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“I Am Your President of Law and Order”

June 2, 2020

Trump with bible

I don’t think the country has really grasped what happened yesterday. Donald Trump abandoned any pretense of concern about police violence against African-Americans and implicitly cast his lot with white racist forces of this country. And he simultaneously politicized the US military by threatening to use the armed forces as an instrument of his domestic policy. And the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense stood right there next to him as he did it.

Earlier in the day, after a phone call with Vladimir Putin (yes, really!), he had berated state governors over the phone, calling them “fools” if they didn’t use the National Guard to break up protests against police violence in cities across the country. “You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time,” he said. “They’re going to run over you. You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.” Trump said it would be quick and easy, like getting rid of Occupy Wall Street. He put Defense Secretary Esper on the line to talk about the need to “dominate the battlespace”. Trump told the governors, “But you’ve got to arrest people, you have to try people, you have to put them in jail for 10 years, then you’ll never see this stuff again.” At the beginning of the call,  Trump noted that Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was also present and that the president had “just put him in charge” of managing the unrest in dozens of cities. No one in the White House seemed to know exactly what that meant. He also announced that he would “activate” Attorney General William Barr. No one seemed to know what that meant either. (The full audio of the phone call is here.)

Nowhere in the call was there any expression of concern about the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis or other black victims of police violence or of any need for police reform. It was all about coming down hard on violent protesters and making lots of arrests.

Later in the afternoon, the White House set up in the Rose Garden for another Trump appearance before the press corps. There was some speculation that he might take the occasion to say something conciliatory to tamp down the raw emotions across the country, but he used the occasion to double down on his belligerent remarks to the governors. Trump announced that he would send U.S. military units to end the unrest; if mayors and governors didn’t do it, he would do it for them to protect property “and 2nd Amendment rights.” He also revealed that he had deployed military units from Ft. Bragg, NC to police Washington, DC. Then to show he meant business, he had massed federal and military police, including Park Police on horseback, use tear gas, flash bangs, and rubber bullets to chase completely peaceful protesters out of Lafayette Park across the street from the White House so that he could walk one block to boarded-up St. John’s Episcopal Church for a bizarre photo op while holding a Bible awkwardly in his hand. 

Evidently, the administration means to invoke the “Insurrection Act” of 1807 as the authority for deploying US military units against American citizens, even though “Posse Comitatus Act” of 1878 imposes strict limitations on using US military forces for domestic political purposes, including requiring permission from state governors before deploying military units to their states. He apparently started with DC because, not being a state, it has no governor, and therefore is powerless to object. Indeed, according to the NY Times, “an Army Black Hawk helicopter descended to rooftop level in the Chinatown district of Washington on Monday night, kicking up dirt, debris and snapping trees that narrowly missed several people. The military also used Lakota helicopters to perform the maneuver, known as show of force, which is often conducted by low-flying jets in combat zones to scare away insurgents. The crowd quickly dispersed into surrounding blocks. Minutes later, the Black Hawk returned for another pass.”

Trump’s authority to use US military units against its own citizens is highly questionable legally, as well as truly terrifying constitutionally. But in the current climate who is going to stop him? He could almost certainly find a pliant Republican governor, like Brian Kemp of Georgia, to request a deployment. And even if he didn’t, Trump would probably not hesitate to send them himself, just to assert his power. If the past three and a half years have taught us nothing else, he will have no qualms about trampling past norms and practices, and neither the courts nor Congress will deter him.

Indeed, it seems entirely possible that we have now passed some critical turning point and entered unknown territory. The reference to “activating” William Barr certainly means that the US Department of Justice is completely on board, and will do Trump’s bidding. That dog-whistle reference to “2nd Amendment rights” in his Rose Garden remarks is an unmistakable signal to white supremacist militias that they have his approval for vigilantism. If he also has a compliant Department of Defense ready to follow his orders on domestic policy, we are in deep trouble. It is not much of a stretch to imagine that the groundwork is being laid to derail or manipulate the November election if it looks like he might lose.

 

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