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OpinionColumnistsDan Janison

Killings in Portland give Trump a tough-guy talking point that he won't let go

President Donald Trump on the White House South

President Donald Trump on the White House South Lawn on Thursday. Credit: AP/Patrick Semansky

The precise facts behind the fatal federal takedown of a fugitive homicide suspect in Portland, Oregon, last month remain a bit hazy.

But gray areas in governance never seem to interest President Donald Trump — particularly when he's onstage as he was Thursday, mugging and talking tough.

At a rally in North Carolina, Trump brought up the Oregon case, offering a more coherent version of what he said last month in a softball Fox News interview. Once again, Trump shaped his account around who was involved.

Antifa supporter Michael Reinoehl was wanted on suspicion of killing a right-wing activist named Aaron Danielson, whose shooting death occurred when a caravan of Trump supporters confronted counterprotesters in Portland on Aug. 28. Trump fits his story into the narrative of local Portland authorities being too soft on the left.

"Two and a half days went by, and I put out [on Twitter], 'When are you going to go get him?' And the U.S. marshals went in to get him, and in a short period of time, they ended in a gunfight," he told Fox's Jeanine Pirro.

"This guy was a violent criminal, and the U.S. 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."

There were conflicting witness accounts of whether Reinoehl, 48, was allowed first to surrender when marshals fixed their sights on him and shot him to death in Lacey, Washington, two hours north of Portland. Investigators found a loaded .380-caliber handgun in Reinoehl's right front pocket; they said his hand was on or near the weapon when he was killed.

Whatever the details, Trump's repeated use of the word "retribution" onstage Thursday and in the interview implies vengeance for a wrong.

From what we've seen, the president might not fret if his audience found that just slightly suggestive of an extrajudicial killing.

Much as he proclaims "law and order," the president never comes off as a stickler for legal restraints that could prevent what he'd like to see happen in a given situation.

In July 2017, he told cops looking to take down the MS-13 gang on Long Island: "And when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon — you just see them thrown in, rough — please don’t be too nice."

There has been no indication officers took him seriously.

Trump pardoned former Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a supporter who'd been convicted of contempt for defying federal court orders against the way he profiled Latino immigrants.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has sanctioned a bloody drug crackdown that featured extrajudicial killings. Trump, always cordial with Duterte, never expressed a problem with the tactic.

Trump drew criticism, including from some in the military, for using U.S. troops to scatter demonstrators so the president could walk to a photo-op outside a church vandalized during Black Lives Matter demonstrations near the White House.

The messaging out of the bloodshed in Oregon is part of the accustomed Trump tough-guy talk. Whether you wish to call it decisive or divisive or both, that's his stand-up routine and he isn't changing it at this late hour.