Last week, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke announced his plans to accept a senior post in the Department of Homeland Security as a liaison between state and local officials. The news set off a chorus of criticism describing Clarke as “controversial” with such consistency that it may as well be part of his title. So far, DHS has declined to confirm whether it actually offered him the job —which would not require Senate confirmation — nonetheless, Clarke maintains things are still on track. Let’s hope not.
Appointing Clarke would damage the agency’s ability to coordinate with state and local partners and elevate his fringe views to the national stage. Unfortunately, that may be the objective.
For the uninitiated, David Clarke has an appalling record on just about every topic. He made headlines in April when a prisoner died of “profound dehydration,” having been denied water for seven days in one of Clarke’s jails. A special jury has recommended criminal charges in the case, one of four deaths in just six-months that prompted state lawmakers to call for Clarke’s resignation and the Department of Justice to consider an investigation. Clarke is a vocal critic of criminal justice reform, believes there is a “war on police,” and likens Black Lives Matter to a “hate group” and “terrorist organization” that “will join forces with ISIS to being [sic] down our legal constituted republic.” He refers to Planned Parenthood as “Planned Genocide” and says that transgender individuals “suffer from mental disorders” and live a “freakish lifestyle.” His idea of bipartisanship is “reaching across the aisle to grab [Democrats] by the throat.” Perhaps the only positive thing to say about Sheriff Clarke is that he once plagiarized reports from the Brennan Center and ACLU – but clearly not their recommendations.
On national security, Clarke is disastrous. For starters, he has called for suspending habeas corpus and detaining up to a million American citizens at Guantanamo Bay for sympathizing with terrorists online. According to Clarke, he would “take all of these individuals that are suspected [of] spewing jihadi rhetoric … scoop them up, charge them with treason, and … detain them indefinitely at Gitmo.” He has also advocated for patrolling Muslim neighborhoods for signs of terrorism, praising a defunct, discredited, and unconstitutional program in New York City that decimated police-community relations and produced exactly zero leads.
It is hard to imagine a worse pick for DHS, but that may be just the point. Clarke is another poison-pill appointment. He has been outright hostile to federal law enforcement efforts, once comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler for trying to “federalize local police.” He is also reported to have recent ties to anti-government extremist groups, accepting an award last year from the “Oath Keepers,” described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. today.”
At the same time, Clarke continues to rail against sanctuary cities protecting immigrants, vowing to apply “leverage” and “twist arms” to compel states to enforce federal policy priorities, effectively commandeering state and local police. Clarke is also a firm believer in Trump’s fact-free vision of “American carnage,” despite all evidence to the contrary. He believes that mass incarceration is a myth and is horribly out of step with prominent police chiefs and prosecutors who recognize that public safety means ending mass incarceration and building public trust.
Indeed, the only consistent thread in Clarke’s agenda appears to be the propriety of his personal views and the desire to crush democratic dissent. Is this really the person DHS wants in charge of federal outreach? After all, the job is to work with state and local officials, explained one former official, not threaten to strangle them.
But at a time when President Trump is trying to shake up the federal government like a toddler having a tantrum, putting Clarke in charge of federal outreach is as fitting as it is disturbing. It’s also a story we’ve seen before. Consider Trump’s decision to appoint climate change denier Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Or Rick Perry’s appointment to head the Department of Energy – following his campaign promise to eliminate it. Or Betsy DeVos, who supports deep cuts to public school programs, as Secretary of Education. Trump might as well tap Jaws to be head lifeguard for the summer while he’s at it.
Sheriff Clarke is profoundly unfit to hold a public trust position, let alone one with national security responsibilities. Should DHS move forward with Clarke’s appointment, it will be a self-inflicted wound on the agency and a blow to democratic values around the country.