WASHINGTON (CN) — With Democrats demanding explanations for viral clashes between federal agents and protesters, acting Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Ken Cuccinelli on Tuesday defended his agency’s response to nationwide racial justice demonstrations in cities like Portland.
“While we have to fix the mistakes, we cannot sacrifice the rule of law to do that,” Cuccinelli said, referring to the Department of Homeland Security. “And we do it in tandem with the protection of First Amendment rights.”
Appearing Tuesday afternoon before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Cuccinelli was the latest Trump administration official to defend to Congress the controversial decision to deploy federal agents to protests in cities across the country.
Democrats and civil rights groups have condemned the move, calling it an overreaction that has heightened tensions at what have been mostly peaceful protests against police violence in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
Before federal agents withdrew from the city at the end of last month, Portland was the site of stark images of conflict between protesters and law enforcement from federal agencies including DHS. This has included agents, some of whom were not wearing clear identification, firing tear gas and beating and arresting assembled demonstrators.
But Cuccinelli said the federal personnel in Portland have been faced with continued attacks from small groups of violent agitators attacking the city’s federal courthouse. Raising the specter of the anti-fascist group antifa, Cuccinelli said people taking advantage of peaceful protests have hurled frozen water bottles at agents and wielded lasers to blind them.
He said people have launched fireworks into the courthouse with the aim of starting fires and that approximately 140 officers in Portland have suffered injuries, including days-long blindness from the lasers.
Erin Cox, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas who is working on a task force to prosecute anti-government extremist groups engaged in violence and rioting, said the Justice Department has opened more than 300 domestic terror investigations since May 28.
Democrats have pushed back against the Trump administration’s insistence that the federal agents are mere protectors of the courthouse in Portland, saying their presence and actions in response to otherwise peaceful protests escalated the situation and made it more dangerous.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, in particular questioned Cuccinelli about one video showing a Navy veteran who was beaten by federal law enforcement in Portland, seemingly without provocation.
“It looks very much like a person who is standing very still and being as harmless as he can be,” Whitehouse said of the incident. “And who was alone surrounded by officers. Whose garb is a sweatshirt compared to tactical gear. Who has no weapon compared to pepper spray, mace, whatever they have as well as the batons, and who takes a pretty damned hard beating all things considered. And I think it’s episodes like that that cause legitimate concern.”
Cuccinelli said the incident is being investigated by the agency’s inspector general and Cox said the U.S. Marshals Service is also probing the incident.
Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, raised concerns about the level of training federal agents have received before going into mass demonstrations, particularly after Cuccinelli mentioned that one Immigration and Customs Enforcement unit involved in Portland specializes in prisons.
Beyond Cuccinelli’s testimony, the hearing was dominated by a debate that has raged in recent weeks between Democrats and Republicans over violence and property damage at the protests and where to lay the blame.
Republicans highlighted antifa, a loosely defined left-wing movement, as the prime force of violence. Senator Ted Cruz blasted Democrats for not condemning the group forcefully enough, casting it as an existential threat that has “hijacked” the protests, which he said are legitimate calls for change.
“This shouldn’t be a political game,” the Texas Republican said. “Don’t kill people. Don’t set police cars on fire.”
To Democrats, Republicans have overstated antifa’s involvement in the protests and the threat the group poses while downplaying white supremacist groups that have been implicated in violence at some protests.
“All of this talk about leftist anarchy is just a big deflection from the nationwide call for justice,” Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said at the hearing.
Michael German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program, said pinning clashes with law enforcement on antifa is misleading and can discredit valid protests. Because protests are by their nature disruptive, German said law enforcement can mistake civil disobedience for genuine threats.
“They often mistake civil disobedience for anarchy and bring indiscriminate levels of force to restore their idea of order,” German said.