Wolf defends feds in Portland protests, rebuffs former Homeland Security leaders

The acting homeland security secretary appeared before a Senate panel Thursday.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf continued to defend his agency's response to the recent Portland, Oregon, protests, when he appeared before a Senate panel on Thursday. He also blamed local officials for not cooperating, and said criticism from two former homeland security secretaries was unfounded.

Sen. Gary Peters, the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, read out a statement from former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff that indicated "there was no respect for, or coordination with, the wishes of local authorities."

Wolf responded that Chertoff was "dead wrong."

"I don't believe Secretary Chertoff, as well as others who have commented on DHS actions, really understand what is going on in Portland," Wolf said.

Chertoff told ABC News' "Powerhouse Politics" podcast last month that the Trump administration has taken a "belligerent, aggressive tone" with Oregon officials.

Tom Ridge, the country's first homeland security secretary, also criticized Wolf's move to intervene without consent from local authorities.

"Cooperation and assistance our federal officers receive in any other city around the country did not exist in Portland," Wolf told senators on Thursday.

At the height of controversy over the federal response last month, local officials took action to limit the federal footprint. The Portland City Council passed a resolution prohibiting local police officers from coordinating with or working alongside federal agents during the protests.

"Put simply, DHS and DOJ officers -- law enforcement officers, civil law enforcement officers -- were abandoned due to the dangerous policies by local officials," Wolf said.

Unfounded claims that far-left, often militant activists known as antifa are responsible for the unrest seen throughout the summer have underpinned both conspiracy theories and baseless allegations from top Trump administration officials.

Asked on Thursday whether recent protests were specifically coordinated between different cities, Wolf again drew a connection between protesters in Portland and anarchist movements without providing evidence of such coordination.

"We also see violent anarchists specifically trying to burn down a courthouse," he said. "We see antifa on social media promulgating and inspiring others to do more violence in Portland -- organizing. So there's certainly the antifa. We also see Boogaloo -- and ranking member (Peters) mentioned it -- that has been attributed there in Portland as well."

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Portland has not charged protesters for affiliating with antifa or "any specific groups or ideologies," Reuters reported on Tuesday. Experts who study the disparate group say it resembles more of a collective ideology than a formal organization.

In another blow to the government's case against the aggressive protests, a federal court on Thursday ordered the extension of a restraining order on federal agents that prevents them from removing journalists and legal observers from protest areas without evidence of a crime.

"Today's decision affirms that the Trump administration's abuses continue to need to be reined in," said ACLU of Oregon interim Legal Director Kelly Simon.

Lawyers for the government argued the order would result in violent instigators to disguise themselves as journalists. The restrictions were originally focused on local police, was expanded last month and was extended by U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon until Aug. 20.

ABC News' Luke Barr contributed to this report.

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