WASHINGTON >> Having railed for months against protesters he depicts as violent Marxist anarchists, Sen. Ted Cruz led a hearing Tuesday that exposed a deep schism between Republicans impatient with unrest in U.S. cities and Democrats who see heavy-handed police tactics as a far bigger threat.
As the Texan painted Democrats as antifa sympathizers, they hit back, condemning him for stoking irrational fears and giving cover to a president with an authoritarian streak.
Cruz called the hearing to put a spotlight on the antifa and the Black Lives Matter movements, groups President Donald Trump blames for endangering law enforcement in the guise of protesting racism and police brutality.
But this was as much a political skirmish as a fact-finding hearing about those groups.
Cruz repeatedly accused Democrats of demonizing federal law enforcement as “storm troopers and Gestapo.”
“Elected Democrats want to ignore the violence of antifa. They want to ignore the violence on the left and they just scream ‘white supremacist, white supremacist,’” he insisted.
Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat whose hometown of Portland has been the epicenter of clashes between protesters and police for two months, decried “the president’s enablers” — an obvious reference to Cruz — who pump up anxiety about mobs and anarchists while offering little concern about the “heavily armed secret police who snatched Portlanders off the streets.”
“I agree there’s a serious danger to American constitutional rights at this moment in history,” Wyden said, “and it’s caused to a great extent by the president and his enablers who are calling peaceful protesters anarchists and terrorists, and sending paramilitary forces into American cities.”
Protests erupted nationwide after the May 25 police killing of George Floyd, a black suspect who died after an officer pinned his neck to the ground with a kneed for nearly nine minutes.
Tensions quickly escalated and on June 1, federal police used tear gas, flash bangs and other tactics to clear Lafayette Square Park outside the White House, where thousands had gathered to protest police brutality and racism. Trump then strode through the park, posing for photos outside historic St. John’s Church while holding a Bible.
Accusing mayors in Portland and other cities of weakness, Trump has threatened to send in troops, and has deployed camouflage-uniformed federal officers from the Bureau of Prisons and Department of Homeland Security.
“There was no anarchist violence in Lafayette Square. The only ones using force were federal law enforcement,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary subcommittee that Cruz chairs. “If this subcommittee wants to protect Americans’ right to peacefully assemble, we should be focused on preventing federal officers from beating up protesters, tear gassing them, and shooting them in the face.”
She called the hearing an effort to deflect attention from systemic racial injustice. “President Trump is deliberately trying to undermine the massive protests for racial justice by dismissing them as anarchists.”
The culture clash persisted throughout the three-hour hearing.
Cruz and allied witnesses promoted a vision of America and its police agencies under siege by anti-government radicals.
Democrats and their witnesses blamed right-wing provocateurs and an overly aggressive federal response for violence.
Cruz displayed video showing protesters attacking law enforcement.
Democrats countered with footage of protesters being beaten without provocation by officers, or detained by camouflage-clad federal agents driving unmarked cars.
Throughout, Cruz needled his adversaries.
“Not a single Democratic senator condemned antifa. Not a one of them condemned antifa’s violence and terrorism,” he said as the hearing neared the end.
By then, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the deputy Democratic leader, among others, had offered condolences for police injured or killed in the line of duty, and explicitly denounced any form of violence by protesters: “Neither violence or vandalism are acceptable in the exercise of one’s constitutional rights.”
Hirono took umbrage at Cruz’s insinuations and dressed him down for posturing and poor listening skills.
“No one is condoning any violence,” she said. “I don’t think you listen. How many times have I had to say that we all should be denouncing violent extremists? You aren’t listening.
“I hope that we don’t have to listen to any more of your rhetorical speeches,” she said. “I’m leaving.”
For several months, Cruz has been at the forefront of the GOP effort to discredit antifa and Black Lives Matter. In July, he introduced a bill to let business owners and others sue local governments for property damage if they fail to stop riots.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, another Oregon Democrat, displayed a photo of right-wing militia dressed in camouflage and below it, a photo of federal agents in nearly identical gear, echoing complaints from protesters and local officials about unidentifiable, unaccountable federal forces.
“These features —officers with no identity attacking protesters, sweeping some into unmarked vans, are the features of secret police tactics from around the world. I never thought an American president would be bringing such tactics to the streets of America. But Trump has,” he said. “Using secret police tactics against peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters doesn’t make him a defender of law and order. It makes him a violent suppressor.”
Cruz defended the use of unmarked vehicles, noting that during some riots, marked police vehicles have been firebombed.
“We have no secret police,” testified Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of the Homeland Security Department.
The top federal prosecutor in Dallas, Erin Nealy Cox, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas and head of a Justice Department task force on anti-government violence, was among the witnesses.
She recalled the June 2019 shooting at the Dallas federal courthouse, and the July 2016 killing of five Dallas police officers during a Black Lives Matter protest.
“Unlike the lawful protesters whose demonstrations they undermine, these anti-government extremists aim to tear down the rule of law in America,” she said. “They are drowning out the voices of the protesters that this country wants to hear.”
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., lauded law enforcement for the restraint shown at protests, given they can’t always tell at a glance who is peaceful and who are the “disruptors and the destroyers that show up.”
But Michael German, a fellow at the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice, testified that Trump and others focused on antifa see a threat where none exists.
“Misinformation about antifa spread by white supremacist trolls has diverted law enforcement resources and encouraged armed vigilante groups to patrol streets,” he told senators, and “the Trump administration has amplified this misinformation.”
Not one homicide has been attributed to anti-fascists in 25 years, he noted.
But a witness invited by Cruz, Kyle Shideler, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Security Policy, a Washington-based conservative think tank, described antifa as a shadowy network of cells and chapters dedicated to vandalism and assault, intent on overthrowing the Constitution.
The fact that antifa uses an “elaborate but non-hierarchical structure” that’s hard to understand or penetrate is no excuse for law enforcement to ignore the threat, he warned.
Hirono objected to Shideler’s presence, noting that major conservative gatherings have shunned the Center for Security Policy because its founder has demonized Muslims, and it has been labeled an anti-Muslim hate group.
“We reject this claim,” Shideler said when Cruz offered him time to rebut. “We are particularly proud of our work trying to understand the ideology of jihadist terrorism.” He accused groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League that apply the hate group label of engaging in antifa-like tactics to discredit opponents.
Andy Ngo, a conservative journalist from Portland who has devoted himself to documenting antifa, called it a “violent insurrectionary group.” He recounted an assault and urge lawmakers to take action.
“Portland is the canary in the coal mine for America,” he said. “Look to my city to see what happens when a group like antifa is left unchecked.”
Washington correspondent Paul Cobler contributed to this report.
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