Former Vice President Joe Biden said Tuesday that the Trump administration was deploying Department of Homeland Security officers in Portland without clearly defined goals, even as department officials defended their efforts to eliminate violent protests.
“We have a president who is determined to sow chaos and division,” said Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee to challenge President Donald Trump on Nov. 3. “To make matters worse instead of better.”
Department officials defended their efforts to protect federal property and law enforcement officers, despite clashes with protesters that led to criticism of officers as “stormtroopers” or “the gestapo.”
Chad Wolf, acting secretary of Homeland Security, told reporters that 52 straight nights of violence in Portland necessitated federal officers to protect a federal courthouse downtown.
“These individuals are organized and they have one mission in mind: to burn down or to cause extreme damage to the federal courthouse and to law enforcement officers,” Wolf said.
Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesman, blasted Biden as “siding with criminals” and accused him of being too weak to side with law enforcement officers under siege.
“What Joe Biden calls ‘peaceful protestors’ are actually left-wing anarchists who are assaulting police officers in Portland and, incredibly, Biden is siding with the criminals,” Murtaugh said. “That Biden would accuse law enforcement of ‘stoking the fires of division’ while the mob is literally setting fires to police buildings is unconscionable.”
The Department of Homeland Security deployed Federal Protective Service, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to protect 9,000 federal buildings nationwide.
Richard Cline, deputy director of operations of the Federal Protective Service, said the officers wear police logos in block letters, patches that designate their agency within the department and identifying numbers rather than names because protesters have doxed 38 officers after seeing their names.
Despite their military appearance, Wolf said they are civilian police wearing the camouflage outfits from their routine assignments along the southern border.
“The smear attacks leveled against our officers are disgusting,” Wolf said. “These police officers are not stormtroopers. They are not the gestapo as some have described them. That description is offensive, it’s hyperbolic and it’s dishonest.”
The clashes have spurred calls in the Democratic House to investigate the deployment of federal authorities.
Biden said federal authorities tear-gassed peaceful protesters before Trump walked across Lafayette Square to pose with a Bible for photographs in front of St. John’s Church.
“We all remember the appalling scenes in front of the White House, when peaceful protestors were gassed to make way for a Trump photo op,” Biden said. “We need a president who will bring us together instead of tear us apart, calm instead of inflame, and enforce the law faithfully rather than put his political interests first.”
Since May 28, when protests erupted nationwide following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, Cline said his agency observed 425 demonstrations and 260 attacks nationwide including gunfire, arson and objects thrown through windows at federal facilities nationwide. Two officers were shot in Oakland, Calif., including one who died, Cline said.
In Portland, violent protesters are armed with lasers, baseball bats, fireworks, metal pipes and other weapons, Wolf said. They have destroyed fencing, painted graffiti on buildings, torn plywood from the courthouse and thrown explosive materials inside the courthouse, he said.
“We see them planning their attacks. Yet the city of Portland takes little to no action to stop or disperse this crowd,” Wolf said. “Department law enforcement officers are there to protect a symbol of justice, the courthouse.”
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown have each asked the federal officers to leave the city. But Wolf said they must remain until the violence ends.
“If you did your job from the local perspective, we wouldn’t even be there,” Wolf said. “If you are a violent rioter looking to inflict damage to federal property or law enforcement officers, you need to find another line of work.”
During the previous 24 hours in Portland, Cline said violent protesters blocked streets, tweeted about shutting off a water supply for officers, tore plywood off the courthouse and shined lasers in the eyes of officers. Three officers suffered eye injuries from the lasers, Cline said.
Seven people were arrested overnight, including two charged with assault on federal officers and five for lesser charges such as failure to comply with instructions, Cline said. A total of 43 people have been arrested by federal authorities in Portland, but Cline couldn’t say how many were charged.
Biden acknowledged that federal officers have a duty to protect federal property. But he said the Obama administration, when he served as vice president, protected property “without resorting to these egregious tactics.”
“Now Homeland Security agents — without a clearly defined mandate or authority — are ranging far from federal property, stripped of badges and insignia and identifying markings, to detain people,” Biden said. “They are brutally attacking peaceful protesters, including a U.S. Navy veteran.”
The department’s inspector general is investigating an incident when officers in camouflage outfits detained a man on the street and drove him away in an unmarked car. Wolf welcomed the investigation because he said the officers performed as trained. The officers saw a group of violent protesters approaching and asked the man to come with them to a calmer area for questioning, Wolf said.
“We welcome the inspector general’s review,” Wolf said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Portland protests: Biden said feds ‘sow chaos’ despite effort to end violence