Acting Homeland Security secretary calls Portland protesters "violent criminals"

Acting DHS head on federal agents in cities
Acting DHS head on federal agents in cities 07:28

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler was tear-gassed by federal agents as he spoke to a group of protesters next to a federal courthouse Wednesday night. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf on Thursday called some of the protesters "violent criminals" while defending President Donald Trump's deployment of forces to quell unrest in the city.

"There are both peaceful protesting going on in Portland, and then very violent, criminal activity going on in Portland," Wolf said on "CBS This Morning" Thursday. "The mayor chose to go to that violent activity. He has legitimized criminal behavior by doing that." 

Wheeler, a Democrat, addressed the demonstration along the fence guarding the courthouse, an area Wolf said federal forces were "there to protect." It was not clear if they knew Wheeler was in the crowd when they fired tear gas. 

"We have that responsibility given to us by the United States Congress. We are on that federal property, and we are protecting that federal property," he said. 

Agents from ICE, CPB and other federal agencies were deployed to Portland, according to Federal Protective Service deputy director Chris Cline, to defend the courthouse from being "under attack." Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum claimed that some masked agents have arrested people with no probable cause on streets far away from the area, taking them away in unmarked cars. 

Wolf denied this allegation, but said the federal troops "have the absolutely expressed right and authority" to arrest protesters over what he called "criminal acts." Wolf said that authority is valid even if it requires "the federal government to go out a block, two blocks, maybe three blocks from that courthouse and arrest individuals."

"What we're not doing, is we're not going to the other side of Portland. We're not going beyond the immediacy of that federal courthouse to arrest individuals," he said, despite reports to the contrary.

Wolf also denied the accusation that federal troops were enflaming the situation that has continued for 55 straight nights.

He acknowledged that there were "peaceful protests" in parts of the city, but blamed state and local officials for failing to stop the violence. 

"Portland is the only city where a protester can stand — I'm sorry, a violent criminal can stand on the other side of the street and lob a molotov cocktail at the courthouse and there's no repercussion for that from a law enforcement perspective," he said. 

On Wednesday, Mr. Trump introduced "Operation Legend," his initiative to send federal forces into other Democrat-run major cities, beginning with Chicago. 

"I think your viewers need to understand these are two very different things that are occurring," Wolf said. "What we're doing in Portland, again, is seeing criminal activity, trying to burn down the seat of justice in downtown Portland, the courthouse. And that is a very small zone that we are protecting. What we're talking about in Chicago, Albuquerque, and other cities, Kansas City, is violent criminal activity, again, gangs, drug dealers, and the like."