On Monday, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg warned that “Trump’s Shredding of Civil Liberties Won’t Stop With Antifa.” She raised an alarm after President Donald Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr issued statements commending law enforcement after U.S. marshals tracked down and killed 48-year-old Michael Forest Reinoehl, a suspect in the shooting of Trump supporter Aaron “Jay” Danielson. Goldberg claimed that Trump considered Reinoehl’s death justified because of his politics, not because of the alleged shooting, and that Trump would remove civil liberties from any anti-Trump protesters, not just alleged shooters.
“All those who’ve demonstrated against this president should know that what’s done to antifa today can be done to them tomorrow,” Goldberg wrote.
This Times columnist was attempting some serious gaslighting. While President Trump’s remarks may have gone over the top (is that any surprise?), the federal government did not “shred” civil liberties in the Reinoehl case.
The New York Times columnist’s argument
To be fair, Goldberg did make an important point about civil liberties. Reinoehl needs to be considered innocent until proven guilty, and he only just-about confessed to shooting Danielson in a Vice interview shortly before his death — the video is not clear as to whether or not he explicitly owned up to the shooting.
That said, the New York Times columnist omitted important facts in her comparison between Reinoehl and 17-year-old shooter Kyle Rittenhouse. Goldberg noted that Reinoehl “said he acted in self-defense” and she lamented that “there will be no trial to sort out what happened, because the federal marshals sent to arrest him gunned him down.” She did not mention the fact that Reinoehl chose to flee from Portland police and from federal authorities because he had a long rap sheet, including failure to appear at a recent court date.
Goldberg noted that eyewitnesses have given conflicting accounts as to whether or not Reinoehl opened fire at federal officers before they shot him, and faulted Trump and Barr for “celebrating” Reinoehl’s death:
Even if Reinoehl’s killing was justified, in a country where the rule of law held, the government would have treated it as regrettable. For Donald Trump’s administration, Reinoehl’s death was cause for celebration.
Calling Reinoehl a “dangerous fugitive, admitted antifa member, and suspected murderer,” Attorney General William P. Barr said in a statement, “The streets of our cities are safer with this violent agitator removed.” Trump, in a Fox News interview on Saturday, said of the killing, “That’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution when you have crime like this.” (Perhaps needless to say, law enforcement is not permitted to kill suspects in “retribution.”) Trump continued the theme at his Nevada rally Sunday night, saying to cheers, “We sent in the U.S. marshals, it was taken care of in 15 minutes.”
The Times columnist contrasted this reaction with Trump’s reaction to Rittenhouse, who shot and killed two rioters in Kenosha, Wisc.
“Trump, of course, defended Kyle Rittenhouse, a supporter of his charged with killing two people at a protest last month, and who, like Reinoehl, claimed self-defense,” Goldberg wrote. “For the president, it’s not Reinoehl’s alleged actions that justify extrajudicial killing. It’s his politics, and those of his victim. Trump and Barr are all but declaring certain Americans beyond the law’s protections.”
Finally, Goldberg cited sources within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), arguing that the Trump administration is intentionally downplaying the threat of white supremacists and focusing on the threat of far-left agitators like antifa. While she admitted that “there’s obviously overlap between antifa and destructive elements on the far left,” she insisted that antifa should not be “conflated with street-fighting, vandalizing anarchists.” Some, she claimed, focus on exposing white supremacists.
Whitewashing Reinoehl and antifa
The New York Times columnist’s argument falls apart on many subjects.
She claimed that Trump employed a dangerous double standard in condemning Reinoehl while defending Rittenhouse when both of them “claimed self-defense.” Yet the videos of the two encounters show remarkably different situations behind the two shootings.
Footage of the Danielson shooting in Portland shows the shooter walking up to Danielson and pulling the trigger, seemingly unprovoked. Meanwhile, footage of Rittenhouse’s shootings shows a crowd of people ambushing Rittenhouse before he opens fire, a much more clear-cut suggestion of self-defense. Rittenhouse, a minor, should not have been armed on the street (this is apparently illegal in Wisconsin) in the middle of violent riots. The teen said he went to Kenosha to protect property, and he had previously given medical help to rioters hit with pepper spray.
Reinoehl, meanwhile, had a long criminal record. Police had arrested him amid a violent riot in front of the federal courthouse in Portland. He had also failed to appear for a court date after state police arrested him and his 17-year-old son in a June 8 speed-racing case in eastern Oregon. Reinoehl also faced allegations of driving under the influence of a controlled substance, recklessly endangering another, unlawful possession of a gun, and driving while suspended and uninsured.
Portland police, investigating the Danielson shooting, issued an arrest warrant for Reinoehl. The man refused to turn himself in, necessitating the manhunt. Barr called him “a dangerous fugitive, admitted Antifa member, and suspected murderer.” (While Reinoehl expressed repeated support for antifa, he disavowed any membership in the Vice interview.)
Goldberg also insisted that antifa should not be conflated with violent anarchists. Yet Reinoehl himself appeared to argue the opposite.
“Every revolution needs people that are willing and ready to fight. There are many of us protesters that are just protesting without a clue of where that will lead. That’s just the beginning, that’s where the fight starts. If that’s as far as you can take it thank you for your participation but please stand aside and support the ones that are willing to fight,” he wrote in a June Instagram post.
He claimed that antifa “truly stands for” a violent revolution.
“I am 100% ANTIFA all the way! I am willing to fight for my brothers and sisters! Even if some of them are too ignorant to realize what antifa truly stands for,” he wrote. “We are currently living through a crucial point in Humanities [sic] evolution. We truly have an opportunity right now to fix everything. But it will be a fight like no other! It will be a war and like all wars there will be casualties.”
In the Vice interview, Reinoehl predicted a civil war.
“Honestly, I hate to say it, but I see a civil war right around the corner,” the suspected shooter told Farley. He recalled the shot that killed Danielson. “That that shot felt like the beginning of a war.”
A new report has found an increase in violent memes on leftist social media pages, and a leaked DHS email confirmed what the months-long riots in Portland had long suggested: that antifa is indeed an organized violent threat.
Civil liberties and antifa
Goldberg was right to insist that civil liberties are important and suspects should be considered innocent until proven guilty, but the federal government should investigate organized violent threats like antifa. It is no easy task to balance the protection of civil liberties with investigations into domestic terrorist groups, and DHS needs to tread carefully.
President Trump should not have called Reinoehl’s death any form of “retaliation.” It was not retaliation — it was a failed effort to capture a dangerous fugitive. America would have been far better served to see Reinoehl stand trial and reveal more of the truth of Danielson’s shooting. It is a tragedy that Reinoehl died before the full truth came to light and Americans should not celebrate his death.
That said, when U.S. marshals pursued Reinoehl, they were not violating his civil liberties, they were attempting to carry out an arrest warrant in a suspected homicide.
Americans who decide to protest the president need not fear that Trump will sic U.S. marshals on them for no reason. Those who engage in violent riots, however, should know that the destruction of property is not protected under the First Amendment.
Trump had promised that if leftists “riot” on election night, his administration will “put them down very quickly.” Goldberg suggested this was a threat to peaceful protesters, but there is an important difference between peaceful protest and violent riots.
There is a world of difference between Reinoehl, a dangerous fugitive suspected for homicide, and Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old boy who fired when he was chased and broke the law but turned himself in. There is a world of difference between antifa riots that involve lobbing Molotov cocktails at federal buildings and peaceful protests against Donald Trump. Goldberg knows this, but she is stoking irrational fears by conflating Reinoehl and Rittenhouse, riots and protests.
Whatever The New York Times publishes, antifa is indeed a violent threat and DHS is justified in investigating it, just as the marshals were right to pursue Reinoehl.
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Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.