Acting homeland security secretary faults state officials for Oregon, Wisconsin protest violence

There have been bursts of violence amid racial justice protests this week.

August 30, 2020, 2:15 PM

After bursts of deadly violence erupted amid racial justice protests in Oregon and Wisconsin this past week, the acting chief of the Department of Homeland Security said Sunday that state and local leaders in the two states are standing in the way of federal law enforcement officials.

"If the governor had taken action early on, after day one, day two of some of that violent activity occurring there, we probably -- a lot of this could have been avoided," acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf said on ABC's "This Week," referring to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where three people were shot Tuesday, two fatally, during protests following the shooting of Jacob Blake by police last weekend.

Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, was captured on video in Kenosha armed with a rifle and has been charged with first-degree intentional homicide in the deaths. Another person was killed in Portland, Oregon, on Saturday amid clashes between President Donald Trump's supporters and protesters who have been demonstrating for racial justice equality since George Floyd's death in May. At times throughout the summer, Portland protesters also faced harassment from far-right activists and attempts by the federal government to rein in their activity.

"I think this points to a larger issue that we've seen in Portland for the last three months. And that is local and state officials, not allowing law enforcement to do their job and really to bring this violent activity -- night after night after night -- to a close," Wolf told ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl. "We've asked the governor, we've asked the mayor to step in. They don't have the resources."

Federal law enforcement agents were deployed to the city in July to protect property, including a federal courthouse. The move came against the wishes of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, but despite Wolf's claim, no action was taken to prevent the officers from conducting their work. Local leaders and protesters also argue that the agents, from DHS, the U.S. Marshal Service and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, were antagonistic and amplified the violence and destruction.

"We will be happy to provide resources to bring this violence to an end … across the ideological spectrum left or right, the violence needs to end." Wolf said Sunday, adding a message to local officials, "If you see this activity, take early action, bring law and order to your streets, and we can address and really avoid some of the violent activity that we're seeing."

"Is there a consideration of sending in more federal law enforcement, even in the defiance of local leaders?" Karl asked, with the situations in both cities still unsettled.

"All options continue to be on the table," the acting secretary responded.

Such a law and order message was the centerpiece of Trump's nomination acceptance address, capping the Republican National Convention on Thursday, echoing the themes of national security that dominated much of his 2016 campaign. Given the repetition, in addition to the ongoing protest violence, Karl challenged Wolf on whether Trump has fallen short on his pledges of safety to Americans.

"Did he fail to keep that promise? He said safety was going to be restored beginning on Jan. 20, 2017," Karl asked.

"Absolutely not," Wolf responded. "Again, what we see across cities and across states -- local law enforcement, first line of defense; state law enforcement; and if both of those fail, then obviously the federal government can step in, and we need that -- we need that request from the state governors."

"You need to have some conviction, and you need to bring in (federal) law enforcement to do their job," he said.

Wolf was the subject of criticism Tuesday after a naturalization ceremony he participated in at the White House was later broadcast during the RNC -- one of several instances during the convention in which executive branch officials engaged in political activity, a potential Hatch Act violation.

On "This Week," Karl asked Wolf whether he knew the event would be aired at the convention, leading the acting secretary to describe his involvement as routine and repeat the administration's position that there was no wrongdoing because the non-political citizenship ceremony was pre-recorded and made publicly available, and that the Republican National Committee simply chose to air it during the convention.

"Respectfully, that was not my question. My question was: Did you know when you took part in that ceremony that it was going to be used that night at the Republican convention?" Karl pressed.

"No," Wolf said. "What I knew is, again, participating in a naturalization ceremony -- we had a number of (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) employees there as they do every naturalization ceremony, making sure that that ceremony goes on without a hitch, that we're giving that oath of allegiance to those individuals there. Again we'll continue to do that because that's our mission at the department."

The acting secretary further responded to Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe's decision to suspend in-person briefings on election security and foreign interference to members of Congress, instead transitioning to written reports.

Wolf agreed with the suggestion that the election cycle is at a stage during which increasing amounts of information should be shared, but stated, as Ratcliffe also claimed, that the change was made to combat leaks of sensitive intelligence.

"The Director of National Intelligence deals with classified information, providing that information to Congress. He has seen, I have seen, and others have seen that information leak, time and time again," Wolf said, noting that briefings will continue on unclassified matters.

In a later interview on "This Week," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., responded to the decision, calling it a "complete outrage."

"I think the House is going to have to subpoena the director of intelligence in order to get information, which is crazy," she said. "We are going to have to demand the information to protect our election."