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—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 Senator 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 in the Milwaukee County Jail, which Clarke managed, since 2016—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” so that “suspected” Americans can be jailed indefinitely as part of his war-at-home program for “bold and aggressive action.”
As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted last year, when Trump was considering Clarke for DHS secretary:
Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. wants to bring the war on terror to the home front. Clarke, who is in the running for a top job in President-elect Donald Trump’s administration, says in his upcoming memoir that the US needs a major overhaul of its homeland security program. Authorities, he writes, should treat American citizens suspected of being terrorists as ‘enemy combatants’ who can be questioned without an attorney, arrested by authorities and held indefinitely.
Clarke’s new 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.
This is nothing new. On Clarke’s radio show, The People’s Sheriff, he once declared: “I suggest that our commander in chief ought to utilize Article I, Section 9 and take all of these individuals that are suspected, these ones on the Internet spewing jihadi rhetoric.” Clarke announced in 2015, on a radio broadcast tracked down by the group American Bridge and reported by Mother Jones and other publications, that he wanted “to scoop them up, charge them with treason and, under habeas corpus, detain them indefinitely at Gitmo.”
What kind of numbers?
“We have no idea how many people out there have pledged allegiance or are supporting ISIS, giving aid and comfort, but I would suggest hundreds of thousands, I would suggest maybe a million,” Clarke said.
It’s just a guess. And then you take the known terrorists that are here, and you think we’re going to arrest all these people and put them in jails and then sentence them to prison? It’s idiotic. [Send them to] Gitmo and hold them indefinitely under a suspension of habeas corpus.
How broad a brush does Clarke paint with when he is discussing threats to America?
During the 2016 presidential race, in which the sheriff who was elected as a Democrat campaigned across the country for Trump, Clarke wrote an opinion piece headlined: “This is a war, and Black Lives Matter is the enemy.” In it, 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 argument against making Clarke part of this administration are many—and they are profound. Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, who has had to try to work with Clarke as sheriff, says, “For the country I love, the last thing America needs is another loud voice angrily and unproductively telling you who to blame and who not to trust.” Shripal Shah, the vice president of American Bridge, a progressive research group that has monitored Clarke’s record, says:
Sheriff David Clarke is a bigot who has allowed numerous people—including an infant—to die or be brutally tortured in his jails and on his watch. Clarke’s actions and beliefs are directly at odds with American values and have no place in our government at any level. It’s shameful that Clarke still holds a job in law enforcement, and appalling that Trump wants to give him a promotion.
“Sheriff Clarke’s apparent disregard for the US Constitution is extremely troubling,” adds 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 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,” says Neumann-Ortiz. “Trump’s [consideration of] Clarke shows this administration’s disregard for human rights.”