A spokesperson for Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) said this week that protests in Philadelphia have “not even come close” to the more violent clashes in Portland, Ore., but that if they did so, President Donald Trump would be justified in sending federal agents here to guard federal property.
It was Toomey’s most definitive statement yet on Trump’s threat to send federal law enforcement to Philadelphia. And it came after two city residents raised questions about the responses they received when they called Toomey’s offices, which seemed to downplay the possibility of federal intervention.
The statements Toomey and his aides have given The Inquirer, other media outlets, and constituents — while not necessarily in conflict — illustrate the cautious line the region’s most prominent Republican has often trod while confronting some of Trump’s most provocative actions, including one now facing a city he represents.
“Sen. Toomey believes that the law enforcement officers in Philadelphia have done a great job under difficult circumstances,” spokesperson Steve Kelly said in a statement Wednesday after The Inquirer requested additional clarity on the senator’s views and comments. “The civil unrest in the city has not even come close to the continuous rioting, criminality, and lawlessness on nightly display in Portland. One way to ensure that mobs do not destroy property in Philadelphia is for the mayor and the district attorney to actually support the police and hold criminals accountable when they break the law.
“If civil unrest in Philadelphia were to ever devolve into Portland-style riots,” Kelly added, “Sen. Toomey would not fault any president for supplementing existing law enforcement details to protect federal property and historic sites like Independence Hall.”
The comments about federal agents came as Trump’s threat looms over Philadelphia and the clashes between Portland protesters and heavily armored agents have become a national controversy. (Tensions may ease after an agreement that could see federal agents withdraw soon.)
Philadelphia officials, like those in Portland, have forcefully said they don’t want federal authorities patrolling their streets, fearing the agents would be unaccountable and overly aggressive, and escalate tensions. Trump has accused Democratic-led cities of letting protests get out of control, citing destructive acts amid mostly peaceful demonstrations. In Portland, where demonstrations had shrunk before the deployment of militarized federal agents, some have shot fireworks into federal buildings, set fires, and thrown rocks at officers — and have been met with aggressive responses, including plumes of tear gas.
Toomey previously made statements on the subject to The Inquirer and other media, but had stopped short of saying whether a similar deployment would be appropriate in Philadelphia.
“The rioting, violence, and lawlessness in Portland is a disgrace, and I hope it does not happen in Philadelphia,” Toomey told The Inquirer in a July 21 statement. “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.”
On July 22, he told conservative radio host Chris Stigall of AM990 that Trump “has to step in” in Portland to protect people and property because the city failed to do so.
Asked about doing the same in Philadelphia, Toomey told Stigall, “I certainly hope it doesn’t come to that and it doesn’t have to come to that,” adding that if Mayor Jim Kenney and District Attorney Larry Krasner supported police and prosecuted lawbreakers, “then I don’t think this spirals down to the point where we get anywheres near needing to call out federal reinforcements, so to speak.” He added that “the Philadelphia police and the assets that are at the disposal of the governor are more than enough to keep the peace.”
Local Democrats — including Kenney, Krasner, and Sen. Bob Casey — have denounced the possibility of federal agents confronting Philadelphia protesters. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican and the country’s first homeland security secretary, said he would have resigned if ordered to send uninvited agents to an American city. “It would be a cold day in hell” before he did so, Ridge, a Trump critic, told Pittsburgh TV station KDKA.
Toomey has at times criticized Trump’s behavior, going further than most elected Republicans on a number of issues. But to his liberal critics, his statements on this topic are a telling and, to them, frustrating example of his calibrated approach to the president and the demands of constituents in politically divided Pennsylvania.
Another Toomey statement Thursday struck a similar balancing act after Trump suggested delaying this year’s election, something he can’t actually do. “I do not support moving the presidential election,” Toomey said, but he added that “the president is right to point out that universally mailing ballots to people who don’t request them is a horrible idea and would likely lead to voter fraud.” There is no evidence that mail voting is susceptible to widespread fraud.
Toomey, who narrowly won reelection in 2016 while distancing himself from Trump, has emphasized appeals to swing voters and even some moderate Democrats. But he also depends on support from the Republican base, where Trump is hugely popular. Toomey’s Senate term is up in 2022, when he could seek reelection but is also widely believed to be considering a run for governor.
Philadelphians Aaron Traister and Justin Gilmore, in separate calls, each reached Toomey’s Philadelphia offices last week to ask about Trump’s threat and express their opposition, and said they were read statements that described Toomey’s faith in local law enforcement to handle the situation. Gilmore called back Monday and said he received the same response again.
They found that misleading when they later saw the full comments Toomey had initially made to The Inquirer, in which he demanded stronger support for police and enforcement from city officials.
Traister and Gilmore, friends who are both 42-year-old Democrats, have been critical of Toomey for not standing up more strongly to Trump.
“You get these answers that one side sounds like it’s sort of a pro-Trump answer and the other answer sounds like the answer that Philadelphians and the surrounding suburbs want to hear, but there’s just enough wiggle room to get out of it,” Traister said.
He added, “The city’s a tinderbox right now, and everyone’s holding it together, and you throw this match on it and what do you think is going to happen?”
Kelly, Toomey’s spokesperson, said, “We are not aware of any one constituent that got information that conflicts with” the senator’s statement on federal agents. “Our offices, which remain open to serve the people of Pennsylvania, will continue to provide callers with the latest and up-to-date responses to questions.”
Toomey’s allies have said there’s nothing he can do to satisfy critics on the left, and note that in many cases the senator is one of the few Republicans willing to criticize Trump. Recently, for example, he was one of two GOP senators to critique Trump for commuting a 40-month jail sentence for Roger Stone, an ally of the president, calling it “a mistake.” (The other, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, who was the only Senate Republican to vote to convict Trump on impeachment charges, described the commutation as “unprecedented, historic corruption.”)