HARRISBURG — Current and former state elected officials are divided over whether the Trump administration is out-of-line in moving to send federal agents to major cities, including potentially Philadelphia, in a bid to protect federal property amidst ongoing unrest in the wake of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis almost two months ago.
"It would be a cold day in hell" before he'd let the president send federal agents into the state uninvited, former Republican Gov. Tom Ridge, who was the nation’s first Secretary of Homeland Security, told radio host Michael Smerconish on Tuesday.
"The department was established to protect America from the ever-present threat of global terrorism. It was not established to be the president's personal militia," Ridge said.
But former Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, said today that the federal government has the right to act to protect its buildings if local officials aren’t.
“Portland is not doing anything to protect the federal courthouse. The federal government has a right to protect federal property,” Corbett said.
Ridge was governor of Pennsylvania from 1995 to 2001. Corbett was governor from 2011-2015.
Corbett said that if there were similar situations in Philadelphia, the Trump administration would have the right to take steps to protect federal property whether local or state officials ask for assistance or not.
Corbett said both Democratic city leaders and Trump have been politicizing the controversy.
“I would expect government officials to work together” to respond appropriately, he said.
In most cases, local officials would first turn to the state for help from the National Guard in quelling unrest, he said.
“The DA and the mayor (in Philadelphia) are pretty far left,” Corbett said. “If the federal courthouse was under siege and they did nothing about it, it would be a bad situation,” he said.
In June, the City of Philadelphia did ask for and got assistance from the Pennsylvania National Guard to respond to protests spurred by the death of George Floyd, said Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokeswoman for Gov. Tom Wolf.
Wolf on Tuesday said that it “would be unwelcome” if Trump moved to send federal agents into Pennsylvania. The governor added, “He doesn’t listen to me.”
Corbett said he wasn’t aware of any unrest in Philadelphia currently that would seem to justify the need for federal agents. If there was a threat to federal property and state and local officials weren’t doing enough, Trump would be within his right to send federal agents to the city, Corbett said.
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican, said that local officials could hold off Trump by doing a better job managing the unrest within their borders.
“The rioting, violence, and lawlessness in Portland is a disgrace and I hope it does not happen in Philadelphia. One way to ensure that it does not is for Philadelphia’s Mayor and district attorney to actually support the police, enforce the law, and hold criminals accountable,” Toomey said.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, said that Trump’s move to deploy federal agents into some of the country’s major urban centers “is another Oval Office distraction by President Trump to sow division.”
Shapiro said that if the federal government tries to deploy federal agents to Pennsylvania without a local request for the move, “I won’t hesitate to act on behalf of all Pennsylvanians.”
A spokesman for the attorney general declined to clarify Shapiro's possible response if Trump were to move federal agents into the state.
Shapiro's "statement speaks for itself," the attorney general's spokesman Mark Shade said.
Hundreds of federal agents already have been sent to Kansas City, Missouri, to help quell a record rise in violence after the shooting death of a young boy there. Sending federal agents to help localities is not uncommon. Barr announced a similar surge effort in December for seven cities that had seen spiking violence.
Usually, the Justice Department sends agents under its own umbrella, like agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives or the Drug Enforcement Agency. But this surge effort will include Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Investigations officers, who generally conduct drug trafficking and child exploitation investigations.
DHS officers have been dispatched to Portland, Oregon, and other localities to protect federal property and monuments as Trump has lambasted efforts by protesters to knock down Confederate statutes. Trump has linked the growing violence in the streets with protests over racial injustice.
Local authorities have complained the surges have only exacerbated tensions, and criminal justice experts say the efforts defy explanation because of the unprecedented moment America is living through — with a pandemic, historic unemployment and a mass reckoning over race and how minorities are treated by police.
At a protest outside the state Capitol on Wednesday, state Rep. Frank Ryan, R-Lebanon County, said that the federal government needs to act to fill the void being left by Democratic municipal leaders unwilling to rein in protests.
“We have things out of control. People need to be protected,” he said.
After the protests in Philadelphia, state lawmakers from the city sought to get $10 million in state assistance to help repair the damage.
“How do people in rural Pennsylvania feel about that? We don’t destroy our cities,” he said.
Editor's note: The Associated Press contributed to this story.