What’s the real story be­hind Sheriff Clarke and the Home­land Se­cu­rity post?

Milwaukee Magazine - - Content - BY AN­NETTE WITHERIDGE

Be­hind Sheriff Clarke’s on-and-off Home­land Se­cu­rity post

FROM THE START, Sheriff David Clarke seemed an odd choice for an as­sis­tant sec­re­tary po­si­tion at the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity, a Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion job re­quir­ing the skills of a diplo­mat. Di­plo­macy is not some­thing the self-de­scribed “bare-knuckle fighter” is known for.

Clarke has never shied away from con­tro­versy. And his an­nounce­ment that he was tak­ing the role was met with sub­stan­tial op­po­si­tion.

A month later, in mid-June, Clarke abruptly an­nounced he had re­scinded his ac­cep­tance, claim­ing through a spokesman that his “skills could be bet­ter

uti­lized to pro­mote the pres­i­dent’s agenda in a more ag­gres­sive role.”

And then the nor­mally mouthy Clarke went strangely silent, fu­el­ing spec­u­la­tion that the medal-wear­ing law en­force­ment chief was “too toxic” even for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Mil­wau­kee County Ex­ec­u­tive Chris Abele, who’s called Clarke an “un­hinged and un­pre­dictable” sheriff an­swer­ing to no one, be­lieves Clarke and Trump are too sim­i­lar to get along in the long-term.

“The sheriff and the pres­i­dent are prob­a­bly not a great mix. It’s the old joke about two sher­iffs, one town,” says Abele, whom Clarke pre­vi­ously la­beled a “lit­tle mouse” with “pe­nis envy.”

“I imag­ine peo­ple fa­mil­iar with his track record here, cer­tainly Reince Priebus, knew enough to know if you have a pres­i­dent who likes to oc­cupy the spot­light but may dis­trust other peo­ple tak­ing the spot­light, it won’t work.

“What was it the pres­i­dent said about [fired FBI di­rec­tor James] Comey grand­stand­ing?”

Abele ad­mits he had con­flict­ing feel­ings when Clarke an­nounced he was join­ing the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. “I loved the idea of a new sheriff that would work well, be­cause Mil­wau­kee de­serves bet­ter. But so does Home­land Se­cu­rity. He is the last per­son the gov­ern­ment needs,” he says.

Con­ser­va­tive talk ra­dio vet­eran Char­lie Sykes, a Trump critic who quit his long-run­ning show in De­cem­ber af­ter be­com­ing dis­il­lu­sioned with the alt-right, points to the four deaths in Mil­wau­kee County Jail last year, Clarke’s bizarre “stand­off” with plane pas­sen­ger Dan

Black and a feud with a CNN com­men­ta­tor over al­le­ga­tions he pla­gia­rized chunks of his mas­ter’s the­sis as rea­sons the Home­land Se­cu­rity job never ma­te­ri­al­ized.

Sykes, once con­sid­ered Wis­con­sin’s con­ser­va­tive king­maker, helped cat­a­pult Clarke into the na­tional spot­light, then watched as the at­ten­tion went to the sheriff’s head.

“You could do a coin flip that word came from Wash­ing­ton that he was too toxic, or he be­came im­pa­tient. The mo­ment he an­nounced it, Wash­ing­ton didn’t have to an­nounce it. Maybe they let him twist in the wind,” says Sykes, who now refers to Clarke as his “Franken­stein’s mon­ster.”

“He would have been, ar­guably, one of the most con­tro­ver­sial ap­point­ments given his rhetoric and track record. It got to the point where he is rel­ish­ing him­self as bully-in-chief, a law en­force­ment of­fi­cer spoil­ing for a fight.”

Like many in Mil­wau­kee, Sykes be­lieves Clarke isn’t in­ter­ested in run­ning for a fifth term as sheriff. But that would ef­fec­tively end his sec­ond career as a “bomb-throw­ing” Fox News com­men­ta­tor.

“He wants to be a na­tional fig­ure, but that rests with the uni­form and the props of sheriff to give him cred­i­bil­ity, the uni­form and all the medals,” says Sykes, who says Clarke has van­ished from the TV stu­dios in Mil­wau­kee where he once broad­cast reg­u­larly for Fox.

Clarke, 61, de­clined to be in­ter­viewed for this story. But GOP op­er­a­tive Craig Peter­son, who acts as his spokesman on po­lit­i­cal mat­ters, says the sheriff is nor­mally called upon to com­men­tate on TV only when there are law en­force­ment is­sues, such as po­lice shoot­ings.

He in­sisted the sheriff was “very much up­beat,” go­ing into his of­fice through­out the work week and ex­plor­ing fu­ture op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Mil­wau­kee County Su­per­vi­sor Peggy West dis­agrees that Clarke is at his desk. “Per­son­ally I haven’t seen him for a year,” she says. “I am on the fi­nance and ju­di­ciary com­mit­tees and you would think he would show up at some of those.”

West, who re­cently called for Clarke to be held ac­count­able for the de­hy­dra­tion death of an in­mate and has de­scribed the county jail as a “me­dieval dun­geon,” be­lieves the sheriff will run for a fifth term or take a long shot at win­ning Demo­crat Tammy Bald­win’s U.S. Se­nate seat.

“He doesn’t con­cede he has made mis­takes,” she says. “In his mind, he is right and if you don’t agree with him, there is some­thing wrong with you, not him. He thinks he is smarter than any­one else.”

Wis­con­sin Con­gress­woman Gwen Moore spear­headed the cam­paign to block Clarke’s Home­land Se­cu­rity ap­point­ment, col­lect­ing 50 sig­na­tures from Democrats in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. But she wasn’t the only one to act.

Juli­ette Kayyem, who held the job of­fered to Clarke dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, wrote an open let­ter to Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary John Kelly say­ing Clarke’s “di­vi­sive rhetoric and ac­tion” would make him an “im­pos­si­ble fig­ure for com­mu­ni­ties to en­gage with.”

Kayyem jug­gled nu­mer­ous un­ex­pected prob­lems dur­ing her ten­ure, in­clud­ing the 2009 flu pan­demic, an at­tempted al-Qaeda plane bomb­ing over Detroit, the Haiti earthquake and the BP oil spill, along with reg­u­lar is­sues like bor­der con­trol, in­tel­li­gence shar­ing, mil­i­tary af­fairs, tribal needs and over­seas ter­ri­to­ries.

“It’s a com­pli­cated job try­ing to man­age a whole di­verse home­land. There are dif­fer­ent needs, pri­or­i­ties and risks. Peo­ple in Mex­ico are dif­fer­ent from New York,” says Kayyem, who had an ex­ten­sive back­ground in coun­terter­ror­ism and na­tional se­cu­rity af­fairs be­fore she joined Home­land Se­cu­rity.

“The fact Clarke was even on the radar screen [for the job] was ob­jec­tion­able on so many lev­els, like his ha­tred and his di­vi­sive­ness.

“There is noth­ing in his his­tory to sug­gest it would have been a suit­able role. At best, he would have been in­ef­fec­tual in his job. Some­one like that, in my opin­ion, has no role in fed­eral gov­ern­ment.”

And while Wash­ing­ton has pos­si­bly “dodged a bul­let,” as Kayyem puts it, Clarke is now re­con­sid­er­ing his fu­ture op­tions, in­clud­ing an­other run for sheriff in 2018. (He’s ruled out a run for U.S. Se­nate.)

But as Abele warns: “The cli­mate has changed. He has spent the last two years telling the pub­lic he is too big for Mil­wau­kee. I don’t know if his ego would al­low him to come back, to ac­cept things went wrong.”


—Char­lie Sykes, con­ser­va­tive talk ra­dio vet­eran

Sheriff David Clarke and then Repul­bi­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Don­ald Trump at the Mil­wau­kee County War Me­mo­rial Cen­ter, Au­gust 2016

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