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DHS Defends Federal Presence in Portland to Quell ‘Assaults by Criminals and Violent Extremists’

‘Rioters are not protestors and protestors are not rioters,’ said DHS Acting Deputy Secretary

Acting Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Ken Cuccinelli on Tuesday defended the federal response to unrest in Portland, Oregon, saying that what officers faced there “was nothing less than a violent mob.”

Federal security forces were sent to Portland in early July to protect federal buildings that were vandalized during weeks of protests against racism and police brutality following the death of George Floyd. Their deployment, which was criticized by the governor of Oregon and Portland’s mayor, both Democrats, was met with violence.

“Since July 4 of this year, there have been over 270 injuries to federal law enforcement officers in Portland at the hands of violent anarchists hell-bent on assaults and destruction,” Cuccinelli said in prepared remarks as he testified at a Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution hearing on Capitol Hill. Cuccinelli characterized the federal presence in Portland as protecting federal assets against “the continued assaults by criminals and violent extremists.”

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Ken Cuccinelli, Acting Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, testifies on Capitol Hill, in Washington, on March 11, 2020. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In particular, the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse in downtown Portland has become a nightly battleground, with federal officers and protesters clashing in bloody confrontations. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sent assets to the city to help protect the courthouse and other federal properties, eventually erecting a fence around the building that has mostly kept rioters at bay.

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A Department of Homeland Security officer emerges from the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse after demonstrators lit a fire in Portland, Ore., on Aug. 2, 2020. (Noah Berger/AP Photo)

Sen Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), asked Cuccinelli during Tuesday’s hearing, “If we’d done nothing, what would have happened to the courthouse, Mr. Cuccinelli, in Portland?”

“That courthouse wouldn’t be there in any function,” Cuccinelli replied.

“I challenge anybody on the other side to say different,” Graham said, adding, “If we hadn’t intervened they’d have burned the [expletive] thing down.”

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An Oregon State Police officer, right, stands watch as officers extinguish a fire lit by protesters behind the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Ore., on Aug. 2, 2020. (Noah Berger/AP Photo)

Cuccinelli insisted that the Department supports the rights of peaceful protesters to assemble and voice their concerns but he disputed the characterization of those taking part in violent attacks as “protesters.”

“It is important to be crystal clear about this: Rioters are not protestors and protestors are not rioters,” Cuccinelli said. “To confuse the two, regardless of motive, does a grave disservice to the critical place for peaceful protest in our country and it does a grave disservice to our country’s brave law enforcement officers who protect those rights.”

Rioters, Cuccinelli said, have “assaulted federal property, federal officers, local law enforcement personnel and facilities with hammers, lasers, baseball bats, fireworks, Molotov cocktails, chemicals, and other weapons.”

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Portland police officers pursue a crowd of about 200 after forcing the group to disperse from a law enforcement precinct in Portland, Ore., late Aug. 1, 2020. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

Graham called on his Democrat colleagues to help ensure that anyone attacking federal officers or local law enforcement is brought to justice.

“I’m going to be watching really hard whether or not the people who attack our officers are prosecuted,” Graham said. “I think most Americans are probably where I’m at—if a cop is going overboard, we want to know about it and take corrective action. But I think most Americans want to make sure that somebody who throws a brick or throws a bottle of water or anything else at a police officer, that they have their day in court, too.”

Cuccinelli said DHS would continue its deployment in line with its mission regardless of politically-motivated opposition.

“We remain disappointed that select federal, state, and local leaders prefer to demonize law enforcement while kowtowing to violent criminals who set fire to our cities, destroy local businesses, and target law enforcement officers for harm or even death,” he said.

“This country cannot survive allowing mob rule to replace the rule of law,” he said, adding, “those hurling Molotov cocktails and explosives in Portland are not just attacking a federal Courthouse. They are attacking the very foundation that makes the enjoyment of our natural rights possible—the rule of law itself.”

The DHS, in an Aug. 3 statement, said that after weeks of rioting and nightly violence, activity near the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse “continues in an overall trend of diminishing violence,” with Sunday marking the first night in over 60 days during which rioters did not attack federal property.

The Department attributed this trend to greater cooperation between federal, state, and local law enforcement.