ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
President Trump is promising to send more federal law enforcement officials to fight crime in cities like Chicago and Albuquerque. The effort is known as Operation Legend, and it's named after a 4-year-old boy killed in Kansas City last month.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Today I'm announcing a surge of federal law enforcement into American communities plagued by violent crime. We'll work every single day to restore public safety, protect our nation's children and bring violent perpetrators to justice.
SHAPIRO: This expansion comes as President Trump ramps up his law-and-order election messaging, a strategy to appeal to white voters. Here to break it down for us is NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson and Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.
Welcome to both of you.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Thanks.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.
SHAPIRO: Carrie, to begin with, what's the administration actually doing?
JOHNSON: The Trump administration is going to be sending federal money and law enforcement officers from the Justice Department to two cities, Chicago and Albuquerque. These will be people from the FBI, the DEA, the ATF and the U.S. Marshals. Ari, this is a bread-and-butter law enforcement initiative, the kind that both President Trump and President Obama have launched in recent years.
Overall, you know, crime is at or near historic lows, but there's a big violence problem in some cities. Homicides in Kansas City, where this operation began, this month are up 40%. Just yesterday in Chicago, 15 people were shot at a funeral. Homicides are there up 50% or so. Anything the feds can do to help fight crime in Chicago would be welcome. But the Chicago mayor, Lori Lightfoot, has been saying she doesn't want an occupying force or secret agents. She wants partners.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. The question is what exactly these forces will be doing. There's been a lot of concern from communities that the president's overstepping his powers. Does he have the authority to do what he's announcing today?
JOHNSON: Yeah. By and large, yes. The feds work with state and local governments on task forces to fight drugs and gun crimes and gangs all the time. Here's Attorney General Bill Barr at the White House today.
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WILLIAM BARR: This is a different kind of operation, obviously, than the tactical teams we used to defend against riots and mob violence. And we're going to continue to confront mob violence. But the operations we're discussing today are very different. They are classic crime-fighting.
JOHNSON: So you just heard the attorney general go out of his way to say this is not what we've seen in Portland that's been attracting so much criticism and so many legal questions about probable cause and the Constitution. Now, mayors and district attorneys in some of these cities have said they want to hear about it if the feds are acting in aggressive ways like that. They're taking what seems to be kind of a trust-but-verify approach right now.
SHAPIRO: Mara, from a political perspective, why is the president talking about this right now?
LIASSON: That's a good question because this situation has been happening for this 3 1/2 years that the president has been in office. But as you said, he's running for reelection on a law and order message. And even though today was not about sending federal agents into Democratic-led cities to quell riots - as Bill Barr just said, this is traditional crime-fighting, investigating murders, et cetera - it's all part of the same message. And the president did conflate the two today when he linked calls to defund the police to the rise in violent crime. There's no evidence that those two things are linked, but it gave him an opportunity to push back against one of his favorite targets, which is the movement to overhaul policing in the wake of demonstrations all across the country after George Floyd's murder. So I think the bottom line is the president is behind in the polls. He thinks a law-and-order message is effective for his base and maybe even beyond it.
SHAPIRO: Is it effective? I mean, is it likely to win over suburban voters, for example?
LIASSON: Well, that's the question. He needs to get suburban voters. They're 50% of the electorate. He's way behind in the suburbs. But there are some risks. Even though this is a real problem, there is a real crime problem in these cities, but what if he doesn't solve it? What if the murder rate doesn't go down after he surges hundreds of federal officers into these cities? Does he own the problem?
There are other political risks. What if suburban voters are more afraid of COVID than they are of rioters or inner-city crime? What if there's a big peaceful pushback? You know, Carrie said that some of these mayors and governors don't want federal agents in there fighting with rioters. There have been lawsuits. I think in any event, the president gets the b-roll that he wants for campaign commercials, he gets the issue of law and order front and center, and he gets the pictures of camouflaged federal agents fighting against protesters. It's a little bit like when he sent the military to the border in 2018 during the election cycle to protect America from what he said then was a dangerous caravan of criminal, illegal immigrants.
SHAPIRO: Carrie, what does Attorney General Bill Barr bring to this issue?
JOHNSON: Ari, we heard at the White House today a little reminiscing from Attorney General Barr. Remember; the last time he ran the Justice Department was in the early 1990s when crime was a big problem. He mentioned that today. He also mentioned relatives of some of the victims of recent violent crimes were in the audience at the White House, including the mom and other family members of Legend, the 4-year-old boy who was killed while he was sleeping in Kansas City last month.
SHAPIRO: Is there any sense that this could expand to other U.S. cities?
JOHNSON: It definitely could. The president - President Trump made a big pitch for other cities he said were too proud to reach out to the federal government for help. Certainly there are other cities that are suffering from violence. There are leaders, though, who may want to wait and see how these first partnerships work and if the Trump administration is living up to its word and helping the problem.
SHAPIRO: Mara, what will you be looking for as this program expands and rolls out?
LIASSON: Well, I'll be looking for how the president uses it politically. Remember; this is a tried-and-true issue for him. He has been a law-and-order guy since the 1980s. He's always made being pro-police part of his brand. And remember; during the campaign he featured Angel Families, people whose loved ones had been killed or hurt by illegal immigrants. He had them at the convention, and he featured them prominently in commercials. So I'll be watching to see if he does more of that.
SHAPIRO: That is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson and NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.
Thank you both.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.