonathan Martin contributed reporting.


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