This is not the first time federal forces have entered a city to restore order. In 1968, federal troops moved into Chicago, Baltimore and Washington in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In 1957, then-President Dwight Eisenhower ordered federal troops to Little Rock, Ark., and then-President John F. Kennedy ordered troops to Oxford, Miss., in 1962.
But what President Donald Trump has done in Portland feels different because it is. In 1968, local officials asked for federal help to restore order because they were unable to protect people and property. In 1957 and 1962, it was nothing less than the supremacy of the United States Supreme Court in declaring the law of the land and the rights of black students to be free of Jim Crow that demanded a federal presence.
At best, what federal troops did in Portland is local police work, which raises constitutional issues, particularly for erstwhile conservatives. As then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist said in 2000, with the agreement of his fellow conservatives, “(W)e can think of no better example of the police power, which the Founders denied the national government and reposed in the states, than the suppression of violent crime and vindication of its victims.”
Which is precisely what Trump and his top defenders, the attorney general and the acting head of Homeland Security, have repeatedly said they were doing, claiming that restoring law and order in the cities is essential to the federal government’s responsibilities.
Most of my colleagues, conservative and liberal, are raising alarms. Conservatives can’t reconcile the power grab with the tenet of limited federal power. Liberals, who hold to a broader view of federal power, worry about how the president has used a pseudo-military array of agencies to suppress dissent in the absence of any clear federal interest.