The Trump administration and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) have agreed to something of a cease-fire in their battle over President Trump’s insistence on keeping federal law enforcement in Portland. As so often happens in such situations, Trump’s armies are withdrawing while declaring victory.
But, based one what we know now, it appears Trump’s lieutenants have agreed to something of a climb-down, though it appears local officials have also made concessions.
During an interview, Brown used some interesting language to describe this truce, telling me that Trump’s acting homeland security secretary, Chad Wolf, had agreed to a “phased withdrawal” from the city.
If it seems jarring to hear the phrase “phased withdrawal” being applied to U.S. law enforcement’s actions with regard to an American city, that’s because it is: Those law enforcement battalions have been in Portland in direct defiance of Brown and Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler.
The terms of this cease-fire are somewhat murky. Brown put out a statement earlier saying that federal officers had agreed to “withdraw from Portland.”
But Wolf told reporters that Department of Homeland Security officers in Portland — many of whom appeared to be redeployed from immigration enforcement — would “remain” on standby until they were assured that Oregon State Police had secured the embattled Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse.
When I asked the governor about the discrepancy, she said the agreement is as follows: Those immigration enforcement officers will withdraw from “downtown Portland,” and some federal security officers will remain inside the courthouse, but in “soft uniform.”
“It is a phased withdrawal,” Brown told me. “They’re leaving downtown Portland.”
When I asked where they would be stationed in the interim, per this agreement, Brown reiterated: “They are leaving downtown Portland.”
When I asked Brown when they would be leaving Oregon, she again said: “It is a phased withdrawal.”
So it appears homeland security officers might be temporarily stationed somewhere nearby, giving Wolf a way of claiming he isn’t surrendering, even as they are pulling out of the zone that has been contested so bitterly.
However, Brown was adamant on another core point: She declared that the departure of federal law enforcement constituted the opposite of victory, and, instead, represented a concession that the incursions utterly failed, and indeed considerably exacerbated matters.
Wolf, unsurprisingly, did try to declare victory. He put out a statement claiming Oregon State Police had agreed to “begin securing properties and streets,” as though they hadn’t done so before, and that this agreement was “possible due to the valiant efforts” of his officers over “the past two months.” That’s the tried-and-true tactic of declaring victory and leaving.
But Brown offered a sharply different rendering of events: Trump’s invasion made things substantially worse, and the departure is both an admission of failure and a victory for the rule of law.
“Having federal officers here has brought violence and strife to our community, and, in response, the crowds have increased dramatically,” Brown told me. “It needed to end.”
Brown also countered Wolf in another way: Far from agreeing that Oregon State Police would be carrying out a pacifying role that it wasn’t before — as Wolf insisted — Brown said the emphasis would now be on de-escalating the situation (which Trump’s actions made worse), while simultaneously defending the civil liberties of protesters.
“We will have Oregon state police in charge of protecting free speech,” Brown told me. “They have to be accountable to Oregon law.”
Brown also suggested she hopes Oregon will now treat this as a teachable moment when it comes to systemic racism. De-escalating, she said, will entail getting “more serious about bold reforms to police practices and our justice system,” with a focus on “racial equity.”
The new focus for Oregon state police, Brown insisted, would be to “de-escalate and avoid confrontation.” She added: “They will only use crowd control tactics as a last resort.”
Brown flatly declared that the federal withdrawal was a concession of failure. “They are leaving for a reason,” she said. “Their work here has substantially exacerbated an already challenging situation.”
That is the most plausible reading — that, and the fact that it has become clear that this depraved scheme hasn’t delivered Trump the political dividends he’d hoped for — and is likely backfiring.
The big question has always been what Wolf and Trump actually wanted to accomplish in Portland. Wolf is best seen as Trump’s chief general carrying out the mission of delivering straight to swing-state living rooms the sort of authoritarian TV imagery that thrills Trump, and persuades him he’s winning back frightened white suburbanites and elderly voters.
Wolf, of course, continues to claim his agency’s incursions have been all about protecting federal property. But imagery of violent street clashes has appeared in millions of dollars of Trump campaign advertising, even as the federal incursion continued in spite of clear evidence it was making things worse, not just in Portland but in other cities as well.
That may have been the whole point all along. But it now looks like that mission is getting aborted.
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