July 20 (UPI) -- Democratic congressional leaders have called for an investigation into the legality of the Trump administration's use of federal law enforcement officers during protests following reports of abusive practices being deployed against demonstrators in Portland.
In a letter to the inspectors general of the Justice and Homeland Security Departments on Sunday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson and Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney urged for an investigation to be opened into reports Trump administration officials have abused emergency authorities to prevent Americans from exercising their right to peaceful assembly.
"We write to request an investigation by your offices into the use of federal law enforcement agencies by the attorney general and the acting secretary of Homeland Security to suppress First Amendment-protected activities in Washington, D.C., Portland and other communities across the United States," the three Democratic congressional leaders said in the letter.
The call follows reports that federal officers have been using unmarked vehicles to snatch protesters from the streets without explanation amid escalating protests against police brutality and racial inequality in Portland that began six weeks ago, sparked by the police-involved killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May.
The three Democrats accused Attorney General William Barr and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf of abusing an executive order President Donald Trump signed on June 26 to protect statues as justification for the arrests.
Wolf, in a statement on Thursday, chastised local and state leaders of failing in their response to the protests in Portland, urging them to accept his offer of assistance.
"DHS will not abdicate its solemn duty to protect federal facilities and those within them," he said.
In a statement on Friday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said agents were deployed to Portland in support of that executive order as "violent anarchists" have organized in the city "with willful intent to damage and destroy federal property as well as injure federal officers and agents."
On Saturday, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum announced the state is suing federal law enforcement agencies over their officers' alleged seizure and detainment of residents without probable cause and excessive force.
The Democratic leaders wrote Sunday that Barr "does not have unfettered authority" to direct federal law enforcement agents to arrest and detain Americans exercising their First Amendment rights and that Wolf appears to be relying on Trump's executive order intended to protect statues as justification "for arresting American citizens in the dead of night."
"The administration's insistence on deploying these forces over the objections of state and local authorities suggest that these tactics have little to do with public safety but more to do with political gamesmanship," they wrote.
The Democrats also accused the Trump administration of abusing its power on June 1 when horse-mounted federal agents used chemical agents, smoke and rubber bullets to disperse a crowd of peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square near the White House in Washington, D.C., so the president could take a photo holding his bible in front of a church.
Trump defended his administration's actions in Portland on Sunday, saying "we are trying to help Portland, not hurt it."
"Their leadership has, for months, lost control of the anarchists and agitators," he tweeted. "They are missing in action. We must protect federal property, AND OUR PEOPLE. These were not merely protesters, these are the real deal!"