Is it legal to send in federal forces?

Is it legal to send in federal forces
Deploying federal forces have created controversy. Source: Getty Images
5 Min Read

Daily US Times: When protests spread across the US following the death of George Floyd in the hands of Minnesota police, President Trump threatened to send the army or federal forces to end the unrest. Mr Trump repeatedly said he had the power to send in the military if states and cities failed to solve the problem themselves.

Protests have continued in Portland, Oregon, for more than 50 days. The city’s mayor says there are “dozens, if not hundreds, of federal troops” deployed there and they are not welcome.

In response to that, President Trump has said: “Well, it depends on what your definition of ‘troops’ is… we’re sending law enforcement.”

On Monday, Mr Trump criticised a number of cities run by “liberal Democrats”, including New York and Chicago, saying their leaders were afraid to act.

The US President said federal forces sent to Oregon had done a “fantastic job” restoring order amid days of protests in Portland.

Local officials say the federal law enforcement officers are making matters worse.

Trump threatens to send federal officers to more US cities
Trump threatens to send federal officers but state leaders criticised it. Source: Getty Images

State leaders have demanded Mr Trump remove the federal forces from Portland, accusing him of escalating the situation as a political stunt in an election year.

on Monday, speaking at the White House, Mr Trump reiterated his call for law and order.

He said: “We’re sending law enforcement. We can’t let this happen to the cities.”

The agents belong to a new force created by the president to protect federal property. Its personnel are drawn from different federal agencies.

But governors from several states are questioning if the federal government has the authority to send in troops without their permission.

Can the president deploy troops?

The short answer is ‘yes’, the president can do that under certain circumstances.

The federal government has deployed thousands of troops from the National Guard to quell protests on requests from cities or states themselves.

But a US law passed in the 19th Century also lays out circumstances when the federal government can intervene without state authorisation.

The National Guard is an army reserve force. Source: Getty Images

The Insurrection Act says the approval of governors isn’t required when the president determines the situation in a state makes it impossible to enforce US laws, or when citizens’ rights are threatened.

In 1807, the law was passed to allow the president to call out a militia to protect against “hostile incursions of the Indians” – and it was subsequently extended to allow for the use of the US military in domestic disturbances and to protect civil rights.

Another law passed in 1878 requires congressional authorisation for domestic military use. But Robert Chesney, a University of Texas law professor, told the BBC that the Insurrection Act was sufficient legal authority on its own for the president to deploy the army.

“The key point”, says the law expert, “is that it is the president’s determination to make; the governors do not have to request his help.”

However, Mr Trump’s suggestion that he might use the Insurrection Act to stop the unrest following the death of African American George Floyd has previously been questioned by his own defence secretary Mark Esper.

“The option to use active duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations,” Mr Esper said.

Has the law been used before?

The Insurrection Act has been used dozens of times in the past, although not for almost three decades, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Former US President George HW Bush used the law in 1992 during riots in Los Angeles, after the governor of California requested federal help. Since then, the law has not been used.

Federal law enforcement officers, deployed under a new executive order by the administration of US. Source: Reuters

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the law was used during the civil rights era by three different presidents, including when there were objections from state governors.

President Dwight Eisenhower faced objections when he used the law in 1957 to send US troops to Arkansas to control a protest at a school, where white and black children were being taught together.

The use of the law has been rare since the end of the 1960s. Congress amended it in 2006 following Hurricane Katrina in an attempt to make military assistance more effective, but the amendment was repealed after state governors objected to it.

You may read: Trump threatens to send federal officers to more US cities