In early June, President Donald Trump threatened that if Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee didn’t quell protests in Seattle, he would.

Then, it seemed like bluster.

Now, after days of violent clashes in Portland between protesters and camouflaged, paramilitary federal agents, and with a similar team of agents waiting on Seattle’s doorstep, it doesn’t.

Trump’s deployment of federal agents in Portland and other cities comes as his foundering reelection campaign increasingly shifts toward a “law and order” theme. The crackdown, in cities whose elected leaders don’t want federal agents, has been promoted by Trump in nakedly partisan terms.

Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Trump said the deployments were targeting spikes of violence in cities “all run by very liberal Democrats” and took shots at Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, claiming if he were elected “the whole country would go to hell.”

His campaign says Biden has “aligned himself” with “violent rioters” in Portland.

“It is frightening that you would use federal agents for political purposes,” Durkan said Friday, pleading with protesters not to “take the bait” of clashing with federal agents. “He is purposefully targeting cities run by Democrats.”

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The federal agents arrive here more than a month after the most hostile clashes between protesters and law enforcement, but also after two nights this week when buildings were vandalized, fires set and officers were injured.

Brian Moran, the U.S. Attorney for Western Washington said Friday that the federal courthouse in downtown Seattle had been vandalized earlier in the week and emphasized the agents “are here to protect federal properties and the important work that occurs in our courthouses and federal buildings.”

Moran called for the local community to “speak with one voice to discourage those who seek to hijack peaceful protests with damage and destruction.”  

The politics of protest

Some supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement fret that the ongoing conflicts will distract from the social justice message which has drawn broad support and massive protests across the United States.

In an op-ed for the Washington Post Thursday, the president of the Portland NAACP chapter, E.D. Mondainé, wrote that clashes there between protesters and federal authorities had become a “white spectacle” and a distraction relished by Trump and his supporters.

“What is happening in Portland is the fuse of a great, racist backlash that the Trump administration is baiting us to light,” Mondainé wrote, urging activists to shift the fight for racial justice to “places where tear gas and rubber bullets and federal agents cannot find us.”

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In Oregon Friday a federal judge dealt Portland officials a blow by denying the state’s request for a temporary restraining order to prevent federal agents from arresting protesters without probable cause and to identify themselves before detaining people. Judge Michael W. Mosman said the state did not have standing in such a case.

In Washington, the state Republican Party is following Trump’s lead, running online ads showing chaotic protest scenes in Seattle and blaring sinister text: “lawlessness, shootings, murder in our streets.”

But the Republican message about “Joe Biden’s America” — illustrated with photos and videos of chaos during Trump’s presidency — has so far not swayed a majority of voters. Biden’s polling lead, both nationally and in swing states, has been wide and consistent.

And at least three recent surveys have found Biden favored on law-and-order issues, including a Washington Post/ABC News poll this month which found Biden trusted more on “crime and public safety” by 50% of adults compared with 41% for Trump.

In this state, Republicans have pointed to a recent poll which shows dissatisfaction with Inslee on issues of police and protesting. The statewide Crosscut Elway poll of 402 registered voters found 62% rating Inslee negatively on those subjects compared with 32% positive.

“I think the voters of Washington state absolutely do not want what is happening in Seattle to be happening in Puyallup and Everett and Issaquah – pick the town,” said Caleb Heimlich, the state GOP chairman, saying Inslee and other Democratic elected leaders have not pushed back against the “radical left” agenda of defunding police departments.

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Heimlich said the state GOP was not clamoring for federal intervention, but for local police to be allowed to keep the peace.

Pollster Stuart Elway cautioned the finding of dissatisfaction with Inslee on policing and protests is ambiguous — as voters in Seattle may be expressing anger about police blasting protesters with tear gas while voters elsewhere could be concerned about looting and lawlessness. “It’s really hard to interpret,” he said.

State Democratic Party chair Tina Podlodowski criticized Trump for “illegally sending federal agents into cities” and then using photos of ensuing violence to boost his campaign. “It would be comical if it weren’t so tragic,” she said.

She predicts voters will care more about the economy and the response to the coronavirus pandemic than clashes between protesters and police in Seattle.

“I think that violence can happen anywhere in any city, in any town, in any rural area at any time,” she said.

Crystal Fincher, a local political consultant who works with Democrats, said Trump has chosen to ignore the pandemic and has instead focused on exacerbating a problem, rather than solving it. And she said it wasn’t just local leaders who didn’t want federal agents here, but local residents.

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“Any parent with a teenager can predict this is not going to have a good outcome, it’s not going to bring peace to the streets,” Fincher said. “If we thought this was actually going to solve an issue there’d be a whole different reaction. Instead people are bracing for this, they’re scared of it.

“They’re creating chaos, they’re sowing division,” she said of the Trump administration. “They think that’s going to play in their favor.”

Nikkita Oliver, a Seattle community leader who’s been at the forefront of recent protests, predicted that it would not.

“I think what the Feds are doing is a miscalculation,” Oliver wrote on Twitter. “They think fear will stop the rise up. But it’s probably gonna radicalize people’s moms, dads, best friends, & lovers as they see their loved ones brutalized by the government. They are just making more of us.”

Marcus Board, an assistant professor of African American studies at Georgetown University, said Democratic mayors are playing their own political game, denouncing Trump when their own police forces have been accused of some of the same tactics and brutality.

“That Democratic line is what a lot of demonstrators are pushing back against,” Board said. “It’s really hard to look at any individual decision that the president makes and make any kind of sense of it; disruption and discord is something that he’s really interested in cultivating.”

After outrage over Seattle police blasting protesters with tear gas and pepper spray, the Seattle City Council banned the use of such weapons. The ban goes into effect Sunday, despite the opposition of Police Chief Carmen Best, who said it will leave officers with fewer crowd-control options.

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Vincent Hutchings, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, said he is reluctant to make definitive predictions, but he’d be surprised if Trump’s law-and-order push will turn around his flagging re-election prospects.

“Do I think it’s possible these instigated conflicts might work to his advantage? It’s possible. But frankly, it looks like the act of a desperate man,” said Hutchings, who specializes in public opinion, elections and African American politics.

Trump’s strategy has widely been compared with Richard Nixon’s 1968 law-and-order campaign, in which he inveighed about a “silent majority” of Americans tired of chaotic scenes of protests. The strategy helped Nixon defeat Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey for the presidency.

But America has changed a lot since then, and Hutchings is skeptical of a replay of the Nixon strategy working this year. The Republican’s 1968 win took place against a backdrop of eight years of Democratic administrations and protests against the escalating Vietnam War.

In addition, Hutchings said, “there is one unavoidable difference between 1968 and 2020 — and that is that the electorate is considerable less white than it was.”

In 1968, Hutchings said, Nixon was appealing to an electorate of about 90% non-Hispanic white people. This year, that percentage is projected to be about 67%, according to the Pew Research Center.

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The political calculations could shift one way or another amid a continuing summer of strife.

In Seattle this weekend, demonstrators have announced plans for marches on Saturday and Sunday in solidarity with Portland and in opposition to the surge in federal forces.

In preparation on Friday, workers were boarding up windows at buildings around the federal courthouse, and giant concrete barriers were erected around the nearby West Precinct of the Seattle Police Department.

Information from The New York Times is included in this report.