Not since Richard Nixon hightailed it out of Washington to avoid impeachment has a resignation by a public official been so welcomed as that of Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke.
Cruel and unusual, bombastic and autocratic, Clarke wore out his welcome years ago. Yet Clarke lingered on the local scene — playing a crude politics of division in Wisconsin’s largest county, where he remained an exceptionally controversial elected official until he quit Thursday.
Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele said the exit of the volatile sheriff — who regularly condemns Black Lives Matter activists, immigrant rights campaigners, liberals and the media in a slurry of vitriol that mimics his closest political ally: Donald Trump — would free the county to finally have a law enforcement leader who is “more interested in integrating with the rest of the community and maybe more focused on solutions and allies than enemies and fights.”
Wisconsin state Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, thanked Clarke for resigning and said: “After years of abuse at his hands, the people of Milwaukee can sleep soundly tonight.”
Unfortunately, the people of the United States may not be able to rest soundly.
It is no secret that Trump has been interested in appointing Clarke to a position in the administration. Just days ago, the president tweeted an endorsement of a book the sheriff had written: “A great book by a great guy, highly recommended!”
The sheriff’s abrupt resignation was followed by a Politico report that “Clarke is expected to join the Trump administration in a position that is not Senate-confirmed.”
Trump and Clarke know that the scandal-plagued lawman could not stand the scrutiny of a confirmation hearing that would focus on the former sheriff’s miserable record — at least five people have died since 2016 in the Milwaukee County Jail, which Clarke managed — and his authoritarian disregard for civil rights and civil liberties.
It is clear by now that if Clarke gets any White House post, the threat this administration poses to the Bill of Rights will increase.
Trump has been busy shredding the Constitution since he took office. But he can’t do it on his own. He needs help to advance an agenda that aggressively assaults the rule of law, the separation of powers, freedom of the press, and the basic liberties of Americans.
Trump’s got Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the job of attacking voting-rights and civil-rights protections. He’s got House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shutting down the system of checks and balances. But the work of undermining basic liberties is a big task, even for an authoritarian president.
Clarke would like to help.
The former sheriff announced earlier this year that he would become an assistant secretary in the Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security. That did not happen because the news that Clarke might go to DHS sparked an examination of a record that made the president’s bluster about “enemy of the state” journalism and religious targeting of refugees seem mild by comparison.
Clarke refers to progressives who advocate for equality and equal protection under the law as “rat bastards on the left.” And he leaves no doubt about what he would do with power.
The former sheriff proposes “a suspension of habeas corpus” as part of his program for “bold and aggressive action.”
Clarke’s book, "Cop Under Fire: Moving Beyond Hashtags of Race, Crime and Politics for a Better America," is packed with “we are at war” language and talk of operating “under a war-time model.” He advocates for rounding up Americans who are perceived as threats, suspending their rights, holding them indefinitely, and handling cases with military tribunals rather than the courts.
How many people would he round up? "Maybe a million,” said Clarke.
Who does Clarke see as a threat to America?
During the 2016 presidential race, the sheriff — who was elected as a Democrat — campaigned across the country for Trump and wrote an opinion piece in which he claimed, “We have several forces internal and external attacking our rule of law: ISIS, Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street — just the most recent iterations of the elements who brand themselves as unique but seek the same revolutionary aim: take down the West, the philosophy of equality before the law, and replace it with their authority, their rules, their hate.”
The arguments against making Clarke part of the Trump administration are many — and they are profound.
“Sheriff Clarke’s apparent disregard for the U.S. Constitution is extremely troubling,” explained Edward Fallone, a constitutional scholar who teaches at Milwaukee’s Marquette University Law School. The sheriff’s most extreme proposals appear to be “manifestly unconstitutional,” warned Fallone in a November 2016 conversation with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that noted, “Clarke does discuss the Bill of Rights and Constitution in detail in other sections of his memoir, including a chapter on gun rights and another on a proposed Convention of the States — though he dates the writing of the Constitution, incorrectly, to 1776 instead of 1787.”
Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the executive director of the Milwaukee-based Voces de la Frontera immigrant rights group, which frequently clashed with the former sheriff, takes the calculus a step further. “Clarke is unfit for any office and should face criminal charges for the deaths and abuses at the jail,” said Neumann-Ortiz. “Trump’s (consideration of) Clarke shows this administration’s disregard for human rights.”
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