Keeping up with President Trump’s Twitter activity is a full-time job, and I don’t have that kind of time. So I rarely find it useful to comment on any of his Tweets. I could not, however, resist responding to one from late last night, in which he makes a statement about the violence plaguing Chicago: “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on . . . I will send in the Feds!”
What does that even mean?
Chicago – a great American city by any definition – is home to a busy United States Attorneys Office, and field offices for the FBI, DEA, and ATF, among others. Federal prosecutors and other law enforcement personnel in Chicagoland – among the brightest and most talented in the Nation – routinely work on violent criminal cases within federal jurisdiction. Even a cursory look at the press releases for these federal offices shows that they have been busy using federal resources to fight Chicago’s dire crime problem (which seems connected in substantial part to a drug trafficking and gang problem). See, e.g., here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here.
In other words, what kind of federal role in Chicago does President Trump envision that does not already exist there?
One possibility is that he is not talking about policing and prosecution at all, but rather is talking about using National Guard troops. That would raise serious legal issues, if the troops are called upon to engage in civilian law enforcement. The image of uniformed military and even of military weaponry constantly patrolling Chicago’s streets is not an image of America becoming great again. Another possibility is that he is talking about sending more federal money or other resources to Chicago to help combat the problem. That would be welcome news to city and state officials in Chicago, I imagine (see a Chicago Tribune piece here). But that is not typically what one would think of when hearing “send in the Feds,” a phrase that suggests a substantial physical presence by federal officials. Perhaps even more agents and AUSAs could be placed there; perhaps federal drug and gang task forces there could be enhanced and better funded. I would favor that move. But let’s be clear: that’s not sending in the feds – that’s sending in more Feds.
Finally, while there is certainly a robust federal law enforcement role where the violent criminal activity involves guns, gangs, and/or drugs, does the President believe that the federal government should supplant the role of city and state officials in ordinary law enforcement involving street crime merely because the city and state are failing to curb the crime rate? It is true that federal criminal law offers an expansive role for the Feds in this regard, but a more expensive role for the federal government is not something that conservatives and Republicans have typically defended, preferring instead that most criminal law enforcement be done at the state and local levels. I can’t imagine intellectually honest conservatives going along with the idea of a wholesale federalization of criminal law enforcement in a major American city.
So if the President simply means ensuring a federal role in cooperation with the city and state role, then I must ask again: how is that different from the existing situation?
The President’s Tweet therefore raise two distinct questions. First, is he even aware of, or does he understand, the rather extensive law enforcement role of the federal government in Chicago already? And second, how does he envision the federal role there – or in other cities – in the scheme of constitutional federalism?
Unlike others who have been critical of the President’s focus on crime, I applaud the President for tackling this issue at a time when “criminal justice reform” rhetoric has often obscured a discussion of the need for aggressive approaches to criminal violence (including gun violence and drug trafficking, two things that often go together and that are plaguing Chicago). And there is no question that the federal criminal law provides legal mechanisms for an aggressive federal approach to the kinds of violent crime that Chicago has been experiencing. But those mechanisms are already at work in Chicago. Maybe they should be even more robust. But perhaps the President could be clearer about his federal prosecutorial priorities and his understanding of the Constitution’s limits on enforcing them.