David Clarke resigned abruptly from his long-standing post as Milwaukee County Sheriff on Thursday afternoon.
Clarke’s departure re-opens the prospect, widely rumored in the spring, of the authoritarian-minded right-wing lawman joining President Donald Trump’s cabinet. Clarke had previously accepted a middle-management job in Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, only to rescind that decision weeks later without explanation.
To the extent Clarke is a household name, he has Trump and the broader right-wing media machine to thank. Clarke became a go-to talking head for Fox News and other conservative outlets as the tide of protest against police violence crested nationwide in recent years. A black law enforcement official willing to condemn the primarily black protest movements springing up around the country was a valuable political weapon for deceased Fox News head Roger Ailes, Breitbart.com chairman and former Trump aide Steve Bannon, and other influential figures obsessed with white grievance politics.
The top job at DHS is open again, after former secretary John Kelly moved into the White House to replace Reince Priebus as Chief of Staff in late July. Clarke was rumored to be a short-lister for the job before Trump named Kelly earlier this year.
But a potential appointment isn’t the only reason Clarke might be eager to move on from his job at the hub of the Milwaukee County law enforcement wheel. He is also under investigation by the county’s other elected officials, who suspect him of misusing Sheriff’s Office resources and abusing his power. The investigation stems from an incident at the Milwaukee airport, where Clarke ordered on-duty deputies to come shake down a fellow passenger who had stared him down and expressed distaste for the radical conservative sheriff. Clarke’s own attorneys later claimed the man’s headshake was done in “a physically threatening manner.”
Clarke, however, had previously vowed not to resign over the headshake-shakedown scandal until “right after that little mouse does,” referring to the county executive pursuing a case against the sheriff.
While Clarke’s misdirection of county law enforcement personnel to intimidate a civilian head-shaker has brought the heat down on him most recently, the episode hardly tops the list of the sheriff’s scandals.
Deputies in Clarke’s jail killed a man by depriving him of water for a week in early 2016. It is one of at least four suspicious deaths in Clarke’s jails in recent years. Clarke’s office has been repeatedly sued over its treatment of prisoners who did not die — but whose newborn children did.
He described Black Lives Matter protesters as “black slime” which ought to be “eradicated,” lest the street protesters who demand greater oversight of cops “join forces with ISIS to being [sic] down our legal constituted republic.” He said prior to the 2016 election that if Trump lost, it would be because of a “rigged” vote — and suggested that such a defeat would mark the time for violent revolution. He is a serial liar bent on depicting his political enemies as sub-human villains who should be punished with physical violence. He has ruled over the notorious structural racism of Milwaukee County with badge and gun for more than a decade.
He is, in short, the exact sort of man Donald Trump would pick to take control of the largest, least-regulated armed security service in America.