Trump Portland Federal Police : The NPR Politics Podcast Federal police have been militant in their response to protests in Portland, including detaining people in unmarked vans. In the wake of that controversy, President Trump and his attorney general are touting an increased role for federal officers in combating systemic violence issues elsewhere in the country.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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After Crackdown In Portland, Trump And Barr Tout Federal Police

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CLEA: Hi. I'm Clea (ph). And I'm packing to move to Montana for my first job after graduating from college - working on the 2020 election cycle.

PAT: And I'm Pat (ph), her grandmother, and I'm packing to move into her old bedroom.

CLEA AND PAT: This podcast was recorded at...


2:08 p.m. on July 23.

CLEA: And when you hear it, things may have changed.

PAT: Now here's the show.


MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: That is happening all over the country.

KEITH: The pandemic is leading to all kinds of really interesting housing arrangements and pods and all those things.


KEITH: Hey, there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: I'm Carrie Johnson, national justice correspondent.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KEITH: Last week, Oregon Public Broadcasting broke a big story that federal police were arresting protesters using unmarked vans in Portland. President Trump has since faced intense criticism of his use of federal police to overpower protesters. And the protests in Portland have only gotten bigger and more intense with clashes, tear gas.


KEITH: Now President Trump is promising to send more federal law enforcement officials to other cities across the country.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Today I'm announcing a surge of federal law enforcement into American communities plagued by violent crime. We'll work every single day to restore public safety, protect our nation's children and bring violent perpetrators to justice. We've been doing it, and you've been seeing what's happening all around the country. We've just started this process. And frankly, we have no choice but to get involved.

KEITH: Carrie, my big question here is, what is actually happening?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Two things - the federal government is going to be sending some money to cities, and - maybe more important - it's going to be sending some federal law enforcement officers. These will be people from the Justice Department going to Chicago and Albuquerque - agents from the DEA, the FBI, the ATF and the U.S. Marshals and some Homeland Security officials.

Now, this is a bread-and-butter law enforcement initiative, the kind that both President Trump and President Obama used to do in recent years. And while overall crime is at or near historic lows, some big cities and medium-sized cities here in the U.S. have a big homicide and shooting problem. That's true in Kansas City, where this Operation Legend, as President Trump described it, began earlier this month. And just in Chicago this week alone, there was a big shooting outside a funeral home. Homicides there are up, like, 50% this year. The feds say they want to help Chicago police. Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot is not so sure. She doesn't want secret agents coming into the city. She says she wants partners.

KEITH: So I'm a little confused. And we started out by talking about Portland, Ore. Is this part of the same thing? Is this people without their names on their uniforms coming in and throwing people into vans?

JOHNSON: Not the same thing, to hear Attorney General Bill Barr tell it - for one thing, federal agents and people operating under the auspices of the Justice Department have to file certain guidelines and rules. And Bill Barr, yesterday at the White House, went out of his way to say this is not an operation targeted at protesters. Instead, it's about crime enforcement. It's about trying to cut down on murders and gun crimes and gang violence and the like, not the kind of thing that's attracted so much criticism in Portland.


WILLIAM BARR: This is a different kind of operation, obviously, than the tactical teams we use to defend against riots and mob violence. And we're going to continue to confront mob violence. But the operations we're discussing today are very different. They are classic crime fighting.

JOHNSON: So the attorney general says this is classic crime fighting. Mayors of these mostly Democratic cities are not so sure. They kind of want to do a trust-but-verify situation. They point out that in many cases, they weren't even informed by the Justice Department this was happening. Maybe some Republican elected officials in their cities were, but the mayors in particular were not. And they're distrustful of the Trump administration because, A, it's an election year - or a reelection year, and B, they don't want what happened in Portland to happen to them.

KEITH: Mara, there is, like, a whole heck of a lot of political context here.

LIASSON: Yes, there's a political context. We are in the midst of a reelection campaign where the president has decided to make law and order one of his signature issues. As Carrie explained, this is a pretty bread-and-butter operation. It's something that's not unusual. The president has legal authority to do this, and he's talking about a real problem. Overall crime may be down, but the murder rate in some of these cities is really high. It's legitimate to ask the question, why is he doing it now? - since this has been a problem for the entire time he's been in office. But even though Bill Barr made a very careful distinction between what they're doing in Chicago and Albuquerque, trying to help these governments solve crimes and bring down the murder rate, and the sending federal agents to push back against rioters in places like Portland, the president actually conflated the two yesterday when he talked about - he somehow linked the call to defund the police to the rise in violence in these cities. And there's no evidence that there is a link.


TRUMP: In recent weeks, there has been a radical movement to defund, dismantle and dissolve our police departments. Extreme politicians have joined this anti-police crusade and relentlessly vilified our law enforcement heroes. To look at it from any standpoint, the effort to shut down policing in their own communities has led to a shocking explosion of shootings, killings, murders and heinous crimes of violence. This bloodshed must end. This bloodshed will end.

LIASSON: And don't forget, there's a political risk here, too. What happens if he surges federal agents into these cities and the murder rates do not go down? Does that mean he failed? I mean, one of the things that Donald Trump likes to say is things were out of control. We sent in some troops, some National Guard, and everything cleared up in 24 hours. I fixed it. Only I can fix it. That was his famous promise in 2016. So what happens if the problem doesn't go away?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Well, funny you should say that, Mara, because actually combating violent crime can take years. It's very complicated. There's lots and lots of research on this in Chicago and elsewhere. It's concentrated in small areas, often a few blocks. It's contagious, so it seems to haunt the same communities and the same people. There are lots of public health issues in these places. And it's not like Donald Trump can send in 150 Homeland Security people and 50 agents from the FBI and the DEA and the ATF and by November the murder problem in Chicago is going to be solved. It does not work that way. What federal agents are supposed to do is come in and help build the very biggest cases against the biggest drug kingpins and the biggest gang kingpins, kind of like what you used to see in the TV show "The Wire," and do all that monitoring and surveillance and gun tracing and the like. And that takes a long time, not a few months.

KEITH: Yeah. I mean, it's taken me 10 years to watch "The Wire" all the way through. But...

LIASSON: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: I encourage you to do that. Yeah.

KEITH: All right. We are going to take a quick break, and when we come back, what all this says about the role of Attorney General Bill Barr.

And we are back. And, Carrie, I understand that Attorney General Barr has a long history with the idea of the Justice Department being sort of a law-and-order Justice Department.

JOHNSON: You know, absolutely. Remember that Bill Barr got his start in part by working at the CIA as a very young man. And the last time he ran the Justice Department under President George H.W. Bush, it was the early 1990s when crime was a really big problem. He was reminiscing about that a little bit at the White House yesterday with the launching of some of these kinds of anti-violence task forces for he said the first time in the government, and now he's trying to jump start them all over again all these years later.

One problem the attorney general had, though, yesterday was he went out and said something like, Operation Legend in Kansas City to date has resulted in 200 arrests. Well, the mayor of Kansas City and local law enforcement there say that's wrong. It's been one arrest since the program started this month.

KEITH: So one question that comes up a lot about Attorney General Barr is his seeming political approach to things that - you know, that there's this conception out there that may not be very accurate that the attorney general is supposed to be outside of politics and separate, off in a different realm. And Barr certainly has not been off in a different realm. He's very much been, you know, in line with President Trump.

JOHNSON: He has. He very much has. He has his own views of executive power and the need for a strong president. And Donald Trump happens to agree with him in most respects. Barr gets a lot of criticism now, especially after some of his handling of the Mueller investigation and unraveling or dialing back cases against people like Roger Stone and Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort. But attorneys general in recent history have been kind of political. You know, President Kennedy appointed his brother to be the attorney general.

KEITH: Yeah.

JOHNSON: Eric Holder, who was President Obama's attorney general for most of the Obama administration, once said he was President Obama's wingman. You know, I think it's impossible not to be somewhat political running the Justice Department in the modern era just because the Justice Department handles so many things.

LIASSON: And also, Barr is a much more able defender of the president and kind of better at carrying out his agenda than Jeff Sessions was. Of course, Jeff Sessions got himself in trouble really early on when he recused himself from the Russia investigation and incurred Donald Trump's everlasting ire. But Bill Barr, who, as you said, was attorney general before, he's been much better at it, and he has a real ideological agenda that he is not afraid to express. He gave a speech at Notre Dame where he talked about fighting against the, quote, "militant forces of secularism." And he is a ideological attorney general and a very capable and effective one.

JOHNSON: You know, one of the things that has struck me is at one point when President Trump kept tweeting about what he wanted to happen in some of these Mueller-related criminal cases involving his friends and allies, Bill Barr actually came out and said, please stop tweeting. You're not helping me. In other words, I already know what I'm going to do, and you telling the world what you want me to do is complicating my job.

LIASSON: Do you think he was saying you're making me look like a toady when actually I'm going to carry this stuff out anyway without you telling me? What - how do you interpret that statement?

JOHNSON: You know, I don't know. But the lingering memory for me of yesterday at the White House - I was just watching online; I was not physically present there - is a photo taken by The New York Times photographer Doug Mills. And it was the president and Barr and Barr winking at President Trump after that news conference yesterday. These two men understand each other, and they're simpatico.

KEITH: That's it for today. And we have a new way for you to make this podcast part of your routine - the NPR Politics Daily Workout. It features the daily episode of this show along with songs selected by us, or those of us who actually have good taste, which doesn't usually include me, songs that we listen to when we workout. And, Carrie, your songs were just added today.

JOHNSON: Gen X forever, baby.

LIASSON: (Laughter).

KEITH: You can search for the NPR Politics Daily Workout on Spotify or follow the link in the description of this episode.

I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

JOHNSON: I'm Carrie Johnson, national justice correspondent.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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