In the memoir Decision Points, President George W. Bush looked back ruefully on one of his greatest mistakes. No, it wasn’t the war in Iraq. It was his failure to invoke the Insurrection Act and send active military troops into New Orleans during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster.
In retrospect, the troops were needed. Under the Constitution, which offers a “guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government,” most power of public safety lies with governors, mayors, and other local authorities, and presidents do not lightly deploy armed officers on domestic soil. But New Orleans—whose infrastructure was inundated and whose government lacked the wherewithal to save lives in immediate jeopardy—was a perfect example of when the federal government should assert its authority. Instead, Bush and Louisiana’s Democratic governor had disagreed over the intricacies of deploying military forces, slowing the federal response.
In the past week, President Donald Trump has made Bush’s reluctance to overstep his own authority during Katrina seem quaint. Seemingly desperate to goad Democrats into a fight over law and order, the White House has deployed federal law-enforcement agents from the Department of Homeland Security to Portland, Oregon, ostensibly to protect statues on federal property from vandals. Agents from Customs and Border Protection and other branches of DHS are wearing military fatigues, snatching demonstrators from the streets, and even attacking protesters, who by all accounts are peaceful. The Constitution did not contemplate the mobilization of federal assets to fight a war on graffiti. Never having requested the president’s help, local and state politicians in Portland are outraged. Yesterday afternoon, Trump announced an expansion of the program to a number of other cities to “help drive down violent crime.”