A look at the evidence surrounding the State killing of Portland-area protester Michael Reinoehl – which begs the question, just who directed what seems to be – his execution?
That Michael Reinoehl was murdered is hardly in doubt. Whether he was assassinated remains an open question.
We know the events of September 3rd with some certainty. Five days earlier, Reinoehl had killed a man named Aaron Danielson in downtown Portland. Local police had already publicly named him as a suspect – Reinoehl was a fugitive, and feared that his own death was imminent. Now, Reinoehl was trying to hide at an apartment in Lacey, Washington, a suburb of Olympia. At this, he was failing, as FBI agents watched silently outside.
At approximately 6:45 PM, Reinoehl finished a phone call with a friend and left the apartment, walking toward his car parked outside. As he did so, a contingent of U.S. marshals and local police in SUVs approached him at rapid speed. Reinoehl had a cell phone against his ear, and popped a gummy worm into his mouth. He opened his car door and started to get inside. The SUVs reached Reinoehl and, before coming to a complete stop, federal agents and cops descended with weapons drawn. No commands were issued. Within seconds, law enforcement opened fire. Reinoehl tried to duck for cover behind his vehicle, but the barrage of shots – 37 rounds in total – was relentless.
Medical aid was halfheartedly administered (chest compressions, with the officer still standing) eight minutes after Reinoehl had been pumped with bullets. It wouldn’t have made a difference even if done right. Reinoehl died fast – likely in seconds, according to the coroner.
Of the 22 civilian witnesses present at Reinoehl’s death, 21 stated that police never issued any commands or announced themselves before opening fire. Five eyewitnesses stated that the gunfire began as soon as the vehicles arrived on the scene. None saw Reinoehl with a gun. One witness initially assumed he was watching a drug-related gang hit, until he noticed the bulletproof vests worn by the shooters.
Members of law enforcement on the scene have given wildly conflicting statements, alternately alleging that Reinoehl drew a gun, or pointed a gun, or “made furtive movements.” At least two officers gave statements indicating they never saw a gun. The US Marshals Service initially backed the claim that Reinoehl produced a weapon, then stopped commenting altogether as the claim fell apart. An examination of the scene revealed that Reinoehl died with a gun in his pocket, never drawn.
In America, civilians are killed by law enforcement officers frequently, including civilians who pose no threat to their eventual uniformed murderers. That said, even in our hyper-policed dystopia, it is still rare for a phalanx of cops to converge without warning and instantly execute a man in the manner of a gangland assassination.
But what makes Reinoehl’s murder utterly unique is also what makes it mysterious: both before and after his death at the hands of federal authorities, he was publicly made into a symbol of ‘antifa’ – a threat to the ruling order – by law-and-order fetishist, and President of the United States, Donald Trump.
The publicly available details of Michael Reinoehl’s life are sparse, highlights of highlights, and even attempting to describe him, his essence as a person, in any substantive way feels disrespectful. He was a father of two who had seen some success as a professional snowboarder. In recent years, his relationship with his extended family had crumbled, with his sister telling the New York Times, “He was not very stable.” Last June, he was arrested for drag-racing against his son with his daughter in the car. Police found a gun on him during the arrest.
He was politically engaged, and outspoken about it. In social media posts, he expressed sympathy with the Black Lives Matter movement, and declared himself “100% ANTIFA all the way,” though there is no evidence he organized with any groups. In an interview with VICE, he stated that he was not a member of an antifascist group, but said he was involved in providing security for demonstrations in the Portland area. Reinoehl began participating in Portland Black Lives Matter marches soon after George Floyd’s death in May, and in July, was arrested at one of those protests for resisting arrest and carrying a loaded handgun. Later that month, in an interview with Bloomberg, he showed off a bloody arm wound and claimed he had been shot during another protest.
Violent clashes between fascists and antifascists became more common as the uprising entered into the summer. Portland had seen an invasion of so-called “Trump caravans,” in which MAGA-flag adorned vehicles drove through crowds of demonstrators and ran over cyclists, while drivers sprayed mace and fired paintball guns through windows. It is difficult to understate the level of right-wing violence that visited Portland last summer. On at least two occasions, fascists tried to detonate pipe bombs and threw explosives at protestors. Random beatings of anti-fascists were common. While the Right attempted mass murder in Portland, the White House blamed “left-wing violent extremism,” even after a pro-cop militia member murdered two people in cold blood in Kenosha.
This was the context in which Reinoehl hit the streets on August 29th. There is still some ambiguity about what happened that night, but here’s what we know: that Saturday, after a rally, a Trump caravan traveled through downtown. Aaron Danielson was a member of that night’s caravan, and after it dispersed, he wandered the downtown streets with his friend Chandler Pappas. Pappas (who currently is facing charges for assaulting six police officers at an anti-mask rally) was an associate of Patriot Prayer, a right-wing group allied closely with the Proud Boys, and whose leader had the month prior urged members to come to Portland rallies armed and ready to fight. (Only ten days earlier, another Patriot Prayer associate was arrested after firing a gun at counter-protesters.) Pappas had a paintball gun, and may have been carrying knives. Both men carried bear stray strapped to their waists. Danielson had a loaded pistol and a police baton.
Reinoehl and a comrade, who has not been identified publicly, were on those same Portland streets that night. In an interview Reinoehl gave to VICE while he was on the run, he says he was performing “security” after a massive influx of MAGA-adorned vehicles and armed fascists gathered downtown post-rally.
Multiple videos exist of the moment Danielson and Reinoehl’s paths crossed at approximately 8:45 PM, and yet in all candor, it is difficult to say exactly what triggered the fatal confrontation. Video obtained by ProPublica shows Danielson and others walking behind a seemingly oblivious Reinoehl. Reinoehl is next seen inside a parking garage, appearing to hide. Danielson crosses the street toward the garage. There is shouting – a male voice yells, “Hey, hey we got some right here. We got a couple right here.” Someone else yells, “He maced me, he pulled it out!” There is more shouting, a burst of gas, and two gunshots in quick succession. Slowing the video down, it is clear that the gas is set loose before the gunshots; Danielson stumbles and falls to the ground, as Reinoehl runs. Reinoehl claimed he was protecting a friend from being maced or stabbed. Pappas claimed the bear spray was hit by a bullet, causing the spray.
There is a sense in which apportioning blame is pointless, both men are now dead. If, as some have interpreted the ProPublica video to show, Danielson was stalking Reinoehl, that fact may have went to the grave with him. Regardless, soon MAGA supporters, the far-Right, and the Trumpian State; the same forces that held up Kyle Rittenhouse as a symbol of anti-Black vigilantism, were calling for Reinoehl’s blood. They got it.
Donald Trump was obsessed with and enraged by Danielson’s death.
At 6 AM on the morning after Danielson was killed, Trump retweeted video of the very same Portland caravans that had been shooting paintballs at protestors and declared that the “backlash” from his supporters “cannot be unexpected.” (While Twitter has removed Trump’s tweets, they are archived and searchable here.) Over the next hour, Trump retweeted 11 tweets about Danielson, including one claiming that Portland mayor Ted Wheeler, “Assassinated a Patriot, tonight, through Antifa,” and had “blood on his hands.”
As the morning progressed, Trump moved from harsh rhetoric to direct threats. “We are watching [anarchists] closely,” he assured his followers, and, “The only way you will stop the violence in the high crime Democrat run cities is through strength!” He warned Wheeler that he “hasn’t seen anything yet.” Meanwhile, Trump cast Danielson as an innocent victim, a member of the “pro-Trump conservative” Patriot Prayer, with a “blue lives patch” on his clothing.
Read today in sequence, Trump’s August 30 tweet storm displays a man getting progressively bolder and more explicit about the steps he intends to take. Our former president has a gift for walking right up to a line without crossing it. “Strength” is the word Trump uses when he wants to say violence but knows he cannot – it’s how he told his followers to storm the Capital.
Trump expanded on his preference for how to handle Portland in the subsequent days. On August 31, he declared that the federal government would go into the city to “clean it up,” and specified that federal authorities would work with local police to fight “left wing political violence.” He retweeted Louis Gohmert’s veiled threat: “Keep it up @TheJusticeDept. We’ve got a long way to go with these so-called ‘peaceful protesters.’” At a press conference that day, Trump announced that the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security would be “announcing a joint operation center to investigate the violent left-wing, civil unrest.”
Then, Trump went quiet. From 11:54 PM on August 31 to the late evening of September 3, Trump only tweeted about Portland once, in a September 2 repeat of his usual “criminals only understand strength” thesis.
Michael Reinoehl was killed on September 3, 2020, at approximately 9:54 PM, Eastern Standard Time.
At 11:54 PM, Trump tweeted: “Why aren’t the Portland Police ARRESTING the cold blooded killer of Aaron “Jay” Danielson. Do your job, and do it fast. Everybody knows who this thug is. No wonder Portland is going to hell! @TheJusticeDept @FBI”
There is, to put it bluntly, no chance that Trump had not already been informed that Reinoehl had been killed by the time he hit send on that tweet. Indeed, the New York Times was able file their first story on the execution before the clock struck midnight that day – reporters had already found out. That Trump had been mostly silent about Danielson for days before posting this late-night tweet supports the theory that he had already been told Reinoehl was dead.
And so, the question becomes: why did Trump feel the need to urge Reinoehl’s “ARREST” (in caps), when he knew Reinoehl would never be arrested, because Reinoehl had just been executed by a group of federal officers under Trump’s command? Did Trump tweet this out in a moment of panic, as it dawned on him that his hit had been carried out, and there might be repercussions? Was he trying, sloppily and poorly, to cover his tracks?
Who were Michael Reinoehl’s executors?
The bulletproof-vested officers who rolled up on Reinoehl that day were all members of the Pacific Northwest Violent Offender Task Force (the “PNVOTF”), a local/state/federal law enforcement collaboration housed in and supervised by the US Marshals Service, itself a federal agency and a part of the Department of Justice. In addition to the Marshals, and a bevy of city cops and state sheriffs, the PNVOTF includes representatives from the Secret Service, Border Patrol, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
This wasn’t the first shooting connected to the PNVOTF. It wasn’t even the second. In 2016, members of the PNVOTF shot Elias Mendoza as he tried to drive away from them. Mendoza was wanted for failing to report to his probation officer. In December 2020, just a few months after they killed Reinoehl, the PNVOTF shot Jonathan Crowley after he allegedly “used his vehicle to threaten” them. Crowley, too, was wanted for skipping out on parole or probation.
So we know the PNVOTF uses excessive force against unarmed civilians. That’s no surprise – they are a law enforcement organization, after all. More interesting are the task force’s various ties to extremely Trumpy bureaucrats – the type who would be willing to listen when the President told them to do something. At the time Reinoehl was killed, the PNVOTF was a hive of MAGA.
Take Rodney Scott, Trump’s head of the US Border Patrol, which has representatives on the PNVOTF. In October 2020, The Intercept broke that Scott was a member of an infamous Facebook group for Border Patrol officers that featured jokes about the deaths of immigrants and “an image of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being sexually assaulted by Trump.” When the news broke, Scott stood up for his right to enjoy racist memes. The Independent quoted another Border Patrol official: ““Rodney Scott was the only one that did not remove himself from the Facebook page. His attitude was, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong.’ His attitude was, ‘Who cares?’ His attitude was, ‘You know what, this is free speech.’”
Or consider James M. Murray, who Trump installed as the head of the Secret Service after a purge of the ranks in 2019. It was Murray’s Secret Service that gassed and beat peaceful demonstrators in front of the White House so that Trump could walk to a church. Murray never commented on the violent his officers inflicted on protestors, and ignored a demand to testify about it before the House.
But of course, the Trumpiest connection to the PNVOTF is William Barr, former Attorney General and head of the Department of Justice, which houses the PNVOTF’s supervising agency, the US Marshals. It seems wasteful to recite the examples of Barr’s loyalty to Trump. You can Google that. More interesting is that Barr had already shown a willingness to break protocol and use the Marshals to go after Black Lives Matter protestors.
Barr was particularly focused on Portland. In a prepared statement before Congress, Barr went on at length about Portland “rioters and anarchists” – no other cities were mentioned. And as the ultimate boss of the US Marshals, Barr had an army he could set upon those rioters and anarchists.
In June, the Marshals were told they would now be helping to guard statutes from those who would deface them, an assignment the Washington Post characterized as “unusual, as marshals — who fall under the Department of Justice — typically work providing security for courthouses, transporting prisoners, apprehending fugitives and protecting witnesses.” The assignment was given to the marshals via email titled “Attorney General Assignment,” which as the Post noted, “suggest[ed] it came from Attorney General William P. Barr.”
While demonstrations raged throughout the United States, the Marshals became intimately involved in the Portland protests specifically. Throughout the summer, marshals invaded the city, and in July, a Marshal shot a demonstrator in the face with an unspecific munition. In August, the Marshal Service confirmed that it was surveilling Portland demonstrators overhead by plane. In September, the Marshals started deputizing local cops, imbuing them with federal authority. No other American cities saw even close to this level of federal involvement.
And on September 3rd, a task force run by the US Marshals, supervised by the Department of Justice, and ultimately reporting to William Barr, assassinated the man who had been Trump’s singular obsession for days.
Perhaps the best evidence that Donald Trump had Michael Reinoehl executed is that he admitted it. Several times, in fact.
In the first presidential debate in September, Trump brought up Reinoehl’s death without being asked. “I sent in the US Marshals, they took care of business,” he boasted.
Earlier that month, Trump was even more explicit, telling fascist commentator Jeanine Pirro: “Two and a half days went by, and I put out [on Twitter], ‘When are you going to go get him?’ And the US marshals went in to get in, and in a short period of time, they ended in a gunfight. This guy was a violent criminal, and the US marshals killed him. And I’ll tell you something — that’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution when you have crime like this.” (As we know, Trump is rewriting his Twitter history here – he didn’t tweet out this call until after he knew Reinoehl had been killed.) On September 12th, he told a crowd that the Marshals did a “great job,” winkingly adding, “You know what I mean.”
Trump’s most explicit admission of guilt came on October 15th, when he added some context to the events around Reinoehl’s death. “They didn’t want to arrest him,” he said of the Marshals – a comment indicating Trump knew the Marshals’ frame of mind before they killed Reinoehl. “Fifteen minutes, it was over. We got him.” The crowd cheered.
For his part, Barr also crowed about killing Reinoehl, while contributing to the false narrative that Reinoehl threatened officers. Calling Reinoehl a “dangerous fugitive, admitted Antifa member, and suspected murderer” who “attempted to escape arrest and produce a firearm” (neither of which actually occurred), Barr claimed that having Reinoehl “removed” (his word) was a “significant accomplishment” that made streets safer. Barr has not spoken publicly about Reinoehl’s death since this statement.
The Marshals also issued a perfunctory statement that was a bit less heated than Barr’s, claiming only that “initial reports” indicated that Reinoehl produced a firearm. For our purposes, the most notable aspect of this statement is that the US Marshals Service confirmed that deputy marshals were indeed present during Reinoehl’s killing, although their names haven’t been released. To this day, we do not know the identities of the individuals who pulled the triggers that fired the bullets that killed Michael Reinoehl.
As it stands, there is no ongoing process or proceeding that will likely answer the central questions behind Michael Reinoehl’s murder: was it a hit ordered by Donald Trump? Did the United States government assassinate a US citizen on American soil?
As per Washington law regarding police-involved shootings, Reinoehl’s death is being investigated by a state agency not involved in the incident, in this case the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office. The only news to come out of the investigation to date has been discouraging, for anyone who might think transparency is the goal here. C.J. Ciaramella, a reporter for Reason, filed public records requests with all the agencies involved in Reinoehl’s murder, seeking any footage or documents relating to the shooting. All agencies refused to hand over the records except the Washington Department of Corrections, a PNVOTF member. But before the DOC could hand any documents over, the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office sued to stop them, and the court granted the request on a temporary basis. That case, and other similar litigation, is ongoing.
But these cases are in state courts and target state agencies. The Thurston County Sheriff is a state official. Put simply, the shot-callers here were federal. Even the most benign interpretation of Reinoehl’s death most directly implicates the US Marshals, who run the task force that killed Reinoehl and were present on the scene. State courts and state law enforcement are not going to dislodge documents, much less force testimony, from the federal actors who may have ordered Reinoehl’s murder.
In truth, any process that has a chance at getting to the truth of Reinoehl’s death will necessarily include sworn testimony from, at a minimum, high-ranking members of the US Marshals, and ideally will include both William Barr and Donald Trump. The key is establishing the chain of communication from the top down. Who did Barr speak to about Reinoehl? When? On whose orders did the task force approach Reinoehl that day? An empowered investigator could start from the bottom – the people who pulled the triggers – and methodically work their way upwards.
Sadly, there is no indication this will happen. Joe Biden has never spoken about Reinoehl publicly. Back in October, two House members put out a statement calling for an investigation into Reinoehl’s murder, but were apparently ignored and promptly stopped raising the issue. Reinoehl’s family – he had two children – could attempt a federal lawsuit, but would need the sort of evidence an investigation would unearth to get very far in their claims against Barr, Trump, and the Department of Justice.
And so that’s where we leave the execution of Michael Reinoehl: with a notoriously violent federal task force comprised partly of MAGA loyalists. With an Attorney General willing to sic federal cops on anarchists, Black Lives Matter protesters, and antifascists in brutal ways. And with a president who threatened to kill him, and then admitted to killing him. Trump once notoriously said that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose support. At the very least, he’s shown that he can kill someone in Lacey and never face consequences.
photo: Tito Texidor III via Unsplash